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Soft power is the ability to obtain what you want through co-option and attraction. It is in contradistinction to 'hard power', which is the use of coercion and payment. It is similar in substance but not identical to a combination of the second dimension (agenda setting) and the third dimensions (or the radical dimension) of power as expounded by Steven Lukes in Power a Radical View.[1] Soft Power can be wielded not just by States, but by all actors in International Politics, such as NGO's, or International Institutions.[2] The idea of attraction as a form of power did not originate with Nye or Lukes, and can be dated back to such ancient Chinese philosophers as Lao Tsu in the 7th century BC, but the modern development dates back only to the late 20th century.



The phrase was coined by Joseph Nye of Harvard University in a 1990 book, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power. He further developed the concept in his 2004 book, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. The term is now widely used in international affairs by analysts and statesmen. For example, in 2007, Chinese President Hu Jintao told the 17th Communist Party Congress that China needed to increase its soft power, and the American Secretary of Defense Robert Gates spoke of the need to enhance American soft power by "a dramatic increase in spending on the civilian instruments of national security -- diplomacy, strategic communications, foreign assistance, civic action and economic reconstruction and development."

What makes soft power soft?

The primary currencies of Soft Power are an actor's Values, Culture, Policies and Institutions - and the extent to which these "primary currencies" as Nye calls them, are able to attract or repel other actors to "want what you want".[3]. In 2008, Nye applied the concepts of hard and soft power to individual leadership in "The Powers to Lead".

In any discussion of power, it is important to distinguish behavior (affecting others to obtain the preferred outcomes) from the resources that may (or may not) produce those outcomes. Sometimes persons or countries with more power resources are not able to get the outcomes they wish. Power is a relationship between an agent and a subject of power, and that relationship will vary with different situations. Meaningful statements about power must always specify the context in which the resources may (or may not) be converted into behavior.

Soft power is not merely non-traditional forces such as cultural and commercial goods, as this confuses the resources that may produce behavior with the behavior itself – what Steven Lukes calls the “vehicle fallacy.” Neither is it merely anything non-military such as economic sanctions, since sanctions are clearly intended to coerce, and thus a form of hard power.

That said, Military force can sometimes contribute to soft power. Dictators like Hitler and Stalin cultivated myths of invincibility and inevitability to structure expectations and attract others to join their bandwagon. A well run military can be a source of attraction, and military to military cooperation and training programs, for example, can establish transnational networks that enhance a country’s soft power. Napoleon's image as a Great General and military hero arguably attracted much of the foreign aristocracy to him. The impressive job of the American military in providing humanitarian relief after the Indian Ocean tsunami and the South Asian earthquake in 2005 helped restore the attractiveness of the United States. Of course, misuse of military resources can also undercut soft power. The Soviet Union had a great deal of soft power in the years after World War II, but they destroyed it by the way they used their hard power against Hungary and Czechoslovakia, just as American military actions in the Middle East undercut their Soft Power.

Limitations to soft power

Soft power is not the solution to all problems. Efforts to use soft power got nowhere in attracting the Taliban government away from its support for Al Qaeda in the 1990s, but other goals such as the promotion of democracy and human rights are better achieved by soft power.

Soft Power has been criticized as being ineffective by authors such as Niall Ferguson in the preface to Colossus. Neorealist and other rationalist and neorationalist authors (with the exception of Stephen Walt) would generally disregard Soft Power since they assume for theoretical purposes that actors in International Relations respond to only two types of incentives - economic incentives and force. See for example John Mearscheimer, The False Promise of International Institutions.

As a concept, it is often hard to distinguish between the effects of Soft Power and other factors. For example, Janice Bially Mattern asserts that America's use of the phrase "you are either with us or against us" wasan exercise in Soft Power, since no explicit threat was included (see her chapter in Felix Berenskoetter and M.J. Williams' 'Power in World Politics'). However, rationalist authors would merely see this as an 'implied threat', and that directeconomic or military sanctions would likely follow from being 'against us'.

Measuring soft power

Soft power, then, represents the third behavioral way of getting the outcomes you want. Soft power is contrasted with hard power, which has historically been the predominant realist measure of national power, through quantitative metrics such as population size, concrete military assets, or a nation's gross domestic product. But having such resources does not always produce the desired outcomes as the United States discovered in the Vietnam War. The extent of attraction can be measured by public opinion polls, by elite interviews, and case studies. Nye argues that soft power is more than influence, since influence can also rest on the hard power of threats or payments. And soft power is more than just persuasion or the ability to move people by argument, though that is an important part of it. It is also the ability to attract, and attraction often leads to acquiescence.

