Diplomacy As Coercion
Matt Yglesias points out that most people misuse the term “Soft Power” and seem to think that diplomacy is just a less kinetic coercive tool to be tried before launching air strikes (or something like that).
This is just the wrong way to think about it. The aim of diplomacy in this kind of situation is genuine bargaining aimed at reaching a mutually advantageous agreement. You’re trying to cooperate and realize positive-sum gains, and diplomacy is the process by which those opportunities are identified and exploited. Obviously, such efforts sometimes fail and then maybe you look at coercion, but the diplomatic effort is not, as such, an attempt at coercion. If you think of it as one, you’ll wind up thinking of it as a really shoddy attempt at coercion, and wind up rejecting it out of hand. But making a deal wherein you give someone money in exchange for something you’d rather have than the money it cost to buy doesn’t exist on a continuum with knocking the guy over the head with a sock full of quarters and stealing his stuff — they’re entirely different kinds of interactions.
Indeed, nothing diminishes your soft power quite like hitting someone over the head with a sock full of quarters.
The reason, I think, for the misconception Matt encounters is that most people think of “diplomacy” as a high level interaction rather than a mundane, day-to-day bureaucratic function. We see the big peace treaties, arms deals, and crisis intervention efforts rather than the countless regular interactions between representatives of countries. The former are high stakes and often occur at the brink of war and peace whereas the latter are routine and by and large incredibly successful. But, as with the intelligence community, we seldom hear of the successes of diplomats and always hear of the failures.