First Monday

The promise of noöpolitik by David Ronfeldt and John Arquilla

As the information age deepens, a globe–circling realm of the mind is being created — the “noosphere” that Pierre Teilhard de Chardin identified 80 years ago. This will increasingly affect the nature of grand strategy and diplomacy. Traditional realpolitik, which ultimately relies on hard (principally military) power, will give way to the rise of noöpolitik (or noöspolitik), which relies on soft (principally ideational) power. This paper reiterates the authors’ views as initially stated in 1999, then adds an update for inclusion in a forthcoming handbook on public diplomacy. One key finding is that non–state actors — unfortunately, especially Al Qaeda and its affiliates — are using the Internet and other new media to practice noöpolitik more effectively than are state actors, such as the U.S. government. Whose story wins — the essence of noöpolitik — is at stake in the worldwide war of ideas.


Information and the emergence of the noosphere
The emergence of noöpolitik
The way ahead
Postscript (June 2007)



The next big revolution of the information age should occur in the realm of diplomacy. The United States has been undergoing a revolution in business affairs since the 1960s, and has also undertaken a revolution in military affairs (RMA) since the late 1980s. Now the time is ripe for a counterpart “revolution in diplomatic affairs” (RDA):



Information and the emergence of the noosphere

Information has always been important to statecraft. But it is moving from being a subsidiary to becoming an overarching concern — “information” matters more than ever for reasons that did not exist even twenty years ago.

One reason is technological innovation: the growth of a vast new information infrastructure — including not only the Internet, but also cable, cellular, and satellite systems, etc. — in which the balance is shifting from one-to-many broadcast media (e.g., traditional radio and television) to many–to–many interactive media. A huge increase in global interconnectivity is resulting from the ease of entry and access in many nations, and from the growing interests of so many actors in using the new infrastructure for all manner of interactions.

Thus, a second reason is the proliferation of new organizations: vast new arrays of state and non–state organizations are emerging that directly concern information and communications issues. The new organizational ecology is richest in the United States, with NGOs like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) exemplifying the trend. These groups span the political spectrum and have objectives that range from helping people get connected to the Net, to influencing government policies and laws, and advancing particular causes at home or abroad. This trend is spreading around the world, and it is not only the proliferation of individual NGOs but also their interconnection in transnational networks that is raising their influence. As the strength of networked non–state actors grows, the nature of world politics promises to become less state–centric.

A third reason is ideational: a spreading recognition that “information” and “power” are increasingly intertwined. Across all political, economic, and military areas, informational “soft power” (Nye, 1990; Nye and Owens, 1996) is becoming more important, compared to traditional, material “hard power.” This trend may take decades to unfold; and, in the interim, traditional methods of exercising power may remain at the core of international politics. Yet, the rise of soft power provides another reason for attending to the rise of information strategy — power, security, strategy, and diplomacy are increasingly up for redefinition in the information age.

Growth of three information–based realms

As information and communication have come to matter more, so have the realms or domains defined by them. Three that matter most are: cyberspace, the infosphere, and the noosphere. All are about information, and reflect the kinds of technological, organizational, and ideational developments noted above. But each has a different emphasis — and thus significance. They are discussed below in a progression, from the most technological (cyberspace), to the most ideational (the noosphere). Our point is that diplomats should be thinking in terms of the noosphere as much as the other two.

Cyberspace: This, the most common of the terms, refers to the global system of Internet–connected computers, communications infrastructures, online conferencing entities, databases, and information utilities generally known as “the Net.” This mostly means the Internet; but the term may also be used to refer to the electronic environments and critical infrastructures of a corporation, military, government, or other organization. “Strategic information warfare” is largely about assuring “cyberspace security and safety” at home, and developing a capacity to exploit vulnerabilities in systems abroad.

Cyberspace is the fastest growing, newest domain of power and property in the world. The Internet now embraces some 20 million computer hosts, nearly a hundred million users (expected to exceed a billion by the year 2000), and billions if not trillions of dollars worth of activities. Further developing this realm, nationally and globally, is one of the great undertakings of our time.

The term has a more technological bent than infosphere or noosphere. Yet, there has always been a tendency to treat cyberspace as more than technology, from the moment the term was proposed by cyberpunk writer William Gibson (1984), through recent notions of cyberspace as a realm for building “virtual communities” (Rheingold, 1993), creating a “global matrix of minds” (Quarterman, 1990, 1993), and strengthening people’s spiritual bonds around the world (Cobb, 1998). Such views implicitly portend an overlap of cyberspace with the noosphere.

Infosphere: Knowing the limitations of the cyberspace concept, some analysts prefer the term infosphere. Sometimes the two terms are used interchangeably; but when viewed distinctly, the infosphere is far larger than cyberspace — it encompasses the latter, plus information systems that may not be part of “the Net.” In the civilian world, this often includes broadcast, print, and other media (the mediasphere), as well as institutions, like libraries, parts of which are not yet electronic. In the military world, the infosphere may include command, control, computer, communications, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems — the electronic systems said to comprise the “military information environment” of a battlespace.

