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Here's why I am dismissive of soft power being portrayed as an instrument of nefarious empire, as the criticisms of the NED of late are doing.  

The NED is not just a "projection" of soft power as Nye defined it. It IS soft power -- the very praxis of it. But so what? The point of Joseph Nye's paper which introduced the term was that soft power is an inherently good thing, and powerful liberal democracies like the US should not neglect it as they do in favor of violence and the threat of violence -- hard power.  Unlike soldiers, ships, and spies (and now drones), everything about soft power is completely compatible with liberal democracy as well, because it is nothing more than engaging in consensual human relationships and discourse.  

There is therefore nothing inherently wrong in any way with soft power or organizations that foment it like the NED, even if it leads in some extreme cases to the eventual toppling of governments like in Egypt (twice), Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, and now the Ukraine. It could only work to such an extreme if there is a genuinely large enough consensus for such an outcome in the first place, quite unlike the kinds of murder, threats, and trickery we associate with the CIA's coups and attempted coups, or the brute violence of even a minor military intervention.  Democracy is so embedded within approaches supported by the NED that an attempt at such a radical end as the overthrow of a government can be easily defeated by the same approaches used by defenders of such a government, if they do indeed have that kind of support (as I expect Maduro actually does in the case of Venezuela today). And since a democratically elected government must have been able to organize the kind of soft power needed to win a national election in the first place, whatever the NED might be teaching need only be feared by leaders who have lost so much legitimacy since their election in one way or another.    

Power of the masses is, after all, what community organizing and grassroots political action is all about -- exercising power through discourse and human relationships instead of coercion through force or violence. And there is nothing inherently problematic about the US engaging in such means of discourse either, because its own polity is completely open to anyone -- people, organizations, and governments of any other nationality -- doing the same kinds of things to contest power with US policymakers and elites within the US.

There are scores of demonstrations and actions every day on the National Mall in Washington, DC, from foreign funded outfits.  And foreign individuals, organizations and governments are allowed to lobby and organize politically as well as any citizen with the recent exception of participating in actual elections.
It's not another example of exceptionalism," in other words.  I believe the same is the case throughout Europe and in Japan and most other liberal democracies as well.  And if it isn't, it certainly should be.

For a big example: Why will the WTO never hold another summit level meeting within the US? Because the last time they did civil society groups converged on Seattle in 1999, and there has not been a single advance in any agreement toward further reducing global trade barriers since. (And yes, there were a few broken windows and molotov cocktails thrown by undisciplined troublemakers in Seattle too, but that's hardly what we mean by "violence".)

So, why, of all groups or people in the world, should Americans, or the US government, be excluded from engagement within civil society spaces around the world?  I mean, in addition to full spectrum dominance of the military, intelligence, and finance, does anyone really believe that US is also so dominant in community organizing (!?) that its citizens and government should be excluded from civil society spaces around the world too? That's a question that needs some exploration.

So, yes, I am quite dismissive of critiques of the NED or any other civil society based organization just because a few of its grantees might end up overthrowing a government someday by organizing the kind of protests which are perfectly acceptable and commonplace, even if also highly controversial and contested when successful, in liberal democracies. Civil society should not be excluded from the set of spaces that may be contested by foreigners in any country.  

by santiago on Wed Feb 26th, 2014 at 05:40:28 PM EST
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For one I'm not convinced that the entire notion of "soft power" is more than a simple fraud. The US engaging in perfectly legitimate engagement in the civil space has all the charm of a Mafiosi smiling at your children.
by generic on Thu Feb 27th, 2014 at 03:50:12 AM EST
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I've seen calls for work from the Pentagon's DARPA research lab, cycled through Harvard and MIT, that sought to meld brain and cognitive science with literary theoretical analysis in an attempt to smooth and scientifically validate precisely these soft power entities.

I agree with you that there is no getting around it. There is a lot of work going on in these areas, a ton of money and expertise being thrown into "softer" attempts to control narratives.

I should mention that these calls for work and the research they produce are explicitly described as necessary for projects in foreign theaters.

by Upstate NY on Fri Feb 28th, 2014 at 10:49:12 AM EST
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Yes, and all I would have to say to DARPA (which is actually funneled much more through Johns Hopkins's APL than MIT or Harvard) is, "Good luck with that."

It's not like social scientists haven't been engaged in studying precisely these things, all around the world, for over a century with only questionable results to date, mostly employed in the advertising and marketing fields, with marginal success at best.  I'm not sure that more DARPA funds would ever be able to add a significantly more to the state-of-the-art of community organizing than Saul Alinsky's well-known and extremely effective classics have already provided, free of charge, a long time ago.  

by santiago on Fri Feb 28th, 2014 at 10:24:20 PM EST
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...does anyone really believe that US is also so dominant in community organizing (!?) that its citizens and government should be excluded from civil society spaces around the world too? That's a question that needs some exploration.

We can explore it some more when the US permits community organizing funds to be channeled to the Gaza strip.

"Beware of the man who does not talk, and the dog that does not bark." Cheyenne

by maracatu on Thu Feb 27th, 2014 at 06:24:38 AM EST
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To my knowledge, it doesn't in any practical way, largely because it's almost impossible to prevent financial resources from reaching grantees, especially those with vast diaspora networks such as the people of Gaza.  As I understand it, Saudi Arabia, funds a lot of such civil society activities in Gaza, (and even Venezuela sends humanitarian aid, whatever that might be) perhaps to the chagrin of Israel and the many in US. And the US certainly allows political organizing against its policies in the middle east within the US, where the policy is actually made.
by santiago on Thu Feb 27th, 2014 at 10:45:18 AM EST
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I suppose if you believe the US government is the personification of liberal democracy, then NED would be a beneficial tool.  How long do you expect the US to embrace liberal democracy?  Not long ago, that assumption was clearly not the case overseas in such places as Guatemala and Iran, though - granted - that military force was indeed used in those cases.  Are those days definitely behind us?  If you say yes, history may yet prove you wrong.

From another angle, I would argue that there is something of a parallel here with the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in 2010, upholding the rights of corporations to make political expenditures under the First Amendment.  While that is obviously a domestic affair involving the US constitution, I believe the same principle might be extended abroad concerning NED's activities (at the same time giving rise to similar reasonable objections as expressed in the domestic case).  If, for the sake of argument, Chevron is destroying the Ecuadorian rain forest and the government in power is threatening to expropriate their holdings, would it be a victory for liberal democracy for NED to engineer a defeat of that government (involving perhaps a completely different issue where the government has occasioned misdeeds) and it's replacement by one favorable to Chevron's continuation in the country?  Perhaps the government indeed deserved to lose the election, but whose interests are ultimately being served?  One might be skeptical in this day and age where there is a growing confluence of corporate and government interests.

"Beware of the man who does not talk, and the dog that does not bark." Cheyenne

by maracatu on Wed Mar 5th, 2014 at 06:01:17 PM EST
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