The power of many can accomplish more than any one can do alone -- and that distinction is different than the traditional classification of hard and soft power
Protesters wave Egyptian flags in Tahrir Square / AP
Shortly after Egyptian security forces detained well-known Egyptian-American blogger and columnist Mona Eltahawy last Wednesday night in the Egyptian Interior Ministry in Cairo, she managed to tweet five chilling words to her more than 60,000 followers: "beaten arrested in Interior Ministry." Her tweet went out at 8:44 pm Eastern Standard Time (3:44 am in Cairo). At 9:05 pm, I got a direct message on Twitter from the NPR strategist Andy Carvin, who covers English-language social media from Arab protests, telling me of Mona's tweet. After responding to him, I immediately sent an email to my former colleagues at the State Department. Within another hour, I'd heard back and was able to tweet that the U.S. Embassy in Cairo was on the case. Nick Kristof, citing his own contacts at the State Department,, sent out a similar message to his million-plus followers. By then, #FreeMona, a hashtag Carvin had started to help track the disparate efforts to help Mona, was already trending worldwide on Twitter. A few hours later, Mona was free, although with two broken bones and a traumatic story of sexual assault. Maged Butter, an Egyptian blogger who had been arrested with Eltahawy, was also released.
A debate about the role of Twitter and whether or not it helped win Mona's release has already been joined by Andrew Rasiej and Evgeny Morozov. The ever-perceptive and thoughtful Zeynep Tufekci wrote a long post reflecting on the nature of this intervention. Adrija Bose also wrote on the episode at FirstPost, as did Alix Dunn at the Engine Room. I will not join that debate directly here, but the incident provides the perfect hook for a piece that I have been wanting to write for a while about the nature of power.
This past fall, I gave the inaugural Joseph S. Nye lecture at Princeton. Nye is perhaps the world's pre-eminent theorist of power; he coined the term "soft power" for the power of attraction versus "hard power," the power of coercion. (Full disclosure: he's also a mentor and an old friend.) I used the lecture to contrast what I then called bottom-up power to what I argued was Nye's concept of top-down power. But, on reflection, I think "collaborative power" is a better and more accurate term for the phenomenon I am trying to capture.
Nye distinguishes between "resource power" -- resources that can produce outcomes, such as money, territory, etc -- and "relational power," which he defines as "the capacity to do things and in social situations to affect others to get the outcomes we want." Borrowing from various different power theorists and adapting their concepts of power to international relations, Nye then identifies three distinct "faces" of relational power. First is "commanding change": getting people or groups to do things they don't want to do. Second is "controlling agendas": the bureaucrat's favorite ploy of framing "agendas for action that make others' preferences seem irrelevant or out of bounds." And third is "shaping preferences": using "ideas, beliefs, and culture to shape basic beliefs, perceptions and preferences." This is hardly the place to engage Gramsci, Foucault, Giddens, and the many others who have examined the deep social and political structures of power. So, for present purposes, think of how soft power -- the attractive draw of Hollywood movies, American rock music, and the Declaration of Independence -- have shaped preferences around the world.