According to Jeffrey Cooper (1997), the infosphere is emerging, like cyberspace, as a “truly global information infrastructure and environment” in which traditional notions of space and time no longer prevail. The term has merit because it focuses on “information environments,” rather than computerized infrastructures. The term is also favored because it “carries resonances of biosphere” — meaning the infosphere is “a distinct domain built on information, but one intimately related to the rest of a set of nested globes in which we exist simultaneously.” This implicitly entertains a view of the world that partakes of the next concept.

Noosphere: The most abstract — and so far, least favored — of the terms is the noosphere. This term, from the Greek word noos for “the mind,” was coined by French theologian and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in 1925, and spread in posthumous publications in the 1950s and 1960s. In his view, the world first evolved a geosphere, and next a biosphere. Now that people are communing on global scales, the world is giving rise to a noosphere — what he variously describes (1964, 1965) as a globe–circling realm of “the mind,” a “thinking circuit,” a “stupendous thinking machine,” a “thinking envelope” full of fibers and networks, and a planetary “consciousness.” In the words of Julian Huxley [1], the noosphere is a “web of living thought.” [2]

According to Teilhard (1964), forces of the mind have been creating the noosphere for ages. Before long, a synthesis of its pieces will occur in which peoples from different nations, races, and cultures develop minds that are planetary in scope, without losing their personal identities. Fully realized, the noosphere will raise mankind to a high, new evolutionary plane, one driven by a collective devotion to moral and juridical principles. However, the transition may not be smooth; a global tremor and possibly an apocalypse may characterize the final fusion of the noosphere.

The noosphere concept thus encompasses cyberspace and the infosphere. It also relates to an organizational theme that has constantly figured in our own work about the information revolution: the rise of network forms of organization that strengthen civil–society actors. Few state or market actors, by themselves, seem likely to have much interest in fostering the construction of a global noosphere, except in limited areas having to do with international law, or political and economic ideology. The impetus for creating a global noosphere is more likely to emanate from activist NGOs, other civil–society actors (e.g., churches, schools), and individuals dedicated to freedom of information and communications and to the spread of ethical values and norms [3]. We believe it is time for state actors to begin moving in this direction, too, particularly since power in the information age will stem, more than ever before, from the ability of state and market actors to work conjointly with civil–society actors.

Comparisons lead to a preference for the noosphere concept

As the three realms grow, cyberspace will remain the smallest, nested inside the other two. The infosphere is the next largest, and the noosphere encompasses all three (see Figure 1). As one realm grows, so should the others.


Figure 1: Three realms of information

Figure 1: Three realms of information.


In being the most ideational realm, the noosphere has a comparative strength. Cyberspace, the infosphere, and the noosphere are all based on “information” in all its guises, from lowly bits of data to the highest forms of knowledge and wisdom. Thus these realms all amount to information–processing systems. Yet, in being more about ideas than technologies, the noosphere, more than the other realms, also concerns what we call “information structuring” or “structural information” (Arquilla and Ronfeldt, 1997, 1998a). The noosphere, like the mind, is an information–processing and an information–structuring system — and this is an important distinction. The processing view focuses on the transmission of messages as the inputs and outputs of a system. In contrast, the structural view illuminates the goals, values, and practices that an organization or system may embody — what matters to its members from the standpoint of identity, meaning, and purpose, apart from whether any information is really being processed at the time. While the processing view tends to illuminate technology as a critical factor, the structural view is more likely to uphold human and ideational capital.

We believe that strategists should begin attending as much to the dynamics of information structuring as to information processing. Grand strategists rarely ignore the role of values and practices. But this role tends to be downplayed in rhetoric about the information revolution. New concepts can provide a corrective. Adoption of the noosphere concept could help strategists focus on the significance of information structuring, including with regard to the illumination of value–laden conflicts.

The noosphere presents information in terms of an expanding realm where the emphasis is on the ideational and organizational dimensions, without ignoring the technological one. It inclines the analyst and the strategist to think in terms of the roles of ideas, values, and norms, rather than in terms of Internet hosts, Web sites, and baud rates — that is, in terms of structural information rather than in terms of information processing. More to our point, preferring the noosphere concept sets the stage for our second major point: the time is ripening to develop a new approach to diplomacy and strategy, one we call noöpolitik.



The emergence of noöpolitik

By noöpolitik we mean an approach to statecraft, to be undertaken as much by non–state as by state actors, that emphasizes the role of informational soft power in expressing ideas, values, norms, and ethics through all manner of media. This makes it distinct from realpolitik, which stresses the hard, material dimensions of power and treats states as the determinants of world order. Noöpolitik makes sense because knowledge is fast becoming an ever stronger source of power and strategy, in ways that classic realpolitik and internationalism cannot absorb.

In the coming years, diplomats and strategists will be drawn to both realpolitik and noöpolitik. As noöpolitik takes shape and gains adherents, it will serve sometimes as a supplement and complement to realpolitik, and sometimes as a contrasting, rival paradigm for policy and strategy. As time passes and the global noosphere swells, noöpolitik may provide a more relevant paradigm than realpolitik. Noöpolitik has much in common with liberal internationalism, but we anticipate that the latter is a transitional paradigm that can and will be folded into noöpolitik.

