Men, step aside: tackling terrorism is women's work
If persuasion, attraction and understanding are the new arts of power, then the future looks profoundly female
In the barren, brutal knockabout of British parliamentary politics, to be called "soft" on anything is clearly one of the worst schoolyard curses. John Reid has proven his hard credentials in the debate about "soft" sentencing (practised by "soft" judges), by promising tough sentences for even minor crimes. Another opportunity, no doubt, for Tony Blair to taunt David Cameron on a willingness to "talk tough" about the issue, but "act soft" when voting.
But it's by no means clear that the charge of "being soft" in public and political life is always going to be read negatively. Cameron commanded headlines for championing his "soft" offensive - asking us to "show love" to hoodies. "Soft-focus conservatism" may be the critique on the lips of commentators, but the polls show it's having an effect on potential voters.
Yet "soft" might not always mean fuzzy, warm and yielding. For over a decade, the political analyst Joseph Nye has been proposing "soft power" as an alternative US foreign policy - in his words, "the ability to get what you want by attracting and persuading others to adopt your goals. It differs from hard power, the ability to use the carrots and sticks of economic and military might to make others follow your will." When Condoleezza Rice explicitly invoked soft power in the US's new approach to Iran, it seemed to signal that attraction and persuasion were being added (or restored) to the political toolkit of the west. But as the crisis in Lebanon demonstrates, when conflict erupts into zero-sum violence, it takes a different kind of courage to persist with these new tools over the familiar hard-power options.
There is an interesting ambivalence around the appearance of softness as a positive element in both national and international politics. Just as Nye's soft power is easy to perceive as mere entryism for the longer-term goal of US global imperialism, so Cameron's soft values could be seen as a pitch for the female vote and the growing green constituency.
Yet, given that the issue which has most damaged Blair's leadership has been his use of hard power in Iraq, might soft power be a concept worth developing and championing? The politics that Cameron represents is trying (however cynically) to resonate with a form of soft power that existed long before the advent of policy wonks: that is, the power of the feminine itself. Could the empathy, relatedness and horizontal responsiveness that so marks a female approach to the world - call it soft, if you like - be a new and distinct input into political change and reform?
This goes beyond the traditional feminist case against patriarchy, and into positive examples of current female leadership, particularly outside the west. When Lu Hsiu-lien, vice-president of Taiwan, published her book on soft power in May, she began by saying: "The concept is not difficult to understand; yet very few leaders to date have put this concept into practice." Might this be because softness is a complex, feminine quality? And because politics is still dominated by men?
According to Lu: "Soft power consists of five key elements: human rights, democracy, peace, love and technological progress, which are intimately intertwined. It contrasts sharply with exploitative materialism and aggressive militarism. Hard power, with its heartless and mechanical nature, ignores humane values and misleads nations toward the over-centralisation of state power and even military hegemony. It is aggressive and destructive. Soft power, in contrast, makes use of mercy and wisdom to fight against corruption, poverty and injustice."
Lu, a Buddhist, is not afraid to use words like love, peace and beauty as legitimate goals for society. "At the heart of each of Taiwan's success stories," she writes, "lies the human spirit." She knows - and a growing body of scholarship on wellbeing backs her up - that tools such as psychological, emotional and spiritual intelligence build cohesive and integrated societies.
Such "soft" knowledge is also crucial to the diplomatic and conflict-resolution skills required in our fissile world. For this reason, as Scilla Elworthy's recent Demos report notes, tackling terrorism is women's work. Is it the severe lack of women in Middle East politics that allows such devastating violence to occur? In the west, three decades of research into public policy shows that the leading presence of women makes for "broader social legislation, benefiting everyone", says Marie Wilson of the White House Project.
The prospect of a "feminised" soft power counters an image of women as a passive and indecisive audience, merely reacting to the combative postures of male politicians. A new narrative around the power of women is certainly needed. Today's third wave of feminism is faltering in the face of retro movements (such as raunch culture) that equate freedom with liberation from self-respect.
For women who want to transform their societies, the advent of soft power is a real opportunity. If persuasion, attraction and understanding are the new arts of power, then the future is more profoundly female than we could ever have imagined.
· Indra Adnan is director of New Integrity and is writing a book on women and soft power