Soft Power, Cowering Embassies and Roman Forts

Joseph Nye, an eminent political scientist at Harvard, wrote a book about “soft power” a few years ago.  He followed that volume up by devoting a chapter to the concept in last year’s book The Future of Power.  So what is “soft power”?

According to Nye, whereas “hard power” grows out of a country’s military or economic might, soft power, “Arises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies.”  In the Future of Power Nye examines what it means to be powerful in the twenty-first century, and how the US might set about retaining its place in the world.  He thinks soft power will be an important part of the mix, and I tend to agree.

But while I’m generally optimistic about the future of America’s place in the international order , one historical parallel related to soft power disturbs me:  the degree to which the threat of terrorism has led the US to create embassy buildings that appear to cower before contemporary threats.

The US Embassy on Calle Serrano

In Madrid, for example, I frequently pass the US Embassy on Calle Serrano.  Like most contemporary US embassies, it could easily be mistaken for a medium-security prison.  As a former Marine, I always hope to see a proud Marine embassy guard somewhere in view.  All I’ve ever seen are Spanish rent-a-cops.  As a result of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the US Marines who guard it are kept deep inside, behind bulletproof glass, intercoms, and high counters.  Still, it would be nice to at least glimpse them.

Visitors who enter such structures are stripped of all electronic devices for the duration of their visit and then put through a search and x-ray process that makes the average airport experience seem casual.  One need not underestimate the threat to US facilities to admit that the process as a whole conveys the very opposite of confidence and might (i.e. soft power):  it reeks of fear.   One might even ask if those who designed these measures feared the next 9/11, or simply the next 9/11 Commission, in which all but the most extreme security measures would leave people in Washington vulnerable to criticism.  Of course I worry about the safety of US diplomats and the Marines who guard them.  I also worry, however, about the messages that these facilities and procedures send  to the 99.9% of visitors who mean the US no harm.

A visit to the embassy was the same when I lived in Brussels after 2002, but somewhat better when I lived in London in the 1990s.  In fact, the US Embassy in the UK that I knew in Grosvenor Square then is soon being moved because it’s deemed too vulnerable.  Among other features, this new beacon of US power in the London will have a moat.

I understand the reasons for these designs.  The threat of terrorism is real and omnipresent.  I am glad that it is not my responsibility to keep US diplomats safe.  Indeed, on one level I can accept that the fortress-like appearance and prison-like bearing of the US diplomatic presence in the world.  It simply reflects the reality of our age and the falling cost, both economic and operational, of mass violence directed against symbolic targets.  But does the US have the balance right?   Has anyone considered what is lost in the long run when embassy buildings evolve into prison-fortresses?   One historical analogy may contain a warning for the United States.

I, for one, am haunted by an historical  parallel that  I discovered in the The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire by Edward N. Luttwak.  It is a superb book that I cannot summarize here, but wholeheartedly recommend.  Here, I simply want to highlight Luttwak’s illustrations of the evolution of Roman fortifications from the 2nd century to the late 4th century.

In the second century, a Roman fort had multiple, open gates, thin walls, observation (not fighting) towers, and a spacious interior with colonnaded streets.  Apparently, when  a fort’s gates were elaborate, they served only to make a grand impression and had no overt defensive purpose. (A few years living in Italy convinced me that such grand-looking but otherwise useless gates had survived into our own times on Italian farmhouses).

Roman fort, second century

Second century Roman forts were located on flat, open ground:  it was Roman soft power that afforded security.  Certainly, as Nye would have it, much of this soft power consisted of the attractiveness of Roman civilization.  If we are honest, however, another element that ensured that Roman forts of the period could do without closed gates and thick walls was the degree fear that Roman soldiers inspired.  Roman legions possessed a ferocity, discipline and ruthlessness that was unmatched by her enemies.  In other words, contra Nye, I believe that fear balances attraction in soft power, and that the Romans well-understood this (Caligula used to say:  Oderint dum metuant).

The 2nd century Roman balance – attraction and raw fear – was  efficient.  As Luttwak writes, “Perceived power is not consumed by use”.

About one hundred and seventy years later, in the late third century, the walls of Roman fortifications had grown much thicker; the berms of forts were wider, and their towers were now for fighting.  Fortress gates were no longer only proud monuments to a distant civilization that one might aspire to join:  they had been closed and drafted into a tactically defensive schema.  The fearsome reputations of Rome’s legions had declined, too:  for a variety or reasons, they were no longer universally feared.