Growing strength of global civil society. No doubt, states will remain paramount actors in the international system. The information revolution will lead to changes in the nature of the state, but not to its “withering away.” What will happen is a transformation [4]. At the same time, non–state actors will continue to grow in strength and influence. This has been the trend for several decades with business corporations and international regulatory regimes. The next trend to expect is a gradual worldwide strengthening of transnational NGOs that represent civil society. As this occurs, there will be a rebalancing of relations among state, market, and civil–society actors around the world — in ways that favor noöpolitik over realpolitik [5].

Noöpolitik upholds the importance of non–state actors, especially from civil society, and requires that they play strong roles. Why? NGOs (not to mention individuals) often serve as sources of ethical impulses (which is rarely the case with market actors), as agents for disseminating ideas rapidly, and as nodes in networked apparatuses of “sensory organizations” that can assist with conflict anticipation, prevention, and resolution. Indeed, because of the information revolution, advanced societies are on the threshold of developing a vast sensory apparatus for watching what is happening around the world. This apparatus is not new, because it consists partly of established government intelligence agencies, corporate market–research departments, news media, and opinion–polling firms. What is new is the looming scope and scale of this sensory apparatus, as it increasingly includes networks of NGOs and individual activists who monitor and report on what they see in all sorts of issue areas, using open forums, specialized Internet mailing lists, Web postings, and fax machine ladders as tools for rapid dissemination. For example, using these tools to provide early warning about crisis is a burgeoning area of attention and development among disaster–relief and humanitarian organizations. might be said that the information revolution is impelling a shift from a state–centric to a network–centric world ...

Against this background, the states that emerge strongest in information–age terms — even if by traditional measures they may appear to be smaller, less powerful states — are likely to be the states that learn to work conjointly with the new generation of non–state actors. Strength may thus emanate less from the “state” per se than from the “system” as a whole. And this may mean placing a premium on state–society coordination, including the toleration of “citizen diplomacy” and the creation of “deep coalitions” between state and civil–society actors (latter term from Toffler and Toffler, 1997). In that sense, it might be said that the information revolution is impelling a shift from a state–centric to a network–centric world (which would parallel a potential shift in the military world from traditional “platform–centric” to emerging “network–centric” approaches to warfare) [6].

This is quite acceptable to noöpolitik. While realpolitik remains steadfastly imbued with notions of control, noöpolitik is less about control than “decontrol” — perhaps deliberate, regulated decontrol — so that state actors can better adapt to the emergence of independent non–state actors and learn to work with them through new mechanisms for communication and coordination. Realpolitik would lean toward an essentially mercantilist approach to information as it once did toward commerce; noöpolitik is not mercantilist by nature.

Proponents of realpolitik would probably prefer to stick with treating information as an adjunct of the standard political, military, and economic elements of diplomacy and grand strategy; the very idea of intangible information as a basis for a distinct dimension of statecraft seems antithetical to realpolitik. Realpolitik allows for information strategy as a tool of propaganda, deception, and manipulation, but seems averse to accepting “knowledge projection” as amounting to a true tool of statecraft. However, for noöpolitik to take hold, information will have to become a distinct dimension of grand strategy. The rise of soft power is essential for the emergence of the second path, and thus of noöpolitik.

Without the emergence — and deliberate construction — of a massive, well–recognized noosphere, there will be little hope of sustaining the notion that the world is moving to a new system in which “power” is understood mainly in terms of knowledge, and that diplomats and other actors should focus on the “balance of knowledge,” as distinct from the “balance of power.”

What would a full–fledged noosphere encompass? What ideas, values, and norms — what principles, practices, and rules — should it embody? We presume that these would include much that America stands for: openness, freedom, democracy, the rule of law, humane behavior, respect for human rights, a preference for peaceful conflict resolution, etc. The growth of the noosphere will depend not only on increased flows of ideas and ideals, but also on growth in the stocks of ideas and ideals to which people subscribe. In addition, a noosphere may have to have complex organizational and technological bases to support its ideational essence.

Mutual relationship between realpolitik and noöpolitik

Realpolitik, no matter how modified, cannot be transformed into noöpolitik. The two stand in contradiction. This is largely because of the uncompromisingly state–centric nature of realpolitik. It is also because, for an actor to shift the emphasis of its statecraft from realpolitik to noöpolitik, there must be a shift from power–maximizing politics to power–sharing politics. Nonetheless, the contradiction is not absolute; it can, in theory and practice, be made a compatible contradiction (rather like yin and yang). Indeed, true realpolitik depends on the players sharing and responding to some core behavioral values — a bit of noöpolitik may thus lie at the heart of realpolitik [7]. Likewise, true noöpolitik may work best if it accords with power politics — however, this perspective should be less about might makes right, than about right makes might [8]. Understanding this may help in persevering through the transitional period in which realpolitik and noöpolitik are likely to coexist.

