31 January 2005

Soft-Shelled Crabby Americans

Phil Carter has an interesting piece on "soft" and "hard" assertions of American power and culture. In his conclusion, he remarks:

[O]ur soft power ambassadors — those bastions of American capitalism such as MTV and Pepsi and Jerry Bruckheimer — often sow deep seeds of cultural resentment which may come back to haunt us in decades to come. We're locked in a deadly struggle with a fundamentalist Sunni Islamic terror network that believes in God's law over man's law — and finds abhorrent every aspect of U.S. popular culture. Arguably, our perpetual beaming of our soft power around the world does a great deal to stoke their fires of hatred. We might be wise to consider ways that we can limit the amount of U.S. soft power we send abroad, in favor of the kinds of hard power on display this month in Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

"The Benevolent Face of American Power, cont." (31 Jan 05). The problem with this view is that it implies that there really is a dividing line between "hard" and "soft" power, and even more dangerously that the two are somehow independent. When that NCO quite properly develops a relationship with the people he's supposed to be protecting, he necessarily brings in the "soft" cultural artifacts of his speech patterns, if nothing else; and usually much more than that. Conversely, the "soft" cultural artifacts try increasingly for "realistic" presentation of US military hardware and appearance, and of other aspects too.

The problem isn't "soft" or "hard" methods; it's "soft" or "hard" objectives. The ends and means are inextricably intertwined. When US interests enter a culture with the objective of grabbing market share, that is a "hard" objective, as it is a form of conquering and assimilating the target culture. It doesn't matter whether it was done with guns or with soft drinks or with music that celebrates values foreign to that culture; it is still a form of imperialism. Admittedly, it's a form of imperialism that is a lot easier to reject—but one must recognize the need to do so. Conversely, coming in with aid in the face of a disaster is the kind of ephemeral intervention that minimizes the impression of imperialism—so long as the aid forces are invited to do so, and leave when the locals decide their assistance is no longer needed. Consistently. Under those circumstances, the objective is nonimperialistic.

The particular debate going on in policy circles is considering only part of the question, as it focusses almost exclusively upon means. The "detainee" issues only reinforce this tunnel vision. Means and ends influence each other; choosing to press the envelope on means will necessarily influence the ends to which those means can be applied. That's not to say that it is possible, or adviseable if possible, to completely eliminate all odor of "imperialism" from US foreign activity. It's rather silly, though, to pretend that such objectives don't exist in the minds of those outside of American culture. Our perception that when we allow our businesses to enter a foreign market, that's not imperialism necessarily assumes the conclusion that business interests are distinct from government interests—and this is outside the experience of much of the rest of the world.