Many people oppose “hard power” (supposedly American, good) and “soft power” (European, weak). They have it all wrong. It’s common sense: before smashing someone’s face, a few words are in order to clarify the situation, and give the opponent a chance to evolve positively. Absent this attitude, one cannot really initiate positive change. And this is exactly what one observes: but for the disastrous invasion of Iraq, the USA has always been hanging way behind European intervention, often by many years.

European “soft power” was not that soft in Bosnia, and it came years before the USA. French artillery used radar guided counter fire to silence the guns that were destroying Sarajevo. True the Dutch got overwhelmed, later, during the Srebrenica Massacre, and when they asked the French to help, the later military could not, officially because of a dearth of combat helicopters (only the USA had enough of these, it was claimed).

France also intervened in Rwanda in 1994, ultimately dropping from the sky (with some US logistical help) an entire paratroop division, that stopped the tit for tat genocide (that guaranteed the furor of those who wanted some more vengeance).

Of course, we do not expect these facts to be widely known among US lovers of neoconservatism. Colonial English American neoconservativism is by definition anti French ever since American Founding Fathers such as Jefferson were told they could not keep slaves in Paris (by the police of the Ancient Regime!) and ever since La Fayette tried to persuade his good friend Washington, the famous slave owner, to abrogate slavery. But so much the better: nothing European progressivism loves more than a never ending war with US neoconservatives. It’s like going to the gym to work out against stupid machines, but now to exercise the moral and mental muscles instead.

In conflicts, the most important, and most moral foundation is simply to be right, or more exactly, less wrong, and adaptive (learning quickly from one’s mistakes).

European “soft power” is often misunderstood: it gets everywhere, and so it gets involved easily enough to bring any conflict to a head, by its mere presence, but not enough to use overwhelming force, and kill it. In a way, soft power is the opposite of the Powell doctrine (that is, to use overwhelming force). Soft power can be insidious, all the way down to a soft mental virus, and completely lethal to old thought.

An example is those European journalists who interrupted the Olympic Games’ lighting-of-the-flame a few days ago. They got arrested by Greek police, but they promised more. What did great nation China do for greater glory seeking now that slapped in the face? Well it made a bad situation worse. China censored the news, showing fake footage, and its true face, bloody, uncomprehending, dazed, senile. Uninformed, uneducated Chinese were then interviewed in Chinese streets by a delighted Western media, and they showed in turn a blatantly sheepish Chinese public, bleating contently that the heavenly Chinese government would set everything right up there in heavens. So two European journalists in far away Greece made China stumble, for the entire world to see. Much more of this, and China will have to choose between becoming again a rabidly idiotic dictatorship, or turning some more the pages away from simpler fascist methods. In any case, change.

The European idea of soft power is to seize the high moral ground, which is the most important ground to occupy in war. To do that, the Europeans have learned to trot out important matters of principle, stick to them, and open a dialogue about them. Or a monologue. The idea is not to be cuddly. Quite the opposite. The idea is to harass with ideas. It allows to start small, hence right away. Experience shows that thinking is what fascists hate the most, and are the most vulnerable to. They really can’t take it, because fascism, by definition is a simplification of thinking. Complicated thinking is by definition anti fascist.

This method was inaugurated against Hitler. France (and, more reluctantly, Britain) put pressure on the Nazis, a soft pressure which increasingly reduced the mental freedom of the Nazis, to the point they made a fatal mistake (attacking Poland without noticing that a small print clause in its treaty with France guaranteed that Britain would follow France in counterattacking the Nazis).

The first problem with US “hard power” is that it often cannot be engaged, and thus becomes an excuse for cowardice (as demonstrated by Clinton in Bosnia for years, as Roger Cohen points out:

All too obsessed by total victory, which looked dubious with the Nazis, the USA, just like in 1914-1916, did not want to get involved in enforcing democracy by supporting its parents, France and Britain, lest it be TOO conflictual. So the USA was not at Munich, and had an embargo against France (for being aggressive against those poor Nazis). If the USA had been at Munich, things would have been different. Both in 1939, and in 1914, things would have been also very different (France, which was most the military might of the West at the time, would have attacked Hitler right there, or Hitler would have lost face).