The point we draw for noöpolitik, however, is that this kind of world requires governments to learn to work conjointly with civil–society NGOs that are engaged in building transnational networks and coalitions. Even a geopolitical strategist as traditional as Zbigniew Brzezinski realizes this. After treating the world as a “chessboard” to be mastered through statist realpolitik, he turns to postulate that efforts to build a new transnational structure for assuring peace would have the

“advantage of benefiting from the new web of global linkages that is growing exponentially outside the more traditional nation–state system. That web — woven by multinational corporations, NGOs (non–governmental organizations, with many of them transnational in character) and scientific communities and reinforced by the Internet — already creates an informal global system that is inherently congenial to more institutionalized and inclusive global cooperation.” [9]

Noöpolitik is guided more by a conviction that right makes for might, than the obverse.

In his view, the United States should work for the creation of such linkages because we are the only ones who can pull this off. Even if U.S. primacy were ultimately to wither away — which is likely in his view — this web of linkages would remain “a fitting legacy of America’s role as the first, only, and last truly global superpower.”

The advance of noöpolitik

In sum, noöpolitik is an approach to diplomacy and strategy for the information age that emphasizes the shaping and sharing of ideas, values, norms, laws, and ethics through soft power. Noöpolitik is guided more by a conviction that right makes for might, than the obverse. Both state and non–state actors may be guided by noöpolitik; but rather than being state–centric, its strength may well stem from enabling state and non–state actors to work conjointly. The driving motivation of noöpolitik cannot be national interests defined in statist terms. National interests will still play a role, but should be defined more in society–wide than state–centric terms and be fused with broader, even global, interests in enhancing the transnationally networked “fabric” in which the players are embedded. While realpolitik tends to empower states, noöpolitik will likely empower networks of state and non–state actors. Realpolitik pits one state against another, but noöpolitik encourages states to cooperate in coalitions and other mutual frameworks. In all these respects, noöpolitik contrasts with realpolitik. Table 1 summarizes some of the contrasts discussed in this paper.


Table 1: Contrast between realpolitik and noöpolitik.
States as the unit of analysisNodes, non–state actors
Primacy of hard power (resources, etc.)Primacy of soft power
Power politics as zero–sum gameWin–win, lose–lose possible
System is anarchic, highly conflictualHarmony of interests, cooperation
Alliance conditional (oriented to threat)Ally webs vital to security
Primacy of national self–interestPrimacy of shared interests
Politics as unending quest for advantageExplicitly seeking a telos
Ethos is amoral, if not immoralEthics crucially important
Behavior driven by threat and powerCommon goals drive actors
Very guarded about information flowsPropensity for info–sharing
Balance of power as the “steady–state”Balance of responsibilities
Power embedded in nation–statesPower in “global fabric”


Kissinger may be said to epitomize the zeitgeist and practice of realpolitik. Who may stand for the zeitgeist of noöpolitik? One name that comes to mind is George Kennan. His original notion of containment was not essentially military. Rather, it was centered on the idea of creating a community of interests, based on shared ideals, that would secure the free world, while dissuading the Soviet Union from aggression, and eventually persuading it to change. This seems an early expression of noöpolitik, geared to a state–centric system. Today, leaders like Nelson Mandela and George Soros, not to mention a host of less renowned individuals who have played leading roles in civil–society activist movements, reflect the emergence of noöpolitik.

Some of the best exemplars of its emergence involve “social netwars” waged by civil–society activists. (Netwar is an information–age entry on the spectrum of conflict that is defined by the use of network forms of organization, doctrine, and strategy, made possible by the information revolution.) [10] While all–out military wars, such as World Wars I and II, represent the conflictual heights (and failures?) of realpolitik, non–military netwars may prove the archetypal conflicts of noöpolitik. The Nobel prize–winning campaign to ban land mines [11]; NGO–led opposition to the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) [12]; the Greenpeace–led campaign against French nuclear testing in the South Pacific; the swarming of transnational NGOs in defense of the Zapatista insurgents in Mexico [13]; and, recent information–age efforts by Burmese and Chinese dissidents, with support from U.S.–based NGOs, to press for human rights and political reforms in these countries all exemplify how transnational civil–society networks, in some cases with strong support from states, can practice noöpolitik, with varying degrees of success, to change the policies of states that persist in emphasizing the traditional politics of power.

These cases substantiate that the practice of noöpolitik is already emerging, and that traditional ideas about “peace through strength” may give way to new ideas of “peace through knowledge.” These cases also show that ideas themselves, particularly ones with deep ethical appeal, may be fused with new communications technologies and organizational designs to create a new model of power and diplomacy that governments will increasingly encounter and have to heed. Activist NGOs, perhaps because they lack the resources for realpolitik, appear to be ahead of states in having the motivation and ability to apply noöpolitik and to seek the construction of a global noosphere.

Yet what if states, or other actors, regard noöpolitik as attractive, without caring about the emergence and construction of the noosphere? In the hands of a democratic leader, noöpolitik might then amount to little more than airy, idealistic rhetoric with little or no structural basis; while, in the hands of a dictator or a demagogue, it could be reduced to manipulative propaganda and perception–management campaigns. Or narrow versions of noöpolitik might be attempted for private gain: in the commercial worlds of advertising and public relations, this already occurs when companies develop media blitzes and plant testimonials to “spin” public opinion. These are among the risks that may have to be faced.



