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Whatever happened to soft power?

Jan 11,2022 - Last updated at Jan 11,2022

CAMBRIDGE  —  As 2021 drew to a close, Russia had massed troops near its border with Ukraine; China had flown military jets near Taiwan; North Korea was still pursuing its nuclear-weapons programme; and Taliban fighters were patrolling the streets of Kabul. Seeing all this, friends asked me: “Whatever happened to soft power?”

One answer is that it can be found in other recent events, such as President Joe Biden’s virtual Summit for Democracy, which was attended by representatives from more than 100 countries. Having been excluded, China took to the airwaves and social media to proclaim that it had a different and more stable type of democracy than the one being extolled by the United States. What we were seeing was a great-power competition over soft power, understood as the ability to influence others by attraction rather than by coercion or payment.

When I first wrote about soft power in 1990, I was seeking to overcome a deficiency in how analysts thought about power generally. But the concept gradually acquired more of a political resonance. In some respects, the underlying thought is not new; similar concepts can be traced back to ancient philosophers such as Lao Tse. Nor does soft power pertain only to international behaviour or to the US. Many small countries and organisations also possess the power to attract; and in democracies, at least, soft power is an essential component of leadership.

Still, the concept is now generally associated with international relations. As the European Union developed into its current form, European leaders increasingly made use of the term. And ever since 2007, when then-Chinese president Hu Jintao declared that China must develop its soft power, the government has invested billions of dollars in that quest. The challenge now is for China to implement an effective smart-power strategy. If it can effectively pair its growing hard power with soft power, it will be less likely to provoke counter-balancing coalitions.

Soft power is not the only or even the most important source of power, because its effects tend to be slow and indirect. But to ignore or neglect it is a serious strategic and analytic mistake. The Roman Empire’s power rested not only on its legions, but also on the attraction of Roman culture and law. Similarly, as a Norwegian analyst once described it, the American presence in Western Europe after World War II was “an empire by invitation”. No barrage of artillery brought down the Berlin Wall; it was removed by hammers and bulldozers wielded by people who had been touched by Western soft power.

Smart political leaders have long understood that values can create power. If I can get you to want what I want, I will not have to force you to do what you do not want to do. If a country represents values that others find attractive, it can economise on the use of sticks and carrots.

A country’s soft power comes primarily from three sources: its culture; its political values, such as democracy and human rights (when it upholds them); and its policies (when they are seen as legitimate because they are framed with an awareness of others’ interests). A government can influence others through the example of how it behaves at home (such as by protecting a free press and the right to protest), in international institutions (consulting others and fostering multilateralism), and through its foreign policy (such as by promoting development and human rights).

During the COVID-19 pandemic, China has tried to use so-called “vaccine diplomacy” to bolster its soft power, which had been damaged by its secretive handling of the initial outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan. The government’s efforts have been aimed at reinforcing its Belt and Road Initiative, which supports infrastructure projects in many parts of the world.

But international polls show that the results have been disappointing. In measures of attractiveness, China lags behind the US on all continents except Africa, where the two countries are tied. One reason for China’s lower level of soft power is its heavy-handed use of hard power in pursuit of an increasingly nationalist foreign policy. This has been on full display in its economic punishment of Australia and in its military operations on the Himalayan border with India.

China has a smart-power problem. After all, it is difficult to practice vaccine diplomacy and “wolf-warrior diplomacy” (aggressive, coercive browbeating of smaller countries) at the same time.

True, international polls showed that the US also suffered a decline in soft power during Donald Trump’s presidency. But, fortunately, America is more than its government. Unlike hard-power assets (such as armed forces), many soft-power resources are separate from the government and are only partly responsive to its purposes. For example, Hollywood movies showcasing independent women or protesting minorities inspire others around the world. So, too, does the charitable work of US foundations and the freedom of inquiry at American universities.

Firms, universities, foundations, churches, and protest movements develop soft power of their own. Sometimes their activities will reinforce official foreign-policy goals, and sometimes they will be at odds with them. Either way, these private sources of soft power are increasingly important in the age of social media.

The January 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol certainly damaged US soft power. But those who would mourn the death of American democracy prematurely should bear in mind that the 2020 election drew an unprecedented turnout despite the pandemic. The American people are still able to unseat a demagogue in a free and fair election.

This is not to suggest that all is well with American democracy or its soft power. Trump eroded many democratic norms that now must be restored. Biden has made strengthening democracy at home and abroad a goal of his presidency, but the results remain to be seen.

No one can be certain about the future trajectory of any country’s soft power. But there is no doubt that influence through attraction will remain an important component of world politics. As Mark Twain famously quipped, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” The same is true of soft power.


Joseph S. Nye, Jr. is a professor at Harvard University and author, most rececntly, of “Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump” (Oxford University Press, 2020). Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.

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