The concepts of `soft power' and `niche diplomacy' are very much in vogue with Canada's foreign policy cognoscenti and are mooted with increasing frequency in the national media. Is there something new under the sun, and if so what is it all about?
Joseph Nye, an American political theorist, popularized the idea of `soft power' in his book Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power (New York: Basic Books 1990), which highlighted the global influence of American popular culture. He challenged the conclusions of Paul Kennedy and other pundits subscribing to the imperial overstretch/USA in inevitable decline school of thought. At the core of Nye's analysis is the notion of achieving desired outcomes through attraction rather than coercion, by convincing others to follow your example or to agree to norms and institutions that support or produce the desired objective. This approach relies heavily on the power of ideas and information, on the horizontal management of issues rather than on the vertical management of resources and people, and on the ability to define issues and shape an agenda in ways that influence preferences and behaviour.
Soft-power practitioners in Canada seek also to occupy cerebral, not territorial, space. They are developing an adapted version of Nye's doctrine, fashioning it to the contours of an entirely different context to serve quite different purposes. In this campaign the real battles are fought using PR ordinance. The highest authority is the court of public opinion, where image is everything. And soft power is being served up as a panacea for many of the post Cold War world's ailments.
Knowledge brokerage, media savvy, strategic alliances, partnerships with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and coalition-building with like-minded governments and elements of civil society are seen as fundamental. Commensurately less emphasis is placed on more conventional instruments such as development assistance, the military, the intelligence apparatus, and the foreign service. Even if Canada had more `hard power' assets than it does, the argument is that this kind of influence has become exceptionally difficult to wield and is often unsuited to the circumstances of globalization and the related tasks at hand.
Unlike soft power, variations of which have always been found in the `public diplomacy' section of the foreign policy tool box, the decision to focus on `niches' - small arms, child soldiers, the international criminal court - though less publicized, is in some respects a more radical departure from traditional Canadian policy. This has required the setting aside of certain over-arching themes and motifs - sustainable development, poverty eradication, nuclear arms control, follow-up on the environmental commitments made at the Rio Summit - in favour of the identification of specific goals and shorter-term outcomes.
The recourse to soft power and niche specialization are best understood in the context of `globalization.' Driven by markets, business and commerce, facilitated by a revolution in technology and communications, and characterized by increasing economic integration and interdependence, globalization has major implications not only for Canadian foreign policy but also for national unity and domestic identity. An awareness of the scope and intensity of this process will help to situate the debate and to explain why the contemporary emphasis, where the results are more obvious and immediate, has appeared attractive.
In my view, globalization has contributed to:
a reduction in the effectiveness and domain of the state and its powers, marked by constraints on sovereignty and a transfer of authority and legitimacy upwards, to supranational institutions, downwards, to lower levels of government, and outwards, to non-state actors, especially multinational corporations and NGOs;
the rising importance of comparative quality of life and competitiveness, and the associated emergence of a new international division of labour which features increasing polarization and marginalization within and between countries and regions at all levels; and
a transformed international security situation, featuring a rise in the relative significance of human (as opposed to state) security, with new threats ranging from virulent ethnonationalism to uncontrolled migration, from terrorism to transnational crime, from environmental collapse to epidemic disease, and from climate change to diminishing biodiversity. …