The concept of soft power


Soft Power has first to be defined ex negative as apposed to hard power; hard power being the military and economic power every single state has at its disposal to assert itself on the international scene.


Consequently, Soft power would be everything that does not derive from hard power that is an indirect way to exercise power; power being the ability to do things and control others, to get others to do what they otherwise would not. The positive definition of soft power is varying and seems to be a concept yet to be defined. Nevertheless Joseph Nye, a Harvard professor of International Relations and former Assistant Secretary of Defence for International Security Affairs under the Clinton Administration and Chair of the National Intelligence Council, who launched the doctrinal movement of taking the concept of soft power into consideration when analysing world politics, gave numerous definitions of what could be considered as soft power. In short, soft power can be defined, as Nye suggests it, as the ability to get what you want through attraction or cooptation rather than coercion or payment or the capacity to affect the behaviour of others to get to the outcome one wants.


Historical and political context


First risen by US president Carter after the Vietnam defeat in 1975 when recognising the limits of hard power he said that “globalisation is abolishing hard power”, the concept of soft power as elaborated by Joseph Nye is since defined as the ability to get what you want by attracting and persuading others to adopt your goals and follow your will. It differs from hard power, the ability to use the “carrots and sticks” of economic and military power. Whereas hard power is about coercion, soft power is about attraction. The expression “Soft Power” since it was born in the US is still a very US American concept describing the US Foreign policy or what US Foreign policy lacks. In 1990, observing the changes in world’s politics and the worldwide assertion of US Power, Nye emphasises that instead of developing even more hard power, what would strengthen US hegemony would be to rely and develop more soft power, “what is needed is increased investment in "soft power," the complex machinery of interdependence, rather than in "hard power" — that is, expensive new weapons systems.” Indeed, soft power seems to become even more important in a more globalised world since the different political, economic and informational interdependences existing between most of the main countries of the world makes a use of hard power less effective and sometimes contra-productive. Furthermore the multiplication of different actors on the international scene reduces the effectiveness of hard power. How to fight new forms of threats and new arising power when they are difficult to localise? How to maintain the power one already has if the natural tendency is to undermine the existing power if not through soft power?


The factors of soft power: How does soft power reveals itself to us?


If the positive definition of soft power is that difficult to synthesise apart from reducing it to a general affirmation of power through persuasion, it is because soft power takes on different facets. For Nye soft power grows out of both U.S. culture and U.S. policies. From Hollywood to higher education, for him, civil society does far more to present the United States to other peoples than the government does. Hollywood often portrays consumerism, sex and violence, but it also promotes values of individualism, upward mobility and freedom. These values make America attractive to many people overseas. These are the factors that give rise to the US soft power. Those factors are alternatively cultural influence, spread of political, social, cultural values, ideology, the ability of setting a political agenda, the potential of determining a framework of a debate, technology, education, communication, organisational and institutional skills, information, popularity and many other means of convincing and influencing others behaviours, way of life and thinking. The particularity of soft power as opposed to hard power is that one gets the other to do what one wants but without commanding, without using threats or inducements.


The benefits of Soft Power


Soft power since it is not based on coercion is far-reaching in other societies. Identification with the transmitted values becomes far more effective when it is not imposed. Additionally, another benefit of soft power is that unlike military power it costs less than the use of hard power that first needs an important investment before being used and having an effect. In fact soft power as it is indirect power often results from different investments that are made for other purposes than the sole purpose of increasing ones state power. Moreover soft power has the benefit and the effect of multiplying the already reached and existing power. It works as leverage on the whole system.


Goals of Soft Power


So if the aim of soft power is to bring others to follow the US path for instance in a more indirect but far more convincing way its main goal is to create a sense of legitimacy for a nation's international aims. That way soft power make a nation’s power last longer which is eventually the goal of every state that aspires to remain powerful or to become powerful.


Examples of Soft Power


According to Nye soft power always existed, and has been used several times in the past as resource of power for leading entities or states. First it is not surprising that those who used at first the “soft power” where all religious undertaking since soft power is based on a non coercive power, a power of persuasion. Hence the power the pope exerts on the faithful is in essentially soft power. For instance, as Nye points out, some loyal Catholics may follow the pope’s teaching on capital punishment not because of a threat of excommunication but out of respect for its moral authority. But examples in other religion are not less revealing of the use of soft power. In Muslim’s fundamentalism Nye explains that some radical Muslim fundamentalists may be attracted to support Osama bin Laden’s actions not because of payments of threats, but because they believe in the legitimacy of his objectives which is another effect of soft power.

He also refers to ancient political systems that used soft power as one of the basis for their hegemony such as eighteenth century’s France which used culture or nineteenth century’s Great Britain that was relying on the liberal norm. In the twentieth century he gives to examples: the USSR with its communist ideology and United States with its universalistic culture and liberal international regime and trans-national communication. All these powers had where relying partly on soft power to increase their already existing power.

But even smaller countries use soft power to acquire a more powerful position in international politics. Canada, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries as states whose political influence is greater than their hard power would permit. According to Nye the explanation lies in their astute manipulation of soft power.

Today, comparing US Foreign Policy and EU Foreign Policy, if the first are relying more on military hard power and the second more on economic hard power, in both countries a growing number of officials agree that the ultimate mean of convincing other countries to adopt our own values, our political system, framework, and institutions is using soft power.


The Critics of Soft Power


Soft Power has been criticised and its existence even denied particularly by the US secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld who pretended not to know the signification of the concept. Fact is that one of the concept’s limits was revealed when US ambassadors were taken in hostage in Iran: the concept is inefficient when it collides with a system based merely on hard power. That is why the Clinton administration and particularly Anthony Lake, assistant to the president, was proposing to use soft power as long as it is working and then to use hard power, that is to say using soft power to enlarge democracy and using hard power to enforce it. That is why soft power is still regarded if at all as a subsidiary power.


Soft Power in Practice: the US lack of soft power


The Bush administration particularly since the September 11th attacks is very keen on asserting their hard power and using it spending enormous sums in military budget. The two military interventions in Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq in 2003 only reflect the view and convictions of the Bush administration regarding the existence, use, and effectiveness of soft power. However the disputed success of both use of military power reveal with more strength than before the necessity of taking into account soft power as one of the three powers to be used to assert one countries power in world politics.





-         Nye, Joseph S. Jr., “Limits of American Power” in Political Sciences Quarterly, n° 4, vol. 117, winter 2002-2003, p. 545-559.

-         Nye, Joseph S. Jr., “Propaganda isn’t the way: soft power”, in International Herald Tribune, January 10, 2003.

-         Nye, Joseph S. Jr., “Soft Power, The means to success” in World Politics, Public Affairs, 2004.

-         Nye, Joseph S. Jr., “Soft Power” in Foreign Policy, n° 80, autumn 1990, p. 153-171.

-         Nye, Joseph, S. Jr., “The misleading metaphor of decline”, in The Atlantic, March, 1990.

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