The way ahead

If an American RDA gets underway, diplomats will find themselves having to focus on how best to develop the noosphere and conduct noöpolitik. Much as the rise of realpolitik depended on the development and exploitation of the geosphere (whose natural resources enhance state power), so will the rise of noöpolitik depend on the development and exploitation of the noosphere. The two go hand in hand. To pursue this, measures will have to be identified that, in addition to fostering the rise of a noosphere, are geared to facilitating the effectiveness of soft power, the deepening of global interconnections, the strengthening of transnational civil–society actors, and the creation of conditions for governments to be better able to act conjointly (in terms of cooperative advantages), especially with non–state actors.

In another writing (Arquilla and Ronfeldt, 1999), we note some measures for U.S. policy and strategy that could assist with the development of the noosphere and noöpolitik. All are taken from ongoing discussions about issues raised by the advance of the information revolution — and diplomats would be well advised to take an interest in them. These measures include the following:

These are just some preliminary ideas. Ultimately, there will be much more to developing the noosphere and noöpolitik than just asserting, sharing, and instituting the particular values, norms, ethics, laws, and other ingredients of soft power that an actor wants to uphold. Specific policies, strategies, and mechanisms will have to be elaborated that make noöpolitik significantly different from and more effective than realpolitik in dealing with issues that may range from “democratic enlargement,” to the pressuring of regimes like those in Iraq, North Korea, and the Balkans, to the resolution of global environmental and human rights issues. Skillful diplomats and strategists are bound to face choices as to when it is better to emphasize realpolitik or noöpolitik, or as to how best to alternate between them or apply hybrids, especially when dealing with a recalcitrant adversary who has been able to resist realpolitik types of pressures.

What may turn out to matter for all parties — the advocates and their audiences and adversaries — is the “story” being told, implicitly or explicitly. Realpolitik is typically about whose military or economy wins. Noöpolitik may ultimately be about whose story wins.



Postscript (June 2007)

That was what we wrote about noöpolitik and its prospects in 1999, shortly after we introduced the idea a decade ago [18]. Today, it still seems to be an idea for the future. Traditional power politics has continued to provide the primary basis for American foreign policy in the years since 9/11. There may indeed be a worldwide “war of ideas” underway, but it is not being waged in a manner reflective of the noöpolitik paradigm — not even in pursuit of a global alliance against the scourge of terrorism. Instead, the military invasions and coercive diplomacy of the past several years imply the persistent primacy of older forms of statecraft.

Our quick review of developments over the last decade leaves us optimistic about the long–term promise of noöpolitik, but disconcerted about ongoing trends. For this Postscript, we focus on making the following four points:

Spreading notions: Noöpolitik, cyberpolitik, netpolitik, infopolitik

We are not alone in proposing that the information age will affect grand strategy and diplomacy so thoroughly that a new concept will emerge. According to David Rothkopf [19], “the realpolitik of the new era is cyberpolitik, in which the actors are no longer just states, and raw power can be countered or fortified by information power.” David Bollier [20] favors Netpolitik to name “a new style of diplomacy that seeks to exploit the powerful capabilities of the Internet to shape politics, culture, values, and personal identity.” [21] Europeans prefer infopolitik as the best term for a new era of public diplomacy based on “proactive international communication” and “the projection of free and unbiased information.” [22]

At the time, we considered and rejected such alternative terms because we wanted the focus to be on the noosphere, not cyberspace or the Internet. And we wanted a term whose connotation would be ideational, not technological, in keeping with the nature of Teilhard de Chardin’s original noosphere concept. Moreover, we still think that yet another term with “cyber–” or “info–” or “net–” as the prefix will not stand the test of time. So far, it remains to be seen whether noöpolitik (or if you prefer, noöspolitik) will fare best over the long run.

In any case, similar trends lie behind all our expositions. Noöpolitik — or cyberpolitik, netpolitik, or infopolitik — makes sense because of expansions underway in the fabric of global interconnections, the influence of activist NGOs that represent civil society, the appeal of “cooperative advantages,” [23] and the relevance of soft power, all due in part to the new information and communications technologies.

These trends do not spell the obsolescence of realpolitik, but they are at odds with it. To a lesser degree, they are also at odds with tenets of realpolitik’s main alternative to date: liberal internationalism. Trying to bridge the gap by calling for a modified realpolitik — for example, an “ethical realpolitik” or “principled realism” (e.g., Maynes, 1997) — misses the point that a paradigm shift is looming. Besides, realpolitik was never necessarily unethical, any more than noöpolitik is inherently a tool only for the ethical.

Soft power: Still lacking operational clarity

The underlying concept that has indeed taken hold these past ten years is “soft power” (Nye, 1990, 2004; Nye and Owens, 1996). So much so, it has perhaps delayed the appeal of terms like noöpolitik, even though they too seek the strategic, systematic application of suasive rather than coercive power.

