As Much Power as a Word: Hard, Soft, and Smart Power

When I was trekking in Nepal a few years ago, I came down from the ice and snow of the Himalayan high peaks to the Khumbu Valley, where the great Tengboche monastery stands. As my friends and I trekked down from the Everest region into the warmth of spring, whole forests of rhododendron were in bloom: first white, then pink, then red as we dropped altitude. We could hear birds again. We could sleep at night without fear of frostbite. And for dinner, we had more than rice and yak meat stew on the menu. We had vegetables.

After almost a month of tough climbing, I was in a giddy, open frame of mind, attentive to the smallest things: folds of cloth, the grain of the wooden table. A monk from Tengboche caught me enraptured by the flutter of colorful prayer flags hanging from the roof of the temple.

He told me there is an ancient Buddhist parable about the flags. A master overhears two students debating whether it is the wind that is moving or the flags. Back and forth they argued, each sure he was right. Finally, the master said, “Don’t you see? Back and forth, argue and debate. It is, in fact, your minds that are moving.”

The banners or the wind. I have always been suspicious of dichotomies: friend or foe, truth or beauty, rich or poor, dead or alive, sick or well, spend or save, win or lose, hearts or minds.

Think how many of these (and other) oppositions seem essential to our way of thinking. Think too, at least in English, how these words are often so basic, so often monosyllables of communication: love, hate; yes, no; left, right – perhaps even wired into our very cerebral makeup. But there is trouble with us thinking either/or. As Catullus wrote in his famous poem 85, “Odi et amo.”

I hate and I love. Why I would do so, you may well ask. I do not know, but I feel it and suffer. Embedded here is the question that Kierkegaard said was the most important in philosophy: “Who am I?” In one of his first great works he answered with the contest of ideas and impulse, Either/Or. Our lives are a history of complicated, dialectical struggle between inner and outer, ethical and aesthetic, habit and hope. The poet John Keats called the mature acceptance of our irreducible complexities “negative capability” – the strength, the gift of being able to live in and with contractions. Or, as the poet Emily Dickinson wrote, “I dwell in possibility, a fairer” – she means more beautiful – “house than prose.” Or did she mean fairer as in more just?

This is all simply to say at the outside that I bring an innate suspicion to schemas and categories such as hard vs soft or even the alchemical triangulation that lead to what I fear risks being a too dangerously self-congratulatory third definition, if we claim that our power is “smart.” Smart to whom? As my mother-in-law has never ceased to tell me, “Smart is over-rated.”

“[Soft power] is the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments.” Attraction rather than coercion or payments. I read this–Joseph Nye’s definition of soft power–to my 84 year-old mother-in-law. She said, “We all pay.”

Let’s consider the argument. First of all, the activities of soft power – whether it’s educational exchange like Fulbright or foreign aid programs or other projects – cost money. Nowhere near as much money as war. But interestingly, when you look at the history, the major expenditures and commitments to soft power usually come after war: funded through the sales of military surplus after World War II, the Fulbright Program was formulated along with other extraordinary achievements like the Marshall Plan. Budgets for educational and cultural exchange have always increased after violent events.

This does not diminish the urgency or the effectiveness of education and international cooperation, of all the engagements of friendship, trust, mutual understanding, but it does mean we must be wary of the kind of utopian confidence one can often hear in safe and prosperous places that programs of peace can overcome the habits of hate and war, that they can offer sufficient alternatives to defense, to our natural wariness of those who might do us harm.

Think of the brave man who stood down the tank in Tiannamen Square. Think of the massacres that followed. Think of the jasmine revolution and think now of Egypt. Think of Occupy Wall Street and remember the arrests and pepper spray.

The political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg says our beliefs about peace and violence are complicated and intertwined, that even advocates of non-violence can use and depend on the violence of others. In a recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, provocatively titled “Why Violence Works,” Ginsberg examines the American civil rights movement and the strategies of Martin Luther King, Jr, one of our greatest moral leaders in modern times, a brilliant and courageous hero of peace and justice. He writes,

One of the most famous protests King organized, in March 1965 at Selma, Alabama is instructive. King picked Selma partly because racial discrimination there and in surrounding Dallas County was so obvious … [King] was confident the state and county political leaders were fools. He expected them to respond with violence and, in doing so, imprint themselves on the collective consciousness of a national television audience as the brutal oppressors of heroic and defenseless crusaders for freedom and democracy. With network cameras rolling, Alabama state troopers viciously attacked marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, seriously injuring many of them in what the news media called ‘Bloody Sunday.’ The marchers knew what they were doing. They were extraordinarily brave. And they were powerful. They were successful. But was this power soft or hard? I have traveled all over the world and talked to Fulbright scholars. I have been privileged to hear countless eloquent stories about its power, its impact. Again and again, whether the Fulbright scholar is 25 or 90, I hear this distilled in one short sentence, the same four words, “It changed my life.” I am often moved to tears by those words, these stories.