The fear of soft power, power on the matters of principle, led the USA to NOT send ONE cartridge to France in 1940 (by contrast, 90% of American cartridges were French during the American independence war). Instead the USA waited, from 1914 until 1917, and from 1933 until Hitler declared war to the USA for Christmass 1941… As if the USA was waiting to see on which side it was better to use overwhelming force to come to the rescue of victory.

Using overwhelming force is also the US way against smaller opponents. This is an American habit developped when exterminating the Red Skins during the three centuries it took to genocide them (the most successful genocide in the known history of mankind). It was highly successful, since, until recently, the USA was a triumph of the white European race and its ways, so it was self reinforcing. It became a cultural trait.

This pouncing on the weak guarantees the lowest moral ground, insuring long term defeat when the enemy cannot be outright exterminated (and exterminating all of the long civilized and very populous Middle East is distinctly more challenging than exterminating neolithic populations).

That is what has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, with grotesque “shock and awe”. All what intensive aerial bombing has guaranteing is that Homo Americanus Simplex occupies the lowest moral rung. To ask NATO to help splash around that ethical sewer would just spread a moral, and mortal infection. What is needed is an EXTRICATION from the present MORAL ABYSS, and once high morality has been regained, and a stakeholder plan for the average Iraqi and Afghan has been devised, get much cheaper UN soldiers to come in to back up the Iraqi and Afghani armies (if there is a need, but if things are well done, there should be little of a need).

French and Western European and African Union forces are involved in the Darfur-Chad-Central African theater in a much more reserved way (the occasional French special force soldier dies in Sudan). Instead the Powell doctrine would call to march onto Khartoum, after bombing the hell out of it, killing hundreds of thousands, and costing a fortune one does not have (either morally or financially). Thus the Powell doctrine can’t do a thing, but France/EU/AU has slowly, and softly, deployed thousands of troops and proxies, putting an increasing squeeze on the miscreants. France also was for a very long time in a quasi war with Libya. That allowed to contain Libya, and gave it time to perceive the extent of some of its errors, and change its ways. Full war could well have only reinforced the miscreants, or create an Iraq like mess.

Hard power is mentally retarded if the enemy has not been discovered first. In Iraq and Afghanistan the enemies are mostly not what the USA has been fighting. One cannot drop a bomb on economic improvement, no more than on corruption, backwardness, or the Qur’an. Bringing in one more school, rather than one more bomb would be more like it. Of course, Quranists kill for thoughts, as bin Laden kindly reminded us last week; so teachers will need bodyguards: soft power does not mean no power. Bin Laden insisted that the “freedom of words” was a worse offense than simple bombing. The man hinself says it; he fears soft power more than hard power. Nothing like a drawing of his prophet doing his thing: it drives him mad, because it shatters his universe.

In Tibet, we have an excellent occasion to show to that astute student of Western ways, China, that much progress still needs to be done on the moral and cognitive level. Putting pressure on China of course cannot be done in an overwhelming way (it would mean a world war). But it can be done using soft power. Start by requiring the full reopening of Tibet to non Chinese capable of reporting what’s going on. Absent this, one does one want to repeat the moral atrocity of 1936 (when Hitler inaugurated the Olympic games). The UN general assembly could be presented with a vote towards boycotting the opening ceremony (to start with). China has lost face in Tibet, but does not know it. Without an opening ceremony to the Games, it will lose face in a way that all Chinese folks will be able to see. Let them light up the flame with just Chinese to look up at it. That would be soft power, true, but it will be also capturing the moral high ground, and showing to all the Chinese population they are becoming international pariahs.

