Interpreting “Soft War”
The importance of discussing the concept of "Soft War" in Lebanon arises due to
the transition in the fields of confrontation from the military aspect to other
domains which we have not yet competently dealt with in a way which enables us
to be on an equal level with the enemy in our conflict. There have been many
discussions, debates, and disputes to determine the systematic framework or
basis of this concept in order to satisfy the need and intellectual vision.
Nonetheless, many have been heedless of its pragmatic structure and have
diverted away from the aspect of implementation which it was actually initiated
for- as if it were a philosophical concept or fixed term while it actually
signifies a direct and current practical approach.
The term "Soft War" was used by the Supreme Leader of Iran, Imam Khamenei, as an
ideological and strategic heading for a specific front-line in the ongoing
conflict for the past decade between Iran and the West. On the other hand, "Soft
Power" is the weapon which is used in this conflict. Joseph Nye who coined the
term "Soft Power" states that: "Power means the ability to do things and control
others; to get others to do what they otherwise would not do." In an essay
issued in 1990, Nye presents a preliminary explanation for the term "Soft War”:
“This second aspect of power- which occurs when one country gets other countries
to want what it wants- might be called co-optive or soft power in contrast with
the hard or command power of ordering others to do what it wants.”
Nye proceeds to give roots to the concept from a historical and experiential
aspect. He considers that “political leaders and philosophizers have long
understood the power of attractive ideas or the ability to set the political
agenda and determine the framework of debate in a way that shapes others'
preferences” . He promotes his idea through emphasizing its importance and
effectiveness and maintains that “soft co-optive power is just as important as
hard command power. If a state can make its power seem legitimate in the eyes of
others, it will encounter less resistance to its wishes. If its culture and
ideology are attractive, others will more willingly follow. If it can establish
international norms consistent with its society, it is less likely to have to
change. If it can support institutions that make other states wish to channel or
limit their activities in ways the dominant state prefers, it may be spared the
costly exercise of coercive or hard power.”
"Soft Power" is a relatively modern term which is still under discussion.
Altogether, it is a coined term which is subject to various interpretations
depending on practical aims or cultural and political backgrounds. This term has
shifted to formal use in American policies and strategies under different
phrases and overlapping headings such as: Winning Hearts and Minds, War of
Ideas, Public Diplomacy, Leading through Civilian Power, cultural diplomacy,
Global Developmental Initiatives, Building Moderate Muslim Networks, Information
Operations, Psychological Operations, and Conflict Prevention.
The different terms for “Soft War” have become the theoretical framework for
American foreign policy. They have also been transformed as names for
institutions which are part of the Department of State and other establishments.
Official expenditure in this domain has increased in comparison to the past due
to the growth of globalization and the capacity to make an impact through civil
means aided by the break-up of national boundaries in our modern era. Here, it
is necessary to point out that influence through civil means in comparison to
military ones is a very old method in power policies which dates back to the
Roman Empire and even prior to that. This method was theoretically and
practically reinforced to a great extent during the Cold War due to the
difficulty of plunging into a military nuclear war and mutual mass destruction.
Lately, in the year 2010, the American Department of State issued a quadrennial
for the first time in its history under the heading: “Civil Power”. It forms an
advanced point concerning increase of expenditure, attention, and intentness
upon benefitting from globalization in order to influence other countries’
policies and factions for the sake of an imperialistic enterprise. Official and
non-official centers of research all over the world have published tens of
thousands of studies and practical field recommendations to advance the benefit
which is reaped from civilian frameworks and means in order to win political-
and even military- battles. This has become more significant especially after
almost all wars have turned into disproportionate clashes between classical
armies and national movements which have no full control over their civilian
The American “National Defense Strategy” which was issued in 2008 specifies the
effect of “Soft Power” on achieving strategic American interests in the
following framework: “To pursue these interests, the U.S. has developed military
capabilities and alliances and coalitions, participated in and supported
international security and economic institutions, used diplomacy and soft power
to shape the behavior of individual states and the international system, and
using force when necessary.”
The concept of “Soft War” in its different expressions was present a long time
before Joseph Nye’s concept, but only currently has it become a prompt matter of
discussion and has gained a more important spot. Nye refers to this historical
fact in his first essay on the issue of “Soft Power” in the year 1990 where he
states: “Co-optive power -getting others to want what you want-and soft power
resources-cultural attraction, ideology, and international institutions- are not
new. In the early postwar period, the Soviet Union profited greatly from such
soft resources as communist ideology, the myth of inevitability, and
transnational communist institutions. Various trends today are making co-optive
behavior and soft power resources relatively more important.”
Nye points out that one of the reasons for this transformation is “because the
use of force has become more costly, less threatening forms of power have grown
increasingly attractive” . He emphasizes another aspect in the course of
development which has led to the increase in the importance of “soft power” and
considers that “when ideals are an important source of power, the classic
distinction between realpolitik and liberalism becomes blurred. The realist who
focuses only on the balance of hard power will miss the power of transnational
We can notice the difference between the conceptual definition which Joseph Nye
presents and the official definition of the previous American Secretary of State
Robert Gates. In his first book which was published in 1990, Nye discusses the
aspects of power as “the ability to influence the behavior of others to get the
outcomes you want. There are several ways one can achieve this: you can coerce
them with threats; you can induce them with payments; or you can attract and
co-opt them to want what you want” . He denies that bribery can be one of the
instruments of “soft power” while Robert Gates considers that enhancing American
“soft power” may be undergone “by a dramatic increase in spending on the
civilian instruments of national security- diplomacy, strategic communications,
foreign assistance, civic action and economic reconstruction and development” .