Soft power depends on the articulation of appealing values, ethics, and exemplary achievements. Thus, standard descriptions of soft power are normally upbeat, even moralistic. However, from our noöpolitik perspective, the soft–power concept needs further clarification and refinement, particularly in two regards [24].

First, the concept depends on making a distinction between hard and soft power. Is that distinction mainly about military versus non–military power? If so, then trade and investment are aspects of soft power. Or should the distinction be about material versus immaterial (i.e., ideational) modes of power? Physical trade and investment then pertain to hard power, and the ideas and images behind them to soft power. We think that the latter is the correct view, in keeping with the noosphere concept. Besides, there are aspects of military doctrine — such as what constitutes a “just war” and what may be the best role for cohesive psychological operations — that pertain to soft power and noöpolitik.

But in fact, soft power is not simply about beckoning in a nice way. It can be wielded in a tough, heavy, even dark manner ...

Second, standard presentations tend to portray soft power as “good” and hard power as “bad,” or at least mean–spirited. Thus, soft power is said to be mainly about ethical attraction, and to offer a third way for strategy and diplomacy beyond the usual two: sticks and carrots. But in fact, soft power is not simply about beckoning in a nice way. It can be wielded in a tough, heavy, even dark manner too, for example through messages to warn, embarrass, denounce, shun, or repel a targeted actor [25]. Moreover, soft power does not necessarily favor good guys; malevolent leaders — say a Hitler or a Bin Laden — may also prove eager and adept at wielding soft power and noöpolitik, on behalf of their own professed ideals. In fact, this is perhaps the most serious problem confronting American public diplomacy today.

Challenges from rival noospheres and noöpolitiks

Activist NGOs who represent global civil society and depend on soft power have become major practitioners of noöpolitik — even if by another name — in areas such as human rights, democracy promotion, and the environment. Their leaders sense that old–fashioned, state–centric power politics is giving ground. And in one new “social netwar” [26] after another around the world since the 1990s, noöpolitik is becoming a principal NGO strategy for pressing governments and corporations to adopt beneficent reforms.

Elsewhere, however, a strong partisan effort to build a noosphere and practice noöpolitik is coming from Islamic jihadis, notably the terrorists and other extremists associated with Al Qaeda and its affiliates. They have created a vast, detailed online presence [27], linked to a real–world presence in particular mosques and other centers of activity, that is tantamount to a globe–spanning realm of the mind. It upholds a set of spiritual values and ethics; it fosters a kindred community of believers (what Moslems call the umma); it is globally distributed and guardedly open; and it instructs adherents how to think and act.

But this jihadi noosphere is angrily, narrowly, even brutally tribal in nature, as is the noöpolitik that accompanies it through the projection of images, fatwas, interviews, and stories [28]. These enable the jihadis to foment divisions between “us” and “them,” claim sacredness solely for their own ends, demonize and intimidate others, view their every kin (man, woman, child, combatant or noncombatant) as innately guilty, revel in codes of revenge, entice and radicalize recruits, instruct as well as celebrate violence of the darkest kinds, call for territorial and spiritual conquests, and suppress moderates. The language is often religious in tone, but the stakes reduce, above all, to the exaltation of ancient tribal notions of honor, pride, dignity, and respect [29].

This is not the kind of ecumenical, ethical noosphere that Teilhard envisioned [30], nor the noöpolitik that we have had in mind. Moreover, the jihadis attempt to employ noöpolitik for such dark purposes may ultimately be their Achilles’ Heel, since the vast majority of the world’s Muslims reject their doctrines of violent extremism. Yet, the jihadis’ impressive advances in building their version of a noosphere and applying noöpolitik heightens the significance of both concepts. This is yet another reason why American strategists and diplomats should take noöpolitik seriously — it is being used against us. As Newton Minow [31] has warned:

“In virtually every case, those whose rule is based on an ideology of hate have understood better than we have the power of ideas and the power of communicating ideas.”

American public diplomacy: Awaiting new directions [32]

At this strategic moment, when it is advisable for U.S. public diplomacy to head in the direction of noöpolitik, conditions are not ripe for doing so. They were favorable when we proposed the concept last decade, but they have turned rather contrary to its promise this decade. It may be a while before propitious conditions re–emerge.

As America’s soft power rises and falls, so do the prospects for noöpolitik. And right now, America’s soft power is unusually questionable. America has long stood for vital ideals — freedom, equality, opportunity. America has also stood for ethical ways of doing things: competing openly and fairly, working in concert with partners, seeking the common good, respecting others’ rights, and resorting to war only after exhausting non–military options. By doing so, America built its legitimacy and credibility as a global power in the twentieth century. But lately, due to assorted sorry matters this decade (some but not all involving the war in Iraq), leaders and publics around the world have become increasingly doubtful that America is deeply dedicated to the ideals and practices it professes. U.S. public diplomacy is on the defensive more than ever before. Oddly, China is said to be more effective at soft–power appeals and techniques [33].

