Monday, June 6, 2011

Soft Power and the Arab Spring

Whenever I talk to young people from overseas, I am always impressed with how popular the United States is with them. They all want to visit New York, LA, Nashville, Disney World ... American pop culture is king. They are not impressed (or probably informed of) American military might or our Constitution, but they are by the Foo Fighters, Gossip Girl and Ed Norton films. This is what is called soft power. For long term change, soft power is much more effective than hard power. We can trace the originas of the term soft power back to this quote from Lao Tzu:

"Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: what is soft is strong."

Hard power is more immediate but doesn't cause lasting change. Neo-cons (new conservatives) are proponents of hard power, they believe that the recent events in the Middle East (the Arab Spring) were inspired by the US Iraqi and Afghanistani invasions. Hard power, of course, is the use of force to get what you want. Hard power is synonymous with nation building.

When I think of soft power, I think of a teenage girl (in Tunisia or Egypt perhaps) who somehow acquires a copy of "Sex in the City" or "Gossip Girl." She watches it and thinks to herself, they (Americans) can get away with this, they have the freedom to do this and no one arrests them? And then thinks, why not me? That is soft power. It is revolution from within.

Since the Middle East exploded this past winter with revolutions in the streets of Tunis and Cairo, civil war in Libya, uprisings in Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco and Oman (aka the Arab Spring) a lot of folks, particularly Americans, like to take credit for it. I have even heard some on the left claim that President Obama's speech in Cairo is what sparked it all. Ultimately, no one should get credit for the Arab Spring other than the people involved. It is a tremendously courageous thing they do. The only Americans that really should be patting themselves on the back for the Arab Spring are the folks at Twitter and Facebook. Without social media, the revolutions never would have happened. Social media is just a platform for the cinders of revolution letting the soft power come to a boil.

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