In another statement, we find that Gates delves into a wider approach concerning
“soft” ways and instruments: “Our efforts must also address economic
development, institution building, the rule of law, promoting internal
reconciliation, good or at least decent governance, public services, training
and equipping indigenous security forces, effective, strategic communications,
and more. These so-called soft capabilities along with military power are
indispensable to any lasting success, indeed, to victory itself as Clausewitz
understood it, which is achieving a political objective.”
He broadens the framework of “soft power” to constitute the economic and
constructive aspect, and we can also note that Joseph Nye further develops this
concept in his second book which was published in 2004 where he considers that:
“Seduction is always more effective than coercion, and many values like
democracy, human rights, and individual opportunities are deeply seductive” . It
is evident that individual prospects have become a part of the instruments.
However, the context of “soft power” is attraction instruments: persuasion and
influence- not coercion and imposition which are carried out through military
force or economic sanctions.
Hence, we have taken a glimpse into the main viewpoints concerning this concept
and we have seen how the country which most maintains this idea’s significance
on the practical level puts it into application. However, we must also consider
the opposite perspective which is asserted by anti-American powers that perceive
“soft power” as a threat. The power which is the most heedful of this challenge
is the Islamic Republic of Iran which is the target of a non-stop “Soft War” in
its various forms and on multiple levels because a military war against it would
be too costly.
One of the official Iranian references issued by Sadra: The Center for Cultural
and Social Research and Studies –an official state affiliated center- defines
“Soft War” as follows: “ ‘Soft war’ is defined in contrast to hard force, and it
actually includes any form of psychological, propaganda, media, or cultural
operation which targets the society or a certain group and drives the opponent
toward agitation or defeat without the use of military combat or hard force.
‘Soft war’ aims at crushing the targeted society’s ideology in order to weaken
its intellectual and cultural elements and to spread instability and commotion
in the socio-political system through a media and news onslaught. ‘Soft war’
encompasses all operations which are accomplished through the cyber war and
internet activity including the establishment of radio and television networks
among other means. ‘Soft war’ is sometimes used as a substitute for aggressive
measures when the latter lose their effectiveness, and at other times it is a
prelude and preparation for a military assault” .
This reference includes an introduction about relevant concepts such as
Globalization, Secularization, Way of Life, in addition to a chapter about
regime change in accordance with the soft targeting which Iran is now facing. It
also includes many points which the American Secretary of State mentioned or
which were a part of the American “National Defense Strategy” along with other
formal and political documents.
Through this brief discussion we can deduce that this concept is dependent upon
practical aims and can be developed according to them. This is due to the fact
that this concept is no longer theoretical and has become an official policy in
the United States and even in China and Russia, and there are also some who
discuss Iranian “soft power”. It is a concept which describes political activity
and conduct that are not limited to a fixed form and are able to be developed
regardless of time, place, circumstances, scientific and technological
advancement, in addition to the accumulation of experiences in the field of
confrontation which requires ingenuity, innovation, and constant enhancement in
an attempt to overcome the foe.
In what follows, we shall pose a set of questions which are suitable for
generative discussion and which contribute to planning for the confrontation on
our Lebanese front-line in this war.
Questions for Discussion:
1-Does the dilemma of the concept’s theoretical framework arise from its wide
ranges, the ambiguity of its instruments in comparison with military war which
has a specific set of weapons and means, its emergence as a term after its
actual usage, or the difference in its application to the influencers and the
influenced according to their circumstances?
2-Was the concept of “soft power” coined in order to create a new way to use
power or to describe and sustain policies which were already existent in
3-Does the concept of “soft power” propose a certain official framework or a
term which is subject to practical and theoretical development?
4- Why hasn’t “soft power” been transformed to an official concept? (For
example: A “Soft War” Ministry in the countries which possess that power)
5-Can imperialistic countries ensure that their official speech will include a
complete conceptual framework and practical instruments which are used outside
the domain of military war?
6-Is there anything which compels the various state systems to determine the
framework of their activities in a certain theoretical sphere?
7-Is there anything which prevents the major countries - especially the United
States- from altering any policy or concept according to circumstances in order
to achieve their aim?
1-Can we specify our own concept of “Soft War” in Lebanon based on our special
theoretical and practical needs? How?
2-What are our particular motives behind the specification of this concept?
If our motive is scholarly and theoretical, then what will be the outcome of
this concept and its intellectual usage?
If our motive is practical and realistic, then what are the policies and actions
which we intend to resort to in this domain?
3-What are the practical determinants which form a prelude for the specification
of the framework of the “soft war” we are facing in Lebanon?
4-Can we place the framework of “soft war” under the heading: “Everything which
5-Can we determine a general framework of the “soft war” we are facing and then
specify our possible ways of confrontation and thus obtain a theoretical
framework particular to the situation in Lebanon and a general framework
concerning the means of confrontation?
6-The concept of “soft war” is for benefit and utilization and not only for
determining details and theoretical frameworks. How can we make use of the wide
usage of this term in order to establish an actual civil front-line?
7-To what extent is the necessity of establishing a reference about soft
targeting in Lebanon which confines the instruments, policies, and programs that
are adopted in the face of the Resistance?