What would reinvigorate the prospects for noöpolitik? Renewal of a clear intent to favor non–military strategies, operate in partnerships, and abide by stringent ethical standards would surely help. Yet, whatever other answers should be added [34], the key may well be revitalization of a deep sense that ideas matter, along with a better grasp of how ideas move people to think and act in strategic ways — more along the lines of the complex efforts made during the cold war than the simplifications seen this decade. And by this, we mean ideas expressed through actions as well as words, including what the U.S. State Department has begun to call “the diplomacy of deeds.”

The point to which we keep returning is that noöpolitik is ultimately about whose story wins. Al Qaeda and its affiliates have malign intent, but their measures fit their grand narrative about the need to diminish the shadow cast by American power across the Muslim world. In contrast, the U.S. government and its allies remain less successful at fielding a fitting narrative. American ideals, far from serving as a beacon to others — as in President Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” strategy [35] — have been obscured by the controversial invasion and occupation of Iraq and by troubling images of destructive war–making and maltreatment of detainees and non–combatants. These events have undermined the preferred American story about fostering a peaceful, prosperous, civilized, democratic world in which all nations are bound together by shared values, dedicated to extirpating the scourge of transnational terror.

There is an urgent reason to revive the prospects for noöpolitik: A worldwide war of ideas is underway, maybe several wars. The most evident one ... has spiritual, religious, ideological, philosophical, and cultural aspects; and much of it is taking place on the Internet.

New thinking about information strategy and strategic communication is occurring in official circles. But in too many instances, what has been put into practice seems to emphasize perception management, information operations, and propaganda more than the arts of public diplomacy. If noöpolitik is to be developed, this imbalance must be corrected. American public diplomacy is too precious to let it be viewed as an exercise in marketing and manipulation, sound–bites and slogans [36].

There is an urgent reason to revive the prospects for noöpolitik: A worldwide war of ideas is underway, maybe several wars. The most evident one — which extends far beyond Al Qaeda — has spiritual, religious, ideological, philosophical, and cultural aspects; and much of it is taking place on the Internet. In such a war of ideas, one’s information posture matters as much as one’s military posture. And at this point, America’s information posture does not appear to be well designed.

This poses quite a challenge for information strategy, a concept that calls for knowing the enemy, shaping public consciousness, and crafting persuasive messages for friend and foe alike. It is about getting the contents of those messages right, while finding the best conduits. It is about deploying inviting, meaningful narratives to win the battle of the story. And it is about doing all this in ways that make soft power work better than hard power, so that information–age noöpolitik finally begins to outperform traditional realpolitik. End of article


About the authors

David Ronfeldt is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, on leave. John Arquilla is a Professor of Defense Analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School. They have published in First Monday several times before. Comments may be e–mailed to ronfeldt [at] rand [dot] org and jarquilla [at] nps [dot] edu.


About this paper

This paper was prepared for publication in Snow and Taylor (in 2008). Most of the text is condensed from Ronfeldt and Arquilla (1999), which in turn drew from Arquilla and Ronfeldt (1997, Ch. 19, 1998b, 1999). Those writings discuss at greater length our early views about the prospects for noöpolitik. Here, only the Postscript is new. The paper was prepared by the authors on their own, and represents their views only.



We thank Nancy Snow for her editorial assistance with condensing the text for this paper. We thank Bruce Berkowitz and Bruce Gregory for offering illuminating comments. We also thank the U.S. Institute for Peace (USIP), notably Sheryl Brown and Margarita Studemeister, for publishing the 1999 version of this paper in USIP’s Virtual Diplomacy Initiative series.



1. In Teilhard, 1965, p. 18.

2. Readers who want to learn more about Teilhard’s ideas, without struggling through his writings, can find sympathetic overviews in Cobb (1998) and Wright (1989, pp. 258–274). There are also many valuable writings — for example, in parts of Bateson (1972), Capra (1996), Castells (1996, 1997), and Dertouzos (1997) — that contain expositions about the rise of forces of the mind around the world, but without explicitly discussing Teilhard or the concept of the noosphere. [In this vein, First Monday readers are also advised to see Bauwens (1996) and Raymond (1998).]

3. On this point, see Boulding (1988, 1993) and Frederick (1993a, 1993b).

4. There is an ongoing debate about the implications of the information revolution for the future of the state. Our own view is summarized rather than elaborated here. Some reasons for our view, and literature citations, are provided in Arquilla and Ronfeldt (1996b, 1997, Ch. 19) and Ronfeldt (1996). Also see Sassen (1998, Ch. 10) and Skolnikoff (1993).

5. For elaboration, and citations to the literature, see Arquilla and Ronfeldt (1996) and Ronfeldt (1996). For an early elucidation of the concept of “global civil society,” see Frederick (1993a, 1993b). For recent statements, see Clark, et al. (1998), Sassen (1998, Ch. 9), Simmons (1998), and Slaughter (1997).

6. The phrase “network–centric” is from discussions about whether future military operations should be “platform–centric” or “network–centric.” See Cebrowski and Garstka (1998).

7. See Morgenthau, 1948, pp. 224–231.

8. The point about letting right make might has a long history. In America, this includes a statement by President Abraham Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address: “Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.” Gompert (1998) also reflects this point.

