TWQ: Using Social Power to Balance Soft Power: Venezuela’s Foreign Policy - Fall 2009
October 1, 2009
President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela has achieved what no other Latin American leader has since the end of the Cold War: bringing security concerns in The Western Hemisphere back to U.S. foreign policy. Might Venezuela provoke a war against neighboring Colombia, spread weapons among insurgents abroad, disrupt oil sales to the United States, provide financial support to Hezbollah, al Qaeda or other fundamentalist movements, offer safe havens for drug dealers, invite Russia to open a military base on its territory, or even acquire nuclear weapons? These security concerns did not exist less than a decade ago, but today they occupy the attention of U.S. officials. Attention to these conventional security issues, however, carries the risk of ignoring what thus far has been Venezuela’s most effective foreign policy tool in challenging the United States: the use of generous handouts abroad, peppered with a pro-poor, distribution-prone discourse. While the U.S. debate revolves around “hard power” and “soft power,” this other form can be called “social power diplomacy.”
Similar to hard power and soft power, social power diplomacy allows the projecting nation to attract allies but through different means. With social power diplomacy, other nations are not necessarily cajoled into bowing to the economic or military might of the projecting nation, as is the case in the realm of traditional hard power politics. Also, nations are not necessarily attracted to the magnetic appeal of the projecting nation’s ideology and values, as is the case with the realm of soft power politics. Instead, social power diplomacy attracts allies because it provides governments with far more latitude in domestic spending than is the case with any form of Western aid. This domestic freedom produces close international ties.
As a foreign policy tool, social power is a spectacularly effective way for world leaders to earn allies, even admirers abroad. Spending lavishly on social projects abroad seems a noble enterprise immune from criticism. At a minimum, projecting social power serves to deflect potential scrutiny from other nations. More dangerously, it can provide a shield of impunity for reckless behavior at home and abroad. Social power is also easily replicable. Other regimes with nastier and more competent leaders could replicate Venezuela’s social power foreign policy model, and improve on it. The result could be the proliferation of meaner rogue states masquerading as international humanitarians. For all its power, is the United States simply too unprepared to meet this form of balancing behavior?