Jim Arkedis suggests “civilian power” as an alternative term to the much-derided “soft power.” I think this suggestion actually shows that we don’t need one term to replace soft power, but rather that the underlying concept can probably be split into a few different ideas. One thing, that seems to be well-described as “civilian power” is the idea that the government needs to mobilize more of the non-military instruments available to us — things like diplomatic resources, technical assistance, development aid, etc. There are a lot of problems on the planet and not all of them can be solved primarily by blowing things up. But right now our budget is heavily tilted toward the “blowing things up” side of the ledger. We would do well to balance better.
But there’s also something else that, as I said before, I don’t think is well-captured by the term “power” at all. Maybe it’s easier to think about it in terms of another country. One thing that’s good about the United States is that we have a brand that, when we’re at our best, is very broadly appealing across ethnic and religious lines. By contrast, Iran can have strong appeal in southern Lebanon or in Iraq, but theocracy based on Shiite Islam is an inherently tough sell. Similarly, Putin-style Russian nationalism is a potent force in Russia, but hardly an ideology that’s ready to travel the globe. But insofar as the United States comes to be identified with torture, bullying, and aggressive warfare rather than with humane liberal values we lose that brand advantage.