6.7.7.3 ‘Soft Power’

‘Soft power’ is a country’s ability to gain international support by being attractive, inviting widespread respect and admiration, rather than by exercising coercion.  Politicians will only choose to help another country if it is respected, because then their decision will be popular in their own countries.

Joseph Nye popularised the use of the term.  In his lecture (cited previously), Soft Power: the Means to Success in World Politics, he explained:

“If you can get others to be attracted, to want what you want, it costs you much less in carrots [such as economic inducements] and sticks [such as military intervention].”

He explained how a country can increase its attractiveness in his book Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics.  In chapter 4, he defined three “dimensions” of what he called “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.”

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 (6.4.2.4).

Lack of soft power can be costly.  In his lecture, Nye 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.”

America has been losing soft power by being inconsistent in choosing when to intervene in the affairs of other countries.  An Economist article, Moral authority, needed and absent, noted that “…the cumulative effect is terrible, chiefly because it looks so selective.  When the West worries about oil, weapons of mass destruction, or terrorism, it finds a high-sounding excuse to do what it wants.  When it can’t be bothered to intervene (Darfur, Zimbabwe, Burma) or has useful but nasty allies (Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan) it pleads realpolitik.  That characterisation is unfair, but many people, particularly in Russia, find it all too convincing.”

Soft power is compatible with a policy of supporting a rules-based world order (6.7.7.2) and, as has already been mentioned, it can be used to exert international moral influence (4.3.5.6).  A country’s soft power is diminished if it loses political legitimacy with its own population (6.3.5.1), or if it breaches human rights (6.3.7), or if it has a coercive foreign policy (6.7.7.1).

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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/6773.htm.