“Soft Power” refers to strategies by Western countries to affect change in other countries prioritizing non-violence, but not excluding violent means. The term has come to prominence in 2003 when Joseph Nye discussed it in a paper aiming at presenting alternatives to US Government to affect change in other countries without having to primarily rely upon hard or military power. While George W. Bush presidency terms favored hard power, Barack Obama has proven to be a Master in Soft Power strategies. Undoubtedly, these strategies have been implemented widely in the MENA region especially with the advent of the “Arab Spring.”
Hosam Matar, a prominent Lebanese researcher specialized in International Relations and Soft Power strategies based in Beirut, recently published an academic paper in”Contemporary Arab affairs journal” discussing American soft power in the Arab world. In his paper titled”Limits of US soft power in the Arab World (2003-2015)” Matar deconstructs soft power strategy into small pieces, uncovering its flaws and limitations taking away the reputation of infallibility and power bestowed on it by its beneficiaries and victims alike.
Matar begins by presenting the literature around Soft Power and how Nye took the agency away from the subjects of this strategy and assumed that American values are universal and once persuasion techniques are applied, the agenda will go through with minimal resistance. In other words, Nye’s concept of soft power targets societies in countries hostile to the West without accounting for their values and beliefs.
Matar quotes the examples of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo as the two most obvious illustrations of how short sighted soft power strategy is. The Americans did not fully evaluate the impact of these images on Arab populace that highly value self-decency among other things undermined by those two crimes. Moreover, a very interesting finding in the article points to US proxies to help with Localizing American content to the English audience: “The US applied a major transformation for ‘Arabizing’ Western production to bypass the culture gap by using ‘cultural proxies’, such as local channels, to reproduce Arabic versions of Western entertainment programs such as Turkish soap operas.” (Matar, 2016, P.9) – To know more about Turkey’s pivotal role in shaping the “Arab spring”, read this article.
Matar continues to say that “Arab” culture is very different from American one, because of the influence that religion has in it, but he also points out to the emphasis of the role of the youth in the American strategy and highlights the internet as a tool to “modernize” mentalities. Civil societies and the middle class in different countries have a central role in these “modernization” efforts as part of “Soft Power” strategy. As a result, the weakness of civil societies and the middle class across the Arab World has a negative impact on a successful implementation of soft power because US government and their allies can’t find partners to help them “localize” their policies.
This theory is very plausible especially when we can easily identify in many countries, where the so called middle class citizens have been lifted to paradise by the grace of the American administration; Tawakol Karman comes to mind. However, is this always the case or can civil society actually play a role to counter soft power? (Tunisia, for example, has the most vibrant civil society in the region and it is very opposed to Israel and US policies in the MENA region). It would have been beneficial to identify more precisely what type of civil society would serve as a tool for soft power and which would counter it.
Another factor worthy of mentioning, and that is equally, if not more important than the aforementioned tools, is the support and propagation of Islamophobic views of Islam in a soft manor. The US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan sparked and fuelled sectarian tensions in the region. Before tensions rose more between Shias and Sunnis, the Arabic political and cultural compass always pointed to the Arab-Israeli conflicts and a poll finding in 2006 placed Iranian, Syrian, and Hezbollah leaders (mostly Shias) as most popular in Sunni-dominated countries, while last year a similar poll found different results with many Arab Sunnis considering Shias to be non-Muslims.
The attempts to tore Arab and muslim societies from within using tools such as sectarianism are also complemented with external efforts. The representation of Islam as a barbaric religion, cultural hegemony, and manufacturing consent around the superiority of Western culture, are very strong tools to dissuade Arab Muslim youth from their culture and religion and look to the ex-colonizers as role models to follow. Terrorism is of course the most powerful tool to implement this agenda and while western countries use terrorism to justify their hegemonic policies and foreign invasions, they directly and indirectly support it. Not to mention that the US government actively support countries that advocate Wahhabism, one of the most radical and literal misinterpretations of Islam that bread Al-Qaeda and later on ISIS. It seems that US Soft power strategy benefits a lot from terrorism.
Nearing the end of the well argued research, Matar discusses different initiatives to counter soft power in the Arab world. He talks about the efforts of Lebanese Hezbollah, Palestinian Hamas, and Iran. His findings show that the anti-US government entities in the Middle East region are raising awareness about the dangers of soft power and working on alternatives to counter it, including creating, controlling, and disseminating information. They are also aware of the importance of protecting their social structures and have efforts underway to do so. However, much work still has to take place to counter such a resourceful and systematic campaign.
Soft power is rooted in Orientalism. It is a strategy that aims at accomplishing neo-colonialist objectives prioritizing non-violent ways, but not excluding violent methods as a supplement. By taking away the agency of its subjects, the executioners of soft power strategy, US and its strategic allies, assume a position of moral superiority to impose Western values on other societies. It is strategies like this that remind us of the dangers of orientalist thinking and Matar’s academic article does an excellent job framing it theoretically. It is a much needed addition to the anti-imperialist literature in an academia dominated by the likes of Joseph Nye.