On Libya, Soft Power, and the Protection of Civilians as Pretext

[Note:A version of this article was originally published in the English edition of Global Times on 4-18-2011]

Recently Joseph S. Nye, Jr spoke about his new book, “The Future of Power” at the Japan Society in New York City.

During his talk, Nye defined soft power as the ability to attract or persuade others to give you what you want without having to use coercion.

For Nye, it is not the facts that matter in “the information age”. Instead soft power, which includes how the narrative describing a situation is framed, is as important as, or even more important than military action, in gaining one’s objectives. As he says in an online article, “In a global information age, success is not determined just by who has the biggest army, but also by who has the best story.”

In the question period at the end of his talk, Nye was asked about Libya. Nye responded that what President Obama had done was exactly right in waiting until he had the needed narrative for the action in Libya. It was important that the US not be seen as once again attacking a Muslim country. Instead the Arab League and the UN Security Council resolutions provided the narrative “of a legitimate enforcement of humanitarian responsibility to protect civilians.”

Nye pointed out that unlike Bush, Obama had managed to get the approval of the United Nations and was acting with the support of other countries including France and the UK. According to Nye, the narrative could be framed as the US taking “collective responsibility”, not as undertaking military intervention.

There’s a problem with Nye’s argument.

First, by stressing the importance of the narrative, Nye is focusing on how the world perceives the action the US is taking, rather than on the nature of the action itself.

What is actually happening in Libya, is NATO’s military actions supporting an armed insurgency against the government of Libya. NATO bombing is not protecting civilians in Libya, but protecting an armed insurrection against the government of Libya.

The March 17 Security Council meeting which passed UN Security Council Resolution 1973 authorized the use of military force against Libya(1). Several Ambassadors explained how the resolution was needed to protect nonviolent peaceful protesters in Libya. None mentioned that there was an armed insurrection in Libya against the government and that the resolution was authorizing military intervention supporting the armed insurgents in that military conflict.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin noted a few days later that the claim to protect civilians was but the “pretext” which “effectively allowed intervention in a sovereign state.”

Some Ambassadors at the UN appeared confused by the deceptive language. Putin, however, recognized that such a claim is but a ploy to disguise foreign intervention into the internal affairs of a sovereign nation.

During a debate in 2009 at the United Nations over the concept of the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) , the Belgium physicist and philosopher of science, Jean Bricmont, offered a critique of R2P. He explained the importance of sovereignty as an essential part of the foundation of the United Nations.

“The very starting point of the United Nations was to save humankind from ‘the scourge of war’,” he said, referring to the two World Wars. It is only the respect for sovereignty that protects the people of the small nations from the self serving interests of the great powers, he argued. Those proposing the need to adopt the R2P doctrine were undermining this respect for sovereignty and in the process encouraging foreign military intervention and war.

Nye’s presentation suggests that a convincing narrative has a power to gain support for actions despite the actual nature of the actions. There are netizens around the world, however, who recognize the deceit represented by the claim that NATO actions in Libya are to protect civilians. Articles and debates on the Internet demonstrate that many netizens recognize the self serving national interests of the great powers who are engaged in military actions against the Libyan government . “A new colonialism era starts,” writes one netizen. “The UN is but a puppy in the hands of Western powers,” observes another. “Civilization, democracy, freedom….It is all about national interest,” writes still another netizen.

Such discussion and analysis demonstrates that the Internet makes it possible to challenge false narratives and to contribute to creating a more accurate narrative that conforms to the facts of the situation.


(1) For more background on the UN Security Council meeting and Security Council Resolution 1973 see http://blogs.taz.de/netizenblog/2011/03/30/un_march_17_meeting_res1973/