But recently, I read those four words in the account of a very different story. Like Fulbright, it’s a story of mutual understanding. But it’s a story that occurred a year before the Fulbright program was founded. It’s a story that took place on April 11th, 1945. The story of Harry Herder, a young American solder who was part of the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp. Buchenwald means “beech forest.” Embedded in the gates of the camp in a fashionably modern san serif all capital type font were the words, “Jedem das Seine.” Literally, this means “To each his own,” but its common meaning is “Everyone gets what he deserves.” To add to the perversity, the text was meant to be read by people on the inside who could not get out.

The blunt evil of the inscription at Buchenwald was the exception. Most camps had the hideous words Rudolf Hess commanded be inscribed in their gates, “Arbeit macht frei.” Work makes you free.

As Herder and his fellow soldiers tried to comprehend the horrors they found–the piles of dead bodies, the still raging furnaces, the living hell of the few survivors, he came upon a boy. Here’s what he writes about the encounter:

He was young, very small, and he spoke no English. He was dressed in bits and pieces of everything, ragged at best, and very dirty. He chattered up a storm and I could not understand one word. First, I got him to slow down the talk, then I tried to speak to him, but he could not understand a word I said. We were at a temporary stalemate. We started again from scratch, both of us deciding that names were the proper things with which to start, so we traded names. I no longer remember the name he taught me, and I wish so badly, so often, I could. Our conversation started with nouns, naming things, and progressed to simple verbs, actions, and we were busy with that. As we progressed I reached over into my field jacket to pull things out of the pocket to name. I came across a chocolate bar and taught him the word “candy”. He repeated it, and I corrected him. He repeated it again, and he had the pronunciation close. I tore the wrapper off the chocolate bar and showed him the candy. He was mystified. It meant nothing to him. He had no idea what it was or what he was to do with it. I broke off a corner and put it in my mouth and chewed it. I broke off another corner and handed it to him and he mimicked my actions. His eyes opened wide. It struck me that he had never tasted chocolate. It was tough to imagine, but there it was. He took the rest of the candy bar slowly, piece by piece, chewed it, savored it. It took him a little while but he finished the candy bar, looking at me with wonderment the whole time. While he was eating the bar, I searched around for the old wrapper, found the word “chocolate ” on it, pointed to the word, and pronounced the word “chocolate”. He worked on the correct pronunciation. I am sure that was the first candy the little fellow had ever had. He had no idea what candy was until then. We worked out words for those things close around us. He was learning a bit of English, but I was not learning a word of his language–I do not even know what language he spoke. This wasn’t something that happened consciously, it was just something that happened. Harry Herder said this encounter changed his life.

If there is ever a power I would ask you to privilege in the discussions you have today, in the work you continue to do when you leave here, it is the power of words, the power of stories and the power of questions like Harry Herder’s, trying to understand this encounter with a little boy, a stranger whose name he didn’t learn, whose life we know nothing more of.

I began by saying I was skeptical about our understanding of even the simplest words.

What is soft? What is hard? What is power? Can power be created or is there a finite amount, a zero sum game that means if I have the power, you do not? If power is the ability to get others to do what we want, have we asked who these others are? Who are we? Do we really know what we want?

I don’t mean to seem coy or self-indulgent with such questions. Life is full of real emergencies, the day-to-day demands of our own work and families and larger crises, the demands of billions of people whose most basic needs for safety, food and shelter go unmet day after day, hour after hour. All of us must put our shoulders to the wheel for ourselves and for one another and we must work.

But because we are human, we cannot escape ourselves. We are always asking how and why. We are always searching for meaning.

What I am asking is that we bring depth and discipline to our questions: not just any questions, but difficult questions as well as serious efforts to conceive of alternatives to the lives we are leading and the lives our governments, businesses, media, schools, families and even powerful strangers are constantly trying to persuade us-or force us-to lead.

