Hard power, fuzzy logic

I don't think that word means what you think it means...

I do not think that word means what you think it means...

Prime Minister Stephen Harper used the occasion of a visit to Canada’s aid efforts in Haiti on Tuesday to praise the virtues of his government’s spending on “hard power” items like the C-17 transport aircraft:

“This fleet of new aircraft, the C-17 fleet, is a big part of making this response possible. I single out the C-17 for a reason. There was a time when that kind of heavy lift aircraft didn’t fit Canada’s soft-power policies,” Mr. Harper told soldiers yesterday at a steamy military camp on the city’s outskirts with a crumbled house as a backdrop.

“But our government bought them for the hard-power requirements of today’s world. Now we’re using them for relief work.

“What is the moral of the story?” he asked. “To do soft power, you need hard power. You need a full range of capabilities.”

(Gloria Galloway, “PM lauds troops in Haiti, takes swipe at Liberals,” Globe and Mail, 16 February 2010)

There seems to be a certain degree of terminological inexactitude going on in the Prime Minister’s statement, however. The “hard power”/”soft power” distinction normally refers to the difference between the power (military, economic, etc.) to compel others to do what you want and the power (through ideas, cultural attractiveness, diplomacy, etc.) to convince others to think as you do and to want what you want. While Canada does have interests in Haiti, most people would say that our humanitarian aid to that country isn’t really about getting the Haitians to do what we want, whether through hard or soft power.

What the Prime Minister instead seems to have had in mind is the distinction between the traditional military-focused notion of “national security” and the much broader notion of “human security“, with the implication that a greater focus on the instruments of “national security” is needed to properly deliver “human security”.

This would be a somewhat funny comment coming from a guy whose government has shown little but contempt for the concept of “human security” and has even gone as far as to ban the term from the Department of Foreign Affairs lexicon. But the Prime Minister has been a changed man since that little prorogation contretemps blew up, so who knows?

Setting aside questions of terminology, the C-17s are not really a typical example of his government’s approach to military spending. A large part of the Conservatives’ new military spending–perhaps half of it–has gone to the Afghanistan mission, and the equipment spending priorities have unsurprisingly tended to follow that emphasis.  The overwhelming focus on Afghanistan has left the Canadian Forces unable to contribute significantly to peacekeeping, and has resulted in continuing delays in the effort to procure naval supply ships, which if they are ever built could provide a highly useful capability in humanitarian relief operations.

The moral of that story? To do “soft power” (if that’s what you want to call it), get out of Afghanistan.

The C-17s were an atypical purchase in that, although they are certainly being used to support the Afghanistan mission, they are in no way required for it. Canada could have continued to use leased aircraft, such as Antonovs, for resupply flights to Afghanistan. The time when owning your own aircraft is vital is when something unexpected comes up and you need the planes today so they can arrive somewhere else tomorrow. And that kind of situation is much more likely to be disaster relief than anything else. The very first mission of the first C-17 that Canada bought was the delivery of humanitarian aid to the victims of Hurricane Dean in Jamaica. In that sense, they do have the potential to help Canada make a valuable contribution to global human security.

Any discussion of how best to contribute to human security has to consider opportunity costs, however. There are many non-military ways to deliver humanitarian relief, provide development assistance, help prevent and address climate change, and otherwise work to protect people and improve their lives. Military assistance is likely to be part of the mix, but an overemphasis on expensive and often inapplicable military approaches will only reduce our overall effectiveness. (See Canadian Military Spending 2009, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, December 2009.) That ought to be the real moral in the PM’s “hard power”/”soft power” story.

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One Response to “Hard power, fuzzy logic”

  1. Ed. NapierFebruary 23, 2010 at 1:11 pm #

    Dear Steven Staples,
    Excellent article re difference between hard and soft power.
    Ed. Napier