Making the WW II Germans into international pariahs significantly weakened Hitler’s military power: too many Germans knew they were viewed as evil by the rest of the world, they could not set their hearts to fight for evil to death as much as they would have otherwise. International moral pressure is very powerful, it works. It undermines Goliath’s mind. When Goliath is confused enough, about why he is doing what he is doing, he is ready for a high technology demise.

Patrice Ayme

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  1. Leah Says:

    Interesting analysis. Your argument seems to be based on a premise that there are universal and hierarchical values/moral standards, and people of the world all agree on them.

    I beg to differ. Not that I am a relativist, but I see universal values/moral standards being compromised under various kinds of circumstances, and double standards being applied throughout history. During the mid 1930’s, the Brits and the French were appeasing Nazi Germany. The Europeans (especially the Belgians) and the US shunned from Rwanda when the atrocity was happening. European companies are in Sudan as well (especially the French), but the neo-humanitarians only picked up China to pressure on. And go around the developing world and ask people if they want bread and butter or transparency, open access of media, political human rights, or democracy.

    No country enjoys higher moral authority than any other. The legitimacy of leadership does not always base on morality either. I never read the Qur’an but I have quite a few Muslim friends. A thousand year old system of belief is usually based on nothing but its moral authority. Is Purdah more of a sign of gender inequality than belly piercing? And in the case of the old Tibet, are you telling people that a consistent monastery male elite class ruling (and living a parasitic life) over the extreme poverty of serfdom, was nothing immoral, just because the poor serfs were happy (cos they were deprived of the opportunity of ever being educated and only fatalistically praying for a better life in next reincarnation)?

    I personally have no answer to these questions. Sometimes I admire women wearing Purdahs since it protects women from the sexualizing male gaze, and I do hope I could feel settled with whatever material possessions and social status I have and be happy.

    Maybe “soft power” does not only come from taking a higher moral ground, which eventually will lead to a black-and-white world view, when the world is actually a collage of all colors under a tint of gray. Maybe the ultimate “soft power” lies in understanding and being compassionate, and in the power of listening to, not pontificating at, others.


    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      There is a lot to say about your comments, and I thank you for them. However my present time is very limited, so I can address only a few points:
      1) Human ethology is the ground of human morality, and it’s not relative. However it’s much more complex than usually understood. Watching HBO’s “Game of Thrones” is a good introduction…

      2) The French Republic NEVER appeased Nazi Germany. Quite the opposite. Britain did appease, collaborate, and even, de facto, plotted against the French (British-Nazi treaty of 1935). I have detailed this in previous essays, over the decades. France is actually the ONLY power which never, ever appeased Nazi Germany. The Erik Larson book “Garden of the Beasts” showed the French ambassador actually feared assassination. He met with his US colleague, Dodd in the Tiergarten, because their embassies were thoroughly bugged. FDR replaced the excellent Dodd by a pro-Nazi, under American plutocratic and State Department pressure. That was more than appeasement, it was COLLABORATION.

      France plotted (nuclear) war against Nazi Germany, and never deviated from her course. France persuaded the UK leading circles progressively, first getting rid on the pro-Hitler king in 1936. The fall of Spain in January 1939 clinched the deal. By then Poland had realized that its 1934 alliance with Hitler had backfired…


  2. Patrice Ayme Says:

    My premise is that there are universal and hierarchical values/moral standards which are optimal, and a suitable smart fraction of people of the world can be made to agree on them , and survive that way.

    In other words, Nazis need not apply, because they are/were not optimal.

    Many of these hierarchical values/moral standards do not exist yet, and certainly are not found in any nation.

    The fact we have friends who love to go according to old fashion labels does not mean anything about the thought systems these labels represent.

    One thing that is important is precision. France did not appease the Nazis at any point in time, instead she armed to the hilt, with an army ten times the size of the US Army, and three times more tanks than the Nazis themselves. She got unlucky on the battlefield, but that’s another question entirely.

    Great Britain around 1935, unfortunately, indeed, did more than appease the Nazis, she collaborated with them. And the USA, well, never stopped collaborating with the Nazis (as a society of corporations), even as it was fighting them.


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