The Hardening of Soft Power

by Brittany Gleixner Hayat


Perhaps the most dominant narrative in contemporary international political discourse is a heightened sense of vulnerability to terror which has impacted every part of the world and linked small states to large in new ways. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, concern has risen that so–called “failed states,” losing the struggle to maintain law and order at home, could become havens for terrorism.

Concern with state stability is not new. We can trace the trajectory of the academic and policy-centric evolution in thinking in the US since the 1950s. Over the years analysis oscillated between a focus on economic and political components of state stability – and in the wake of fall of the Soviet Union a blending of the two in the literature and policy on transitions of post-Soviet regimes. However, what is new is the specific language of “rogue states,” “failed states,” and “ungoverned spaces” which entered the international relations lexicon in the post-9/11 context.

What separates it from the previous discourse on state stability is the security lens through which both economic and political development policies are increasingly formulated. Without shedding elements of the previous lens dominated by implicit acceptance of the image of the “Good Society” – the contemporary context is dominated by the view that the US needs to promote development to ensure its national security against terrorist threats that can emanate from anywhere.

In some circles this has been seen as a positive step – more resources (human, monetary, and otherwise) toward programs that the development world has been championing all along. A notion that finally, the security world gets it – we are engaged in “wars amongst the people” and this requires responses that blend political and military power to achieve US objectives. This is a phenomenon I would suggest is a “hardening” of soft power.

In a recent interview ( … ion/africa) USAID head Rajiv Shah announced that next month USAID will unveil its first ever policy on combating violent extremism and executing counterinsurgency. For me this raises a red flag – if the US securitizes its relationships with countries at all levels, what does the US stand to loose? What does it stand to gain? What are the implications of hardening soft power?

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