Roman fort, late third century

One hundred years later, by the late 4th century, Roman forts had become proto-castles.  They had been relocated to higher, “more defensible”, ground.  The once proud and welcoming Roman gates had dwindled to one elaborately defensive structure, plus a postern gate (i.e. a narrow slit valuable for quick counter-attacks and for receiving informers).  Towers on these forts had multiplied, but only to ensure enfilading fire against besiegers.  The spacious interior colonnades of of the Roman fort of two centuries before had become cramped troop quarters jumbled in irregular shapes.  It is clear from this design that what was once called the Dark Ages had begun.

Roman fort, late fourth century

In short, in civilizational terms castles that resemble prisons convey weakness, not strength.  A truly powerful civilization does not cower behind walls, it simultaneously invites and seduces while it truly terrifies those who would do it harm.  The next time you pass a US Embassy, draw your own conclusions.  Alternatively, look at the design of new US Embassy in London, pictured below.  Note its up-to-date Vauban-fort-style defensive perimeter.

But from the point of view of US soft power, what does the moat portend?

US fort, Londiniumearly twenty-first century:  defensive location, enfilading fire capability, and defensive moat.

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6 responses to “Soft Power, Cowering Embassies and Roman Forts

  1. Milo, you are absolutely right. Another point to mention is that of the British Empire. I understand that there were times that it sent in a whole army in order to avenge the killing or maiming of just one British citizen, extracting a high price for acts of violence against it’s civilization.

    In addition, the red coats, in addition to masking the sight of blood, were, in peacetime, a beacon – sort of saying to a potential enemy, “just try me – make my day”..

  2. Even thought I thought the concept of soft power is interesting and worth wile analyzing it, the article does not attend to what I feel is the core element here, that is the cultural aspct of the concept whitch may allow for a prediction possibility. The US foreig policies, as that of the Romans, is of a “conquering the workd” nature. Since the II World War US has invadeded or in intervene in MSG latinamerican countries, and many middle east countries as well. There is a reason why the American embassies feel frightened. And would say that it should get worst in terms of terrorism against US work presence, but the what I would add is that, in terms of the soft power’s cultural element of impact, internal communication and propaganda for the American general public and the and allied countries of the US is focused on a “We are good democratic country that takes upon the responsibility of freeinthe world”, wile for the rest, the message is “if you don’t do as we say and comply to the capitalis and occidental way of life we might do something about it”. So, as I see it, soft power is about constructing an image based on an ideology, and, in this case, using communication and propaganda (let’s not forget that even Hitler used it and was paised for it at the brining) to send a specific message for the Americans and alikes, and a different one for the rest of the world.

  3. Interesting post. The buildings do create a net impression of alien occupation and defensiveness, which invites interest in potential vulnerabilities and attack. A neighbor who was a Korean War Army Colonel commented to me about the contrast between the U.S. base where he was stationed and the neighboring Turkish base. The U.S. base was very heavily and conspicuously fortified, and received constant nightly harassment from the N. Koreans. The dreaded Turks had no fortification at all, but just a sign over the entrance to their compound that read “An eye for an eye”. They received no harassment at all.

    There’s an unfortunate parallel between the evolution of our embassies and the way we equip our troops. Of course we want to provide them with the best in defensive and offensive gear; they certainly deserve no less. But while doing so, we undermine our objective by creating the net impression of their being more like Star Wars Death Star Storm Trooper droids and less like people – again, inviting action on the part of local people.

    I don’t have a “solution” for this. Seems like the inevitable evolution of least worse choices of an economically and technologically advanced country.

  4. Quite an ridiculous and naive article: As most badly educated American scientists, Nye takes a well known term (soft power), and creates a missunderstanding that of course will be discussed. – The term “soft power” was widely discussed in the 60-ies and wasm not very successful at that time either.
    (1) All “soft power” (if it exists) is 100% based on hard power (military power).
    (2) There is no cultural leadership coming from the US that is not based on wappons

  5. Pingback: Political Theory and History | Pearltrees

  6. Have to agree with Christopher here – soft power isn’t cultural, it’s socio-economic based i.e trade agreements, non-coercive influencing techniques etc

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