Soft Power of NGOs: Hard Responsibility, Hard Strategy, and Hard Accountability
The focus of this blog is Harvard Professor Joseph S. Nye, Jr.’s new book The Future of Power. Professor Nye defines “smart power” as “the combination of the hard power of coercion and payment with the soft power of persuasion and attraction.” This blog focuses on soft power and, in particular, the use of soft power by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other non-profit sector participants. The analysis applies in large part to other non-state actors (e.g. corporations and high net worth individuals) and is internationally applicable. I do not address negative soft power of non-state actors (e.g. terrorist groups).
Harvard Professor Joseph S. Nye, Jr.’s recently published book The Future of Power further explores his now widely respected and renowned concepts of “soft power” and “smart power.” Professor Nye offers as examples of soft power agenda-setting “that is regarded as legitimate by the target” and “persuasion,” along with “intangible factors” such as institutions, ideas, values, [and] culture….” In contrast, generally “tangibles such as force and money” are associated with hard power. He also offers a spectrum from command (hard power) at one extreme to co-opt (soft power) at the other extreme.
The term “soft power” is, quite simply, everywhere from Google to Greenpeace. Last week’s Herald Tribune announces “Google embracing soft power to win the hearts of Europeans” after considerable entanglement with EU authorities over various issues. The Times recently queried, “Does Greenpeace protest too much,” describing Greenpeace as a “pest that can’t be controlled”.
When I was Associate Dean for International and Graduate Programs at Stanford Law School in the mid-1990s, I developed a highly interactive course on problem-solving in NGOs. The leitmotif was to explore the players necessary to address complex global issues – governments, the multi-lateral organizations, business, high net worth individuals, and NGOs – and their respective contributions, ethical dilemmas, and accountability. Since then, the average person (however that may be described within different cultural and national contexts) with a cell phone or computer has also come to play a key role as a non-state actor as witnessed by examples ranging from Arab Spring to drug quality verification by cell phone in Africa to youth-driven environmental and poverty reduction initiatives. The soft power interrelationships amongst these players have become, to understate the issue, more complicated.
NGOs and other non-profit sector participants have an affirmative responsibility to use soft power responsibly and to account for the consequences, whether or not combined with hard power. Soft power should not simply be a right of NGOs or an unintended by-product of the information age and other developments in the political and communications sectors. Nor should it simply be the secondary result of NGOs conducting their ordinary course activities in execution of their missions. Soft power should be a separate and deliberate element in strategic planning – both positively and defensively. Soft power should also be a separate item in the ethics and accountability analysis. In particular, the unintended impact of soft power can often be far-reaching beyond the NGO and its own stakeholders.
Key examples: Professor Nye highlights issues related to the assessment of NGOs’ use of soft power: (i) NGOs’ claim to represent the “global conscience”; (ii) their non-democratically elected status; (iii) the dramatic increase in the potential impact of the naming and shaming approach, as well as newer uses of networks as part of diplomatic strategy; (iv) NGOs’ influence in interpreting international law;  and (v) NGOs’ impact on UN sanctions and “political manoeuvring.”
Key Questions: NGOs should ask themselves the following questions when considering soft power:
- Relationship between NGOs and other organizations.
- Legitimacy. NGOs often work through undermining legitimacy. How do they establish their own legitimacy to participate in various debates? How are they the legitimate representatives of global interests as Professor Nye notes?
- Relevance to the Organization. What are the objectives of the organization in acting? Are they within the organization’s mission? Do they serve the beneficiaries of the organization? Are they part of a coherent strategy? How will the strategy be implemented? Evaluated?
- Unintended Consequences. What are potential unintended consequences of the words or acts? For whom? What are the proactive steps to be taken to mitigate those?
- Accountability: what, how, when, to whom? What form should soft power accountability take? Organizations should be able to demonstrate clearly the specific actions taken, the efficacy and ethical basis of the actions, the financial cost, and the consequences for the beneficiaries of the organization, the organization itself, and the general public. In particular, organizations need to assess and manage any risks, such as those relating to human security, health, and well-being, and human rights.
- Other Problem-Solvers. Who else is acting in this area? Is there a concerted effort for efficiency? How is cooperation integrated into the organization’s strategy?
- Hard power. What is the right relationship between NGOs (i.e., soft power of “persuasion and attraction”) and hard power (e.g. “coercion” such as the military or “payment” such as economic power) – generally and in your organization?
- The media. What is the right relationship between NGOs and the media – generally and in your organization?
- The multi-lateral organizations. What is the right relationship between NGOs and multi-lateral organizations – generally and in your organization?
Professor Nye’s analysis should be taken as a wake-up call. Soft power should be a strategy not a by-product or secondary result, whether for NGOs, corporations or other non-state institutions or individual actors. Effective ethical soft power requires responsibility, strategy, ethics, and accountability.
Copyright 2011 Susan Liautaud. All rights reserved
 Nye, Jr., Joseph S. The Future of Power. Public Affairs, 2011, xiii. “In such a world, actors other than
governments are well placed to use soft power.” Nye, pg. 102.
 Nye, page 21.
 Nye, page 21.
 “Google embracing soft power to win the hearts of Europeans,” Eric Pfanner, International Herald Tribune, May 16, 2011. Google’s chief legal officer David C. Drummond was quoted as commenting, “We took [criticisms] to heart, and we’ve been working to defuse these issues.” Google is set to move into a high profile building in Paris and make a number of investments in real estate and intellectual exchange elsewhere in Europe. “Does Greenpeace protest too much?” Mike Pattenden, The Times, May 13, 2011.
 Nye, pg. 75.
 Nye, pg. 43.
 Nye, pp. 43 and 75.
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