9. Brzezinski, 1997, p. 215.

10. The concept is from Arquilla and Ronfeldt (1996, 1997).

11. For an academic analysis of this movement that treats moral suasion and organizational networking as important factors in the growth of transnational civil society, see Price (1998).

12. Kobrin (1998) views this opposition to the MAI as a “clash of globalizations” — between the type of globalization favored by investors, and a newer type represented by electronically networked global civil society actors who oppose economic globalization.

13. On the Zapatista movement in Mexico, see Cleaver (1998) and Ronfeldt, et al. (1998).

14. See Kedzie (1997) for the argument that communication, interconnection, and democracy reinforce each other.

15. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has a right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” But this is not enough. Activists on the left have drafted a “Peoples Communications Charter” (see Something along these lines, made suitable for people across the political spectrum, seems essential for the evolution of a global noosphere. This point, with variations, has adherents in Japan, as well as in America and Europe. For example, Kumon and Aizu (1993, p. 318) write: “[T]he emergence of hypernetwork society will require not only physical/technical infrastructure but also a wide range of new social agreements binding the infostructure that is the social/human network. We propose that the core of such infostructure will be ‘information rights,’ a new concept of human rights that will supplement, and in part replace, property rights that have been widely accepted in modern industrial society.” Also see Frederick (1993a, 1993b). On the related matter of allowing freedom of encryption, see Dyson (1997). [For an update on this important matter, see McIver, et al. (2003).].

16. This point is from work by RAND colleague Robert H. Anderson.

17. For related ideas, also see De Caro (1996), Metzl (1997), and Toffler and Toffler (1993). An earlier idea, fielded by Anderson and Shapiro (1992), is that of creating “deployable local networks to reduce conflict,” which could be rushed into conflict situations in the expectation that increased communications may foster conflict resolution. Still earlier, Keohane (1984, p. 121) proposed that “data sovereignty,” if it could be established, would ease environmental debates.

18. See the authors’ note About This Paper.

19. Rothkopf, 1998, p. 326.

20. Bollier, 2003, p. 2.

21. USIP’s productive “Virtual Diplomacy Initiative” favored the terms Netpolitik and Netdiplomacy. See the posting and related links at

22. Fiske de Gouveia, 2005, pp. 8–9.

23. Golden (1993, p. 103) remains a seminal reference: “From this network perspective, national strategy will depend less on confrontation with opponents and more on the art of cooperation with competitors.” For a similar analysis from the business world, see Brandenburger and Nalebuff (1997).

24. An interview with Nye (2006) indicates overlap between his views and ours in these regards. He recognizes that military power may have soft aspects, and that malevolent leaders may use soft power. It remains our view, however, that pegging the definition of soft power entirely to attraction, as a third way, is not quite correct.

25. We elaborate on this in Arquilla and Ronfeldt (2001, Ch. 10, esp. pp. 347–352 and Fig. 10.1).

26. While the 1999 version of this paper refers briefly to the concept of netwar, we direct the reader to recent elaborations, notably Arquilla and Ronfeldt (2000) and Ronfeldt and Arquilla (2001). For varied views of the concept of social netwar, see Cleaver (2006), McLaughlin (2003), and Rheingold (2002).

27. There is ample documentation in, for example, Kohlmann (2006) and Weimann (2006). For a broader understanding, one reader recommends Devji (2005).

28. A look at Vlahos (2003), Casebeer and Russell (2005), McFate (2005), Packer (2006), Jenkins (2006), Gompert (2007), and Arquilla and Borer (2007), not to mention earlier studies about information operations in Serbia and Kosovo, shows that strategists are learning how to dissect and counter viral narratives used by terrorists and insurgents. But it remains an ongoing challenge.

29. For elaboration, see Ronfeldt (2005, 2006). Also see Kennon (2000).

30. We do not mean for the idea of the noosphere to depend solely on Teilhard. Significant nineteenth century precursors are Hegel’s idea of the “objective Spirit” and Emerson’s notion of the “Over–Soul.” A modern element is Dawkins’ (1989) idea of the information–laden meme as a driver of cultural evolution: “Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain” (p. 192).

31. Minow, 2003, p. 10.

32. For background about the rise of public diplomacy, see Manheim (1994). For analysis of its future potential under various scenarios, see Henrikson (2006). Both observe how the focus of public diplomacy is shifting from state–to–state to society–to–society relations.

33. On China, see Kurlantzick (2007).

34. For additional ideas, see other chapters in Snow and Taylor (in 2008). Also see Gregory (2007). They clarify the meaning of such terms as information strategy, strategic communication, public affairs, public diplomacy, perception management, and information operations.

35. For a survey of the concepts that guided Reagan’s quest to end the cold war, see Arquilla (2006).

36. We agree with Wolf and Rosen (2004, p. 22): “It should not be assumed, as it sometimes has been, that skills, techniques, and tactics that have been effective in marketing private goods will be applicable to and effective in promoting public goods.”



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Editorial history

Paper received 18 June 2007; accepted 20 July 2007.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2007, First Monday.

Copyright ©2007, David Ronfeldt and John Arquilla.

The promise of noöpolitik by David Ronfeldt and John Arquilla
First Monday, volume 12, number 8 (August 2007),