‘Soft Power’

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at http://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/6773.htm)

It is possible to pursue a policy of persuasion, in preference to either coercion or competition.  What Joseph Nye calls ‘soft power’ is the use of what he calls “public diplomacy” to be attractive to other countries in pursuit of a political agenda:

“If you can get others to be attracted, to want what you want, it costs you much less in carrots and sticks.”[1]

He defined three “dimensions” of “public diplomacy”:

“The first and most immediate dimension is daily communications, which involves explaining the context of domestic and foreign policy decisions.

…The second dimension is strategic communication, in a set of simple themes …, much like what occurs in a political or advertising campaign.  The campaign plans symbolic events and communications over the course of a year to reinforce the central themes, or to advance a particular government policy.

The third stage of public diplomacy is the development of lasting relationships with key individuals over many years through scholarships, exchanges, training, seminars, conferences, and access to media channels.”[2]

All of these activities can be supported with government funding.  Propaganda, which corresponds to Nye’s ‘second dimension’, has been used ever since the invention of the printing press – but has now acquired a much greater potency with the Internet and social media (

Soft power is compatible with a policy of supporting a rules-based world order ( and, as has already been mentioned, it can be used to exert international moral influence (  A country’s soft power is diminished if it loses political legitimacy with its own population (, or if it breaches human rights (6.3.7), or if it has a coercive foreign policy (

© PatternsofPower.org, 2014



[1] Joseph Nye gave a lecture, cited previously, on 13 April 2004 entitled Soft Power: the Means to Success in World Politics (which is the title of the book that he was launching); he made the quoted comment, about costing less “in carrots and sticks”, in a context where he had described the use of economic inducements as being the “carrots” and the use of military force as being the “sticks”.

He cited the example of Turkish refusal to let American troops cross its territory when invading Iraq in 2003, “because the United States had become so unpopular, its policies perceived as so illegitimate, that they were not willing to allow the transfer of troops across the country”.  The delay was costly.  “Neglect of soft power had a definite negative effect on hard power.”

The transcript of this lecture was available in April 2018 at http://www.carnegiecouncil.org/studio/multimedia/20040413/index.html#section-10815.

[2] These excerpts are taken from Joseph Nye’s book Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics.  Chapter 4 is entitled Wielding Soft Power; the quoted passages appear on pp.  9-10 of a PDF version available in April 2018 at http://belfercenter.hks.harvard.edu/files/joe_nye_wielding_soft_power.pdf.

Nye cites public service broadcasting in foreign languages as an example of his first dimension of public diplomacy, and argues that America should spend more on the Voice of America channel.

He mentions the difficulty of maintaining consistent “advertising” themes in his second dimension:

“For example, in the 1990s while the British Council heavily promoted Britain as a modern, multiethnic and creative island, another government agency, the British Tourist Authority, was busily advertising British tradition, ceremony, and history.”