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Is there such a thing as soft power?

The Council on Geostrategy asks six strategic experts whether there is such a thing as soft power

Joseph S. Nye, Harvard Kennedy School

Soft power is the ability to affect others to get what one wants through attraction rather than coercion or payment. It is as old as human behaviour, and can be found in the writings of ancient philosophers such as Laozi (Lao Tzu). 

The only thing new is that I coined the modern term in 1990 to describe aspects of power relationships between states which were not being described adequately by the traditional realist hard power terms of coercion and payment. Subsequently, I applied it to individuals and organisations in my book: The Powers to Lead: Soft power is not a form of idealism. It can be good or bad. It is simply a type of power behaviour which any sophisticated policy maker must take into account. 

Victor Abramowicz, Charles Darwin University

Joseph Nye popularised the idea in the early 1990s and defined it, in short, as the ability of a nation to have sufficiently appealing culture, foreign policy, and political values such that other states want to work with it; by using its soft power, a country’s objectives become (willingly) those of other nations. 

It can be put even more bluntly: soft power is the degree to which a state is likeable. If other nations are fond of your ideas and behaviours, then they will, from a human perspective (as international relations is ultimately about people), be more likely to work with you. Indeed, getting people to like you is one essential aim of diplomacy.

This is not to say a nation can appeal to all others in the same way. Further, soft power is trumped by hard power. You can be very likeable, but if your interests infringe on another state’s, you will not be friends, or get your ends easily. 

But soft power is a vital tool for a state to make its way in the world, and if used genuinely, can lead to real mutual benefit.

Evie Aspinall, British Foreign Policy Group

Absolutely. Soft power engenders persuasion, attractiveness and magnetism and is derived from some of the most important elements of a society, such as stability, prosperity and opportunity. It has been put as the ability to achieve a goal through attraction. This, admittedly, can sound a little fluffy and one of the biggest challenges for soft power is that it is very difficult to define and quantify, let alone manage. But it must be managed. Soft power is a conscious activity, it refers not just to our soft power assets – such as football, finance, higher education and culture – but also the process of leveraging them for effect. 

Despite this challenge, the United Kingdom’s (UK) soft power has a significant impact on how Britain is perceived and in turn the position which it occupies in the world. Investment in women’s football and the success of the Lionesses at the 2023 World Cup, for example, sends a message to the world about the UK’s values and its sporting prowess. Similarly, Britain’s strong higher education sector helps strengthen the reputation and success of our research and innovation, and helps foster vast networks of international exchange of ideas and people, embedding longer-term partnerships.

So while in foreign policy discussions there tends to be a greater focus on the UK’s hard power, as Britain continues to find its place in the world post-Brexit, post-Covid and in an increasingly turbulent geopolitical context in which others’ hard power capabilities are greater than the UK’s, Britain’s soft power remains one of its strongest assets.

Joshua Huminski, Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence and Global Affairs

Soft power as a concept was flawed and misunderstood from the start. Now, thanks to social media, its golden age is almost certainly over. The efficacy of cultural tools in affecting state behaviour in a non-coercive manner was always overstated. Predominantly, states act according to interests – the attractiveness of an ally’s popular culture certainly makes deepening relations with it an easier sell to a sceptical democratic population, or provides a means of shaping an adversaries perspective, but it is not a determining factor. Entertaining though they may be, BTS, the popular South Korean boy band, is not decisive for Seoul in trade negotiations or bilateral talks on regional security.

With the advent of social media and a truly global information environment, foreign populations are exposed to far more content than previous generations. The ‘Hollywood’ monopoly of the American image abroad is over. Audiences have significantly greater access to information critical – whether fair or not – of the United States (US) and its policies. As a result of online self-selection, hyper-local content generation, and algorithmic sorting, to say nothing of artificial state manipulation (sovereign internets) and ‘fake news’, soft power no longer has the power many believed it once promised and should not be relied upon. At best, it is a lubricant for state action.

Vincent Keating, University of South Denmark

The basic idea of soft power is that states with attractive ideologies and cultures, and foreign policies which are more or less aligned, have an easier time achieving their foreign policy objectives. But what is an ‘attractive’ ideology which generates soft power resources? Ever since Joseph Nye coined the term in the 1990s, the answer has been simple: liberalism. Liberal values were assumed to be automatically and globally attractive, and were used repeatedly as a benchmark for judging any state’s soft power capabilities.

But can rising conservative and authoritarian states also generate soft power in the same way liberal states do? Recent research has shown that newly minted populist elites in the West not only openly praised Vladimir Putin for his defence of traditional Christian values and his strong leadership, but when and where they did, they also were far more likely to support controversial Russian foreign policy.

Were they simply ‘useful idiots’ for the Russian regime, or motivated by simple material gain? Or do these framings inadvertently dismiss a bigger problem; that conservative values can be potentially as attractive as liberal values to certain (growing) global audiences. Liberal democrats might ignore this potential form of soft power at their own peril.

James Rogers, Council on Geostrategy

Soft power is not so soft. All power is coercive, whether transactional, corporal or disciplinary. It is impossible to be ‘attracted’ to something; one must be conditioned into liking something before one can be attracted to it. Kaiser Wilhelm II and Theodore Roosevelt did not seek to emulate British naval dominance simply because they liked the colour or shape of the Royal Navy’s battleships; they sought their respective High Seas Fleet and Great White Fleet because they thought it would allow Germany and the US to emulate the United Kingdom, then the world’s most advanced industrial country.

In this age of intensifying geopolitical competition, the concept of soft power is largely a distraction. Instead, we should think in terms of discursive statecraft to shape the international order in accordance with our interests. But that is only half of the story. More importantly, we need to uphold our leading position. In this respect, the reason the UK and its offshoots – the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand – have been so powerful over the past 300 years is because they have been able to compress space and time more cheaply and effectively than anyone else.

In sum, if we lose our scientific and technological ascendancy, and if we are no longer seen to be at the vanguard of History, then there is no reason to think that liberal ideas and values will remain ‘attractive’.

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