What I am arguing for is the power of imagination. The late poet and activist Adrienne Rich said it is imagination’s job is to “transcend and transform experience.” This may not be the project for your commute to work in the morning, but it is where freedom really lies–not in simple consumer choices or ballot boxes, but in our capacity to imagine and to make our own lives. And how many of us truly have that ability? “Ultimately,” Elie Wiesel–who was imprisoned at Buchenwald–has written, “the only power to which man should aspire is that which he exercise over himself.”

So I just ask you to be wary of cognitive or political schemas that reward us with the comfortable belief that we are good and that we are right, that we have intentions and values it is important to persuade others to share.

In our culture of technology and measurement, we try to classify and contain things that might actually be indefinable. Too often we try to possess certainties, rather than share questions

If it is difficult to understand what power is, it’s even more difficult to imagine what it really should be used for. How do we make it possible for people to flourish in a wounded world? How do we create the possibilities for happiness when there are shortages, greed, violence, differences of history and value? Whose happiness deserves to prevail?

One expression that has a long history in the exercise of power is the conviction that we must “win hearts and minds.” In 1818, almost 200 years ago, in John Adams wrote a letter to a Baltimore newspaper editor named H. Niles describing where the American Revolution really took place: “in the minds and hearts of the people.” “This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people,” he wrote, “was the real American Revolution.”

Skip a century forward and Franklin Roosevelt often employed the expression, seeking “the union of the hearts and minds of the people in all the states … devoted with unity to the human welfare of our country.” Then, 50 years ago, on April 2, 1963, John F. Kennedy began using the term in its current sense telling Congress how in Latin America “perhaps most significant of all [would be] a change in the hearts and minds of the people–a growing will to develop their countries.”

And only two years later, Lyndon Johnson claimed that “ultimate victory [in Vietnam] will depend upon the hearts and the minds” of the Vietnamese people. From the American military point of view, the Vietnamese hearts and minds were obviously not so dependable.

Since Vietnam, both in earnest and with sarcasm, “winning hearts and minds” has been a way to describe our military engagements. It became a central theme in our counter-insurgency planning under President George W. Bush, with a newly published Army and Marine Corp counter-insurgency manual claiming, “Protracted popular war is best countered by winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of the populace.”

What would it really mean for me to win your heart or your mind? Stop to think what that seriously. Such a “win” would be a kind of fragile miracle, wouldn’t it? And what I had won would be an immense responsibility; it would be risk and trust. Would it be love?

If I had, through my charms and powers and persuasions somehow won your heart and mind, would you have also won mine? What if you then changed your mind - or had a change of heart?

No matter how decent our intentions or benign our strategies, one of the problems with persuasion is that it is not an effort of tender wonderment and questioning. Persuasion is not meant to explore truth, but to enforce it. Soft power is still meant to be power, our power.

Yet, the point of truth is not that it is possessed, but that it is sought, that it is provisional, that we are free to choose it–and to contest those who claim to know what the it is or are certain they have it.

Perhaps what we should struggle to look for, then, is not so much power, but a related idea: authority, in the sense of being the authors of ourselves, working toward an understanding of who we are, which would mean that power of saying who we are would belong to others as much as it would to us, because others see and hear what we say and what we do and form beliefs about what that means, who we are.

Our authority in presenting ourselves to the world and–using the same linguistic root–the authenticity with which we do, might convince others to bestow on us, however briefly, some power. Power not won, but freely given. So let’s not pose as power brokers today, but attempt to be authors, to use our words to make questions, to have conversations, to share the gifts of possibility and surprise, the power of learning from one another.

Speaking of questions and gifts, back in Nepal, when I was ready to leave the monastery, I saw the same monk who’d told me the parable about the prayer flags and the wind. I asked him how long it would take us to get down to the final base camp. And he said, of course, “Well that reminds me of a story.”

A monk was traveling in a strange land and saw a woman working in her garden. He asked her how much further he had to go to get to the mountain temple. She looked at him but didn’t say anything. He asked again. Nothing. So he shrugged his shoulders and walked on. When he was about a hundred yards up the road, the woman shouted to the monk, “It will take about two days.” The monk was startled and turned around. He shouted back, “But why didn’t you answer me earlier? I thought you were deaf!” She shrugged her shoulders too and shouted to him, “Well, you never know. I had to see how fast you walk.” You never know …

So look, listen and ask lots of questions. It’s what my favorite poet Emily Dickinson did her entire life. Let me give her the final thought on power: “I know nothing in the world that has as much power as a word. Sometimes I write one, and I look at it, until it begins to shine.”

Related: Fulbright Huffington Post Essay Canberra smart power soft power diplomacy poetry