In international affairs, soft power is generated only in part by what the government does through its policies and public diplomacy. The generation of soft power is also affected in positive (and negative) ways by a host of non-state actors within and outside the country. Those actors affect both the general public and governing elites in other countries, and create an enabling or disabling environment for government policies. In some cases, soft power will enhance the probability of other elites adopting policies that allow one to achieve preferred outcomes. In other cases, where being seen as friendly to another country is seen as a local political kiss of death, the decline or absence of soft power will prevent a government from obtaining particular goals. But even in such instances, the interactions of civil societies and non-state actors may help to further general milieu goals such as democracy, liberty, and development. Soft power is not the possession of any one country or actor.

The success of soft power heavily depends on the actor’s reputation within the international community, as well as the flow of information between actors. Thus, soft power is often associated with the rise of globalization and neoliberal international relations theory. Popular culture and media is regularly identified as a source of soft power, as is the spread of a national language, or a particular set of normative structures; a nation with a large amount of soft power and the good will that engenders it inspire others to acculturate, avoiding the need for expensive hard power expenditures. Because soft power has appeared as an alternative to raw power politics, it is often embraced by ethically-minded scholars and policymakers. But soft power is a descriptive rather than a normative concept. Like any form of power, it can be wielded for good or bad purposes. Hitler, Stalin, Mao and bin Laden all possessed a great deal of soft power in the eyes of their acolytes, but that did not make it good. While soft power can be used with bad intentions and wreak horrible consequences, it does differ in terms of means. It is on this dimension that one might construct a normative preference for greater use of soft power.

Academic debates around soft power

Academicshave engaged in several debates around Soft Power. These have included: Its usefulness (cf Niall Ferguson, Josef Joffe, Robert Kagan, Ken Waltz, Mearscheimer vs Nye, Katzenstein, Janice Bially Mattern, Jacques Hymans, Alexander Vuving, Jan Mellisen etc) b) Whether Soft Power can be coercive/manipulative, (cf Janice BIally Mattern, Katzenstein, Duvall & Barnet vs Nye, Vuving) c) How the relationship between structure and agency work (Hymans vs Nye) d) Whether Soft Balancing is occurring (Wohlforth & Brooks vs Walt et al)


External links

Further reading

  • Steven Lukes, "Power and the battle for hearts and minds: on the bluntness of soft power," in Felix Berenskoetter and M.J. Williams, eds. Power in World Politics, Routledge, 2007
  • Janice Bially Mattern, "Why Soft Power Is Not So Soft," in Berenskoetter and Williams
  • J.S. Nye, "Notes for a soft power research agenda," in Berenskoetter and Williams
  • Young Nam Cho and Jong Ho Jeong, "China's Soft Power," Asia Survey,48,3,pp 453–72
  • Yashushi Watanabe and David McConnell, eds, Soft Power Superpowers: Cultural and National Assets of Japan and the United States, London, M E Sharpe, 2008
  • Ingrid d'Hooghe, "Into High Gear: China’s Public Diplomacy’, The Hague Journal of Diplomacy, No. 3 (2008), pp. 37–61.
  • Ingrid d'Hooghe, "The Rise of China’s Public Diplomacy", Clingendael Diplomacy Paper No. 12, The Hague, Clingendael Institute, July 2007, ISBN 978-90-5031-1175,36 pp.
  • "Playing soft or hard cop," The Economist, January 19, 2006
  • Y. Fan, (2008) "Soft power: the power of attraction or confusion”, Place Branding and Public Diplomacy, 4:2, available at
  • Bruce Jentleson, "Principles: The Coming of a Democratic Century?" from American Foreign Policy: The Dynamics of Choice in the 21st Century
  • Jan Melissen, "Wielding Soft Power," Clingendael Diplomacy Papers, No 2, Clingendael, Netherlands, 2005
  • Chicago Council on Global Affairs, "Soft Power in East Asia" June 2008
  • Joseph Nye, The Powers to Lead, NY Oxford University Press, 2008
  • Nye, Joseph, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics
  • Joshua Kurlantzick, Charm Offensive: How China's Soft Power is Transforming the World (Yale University Press, 2007). Analysis of China's use of soft power to gain influence in the world's political arena.
  • John McCormick The European Superpower (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006). Argues that the European Union has used soft power effectively to emerge as an alternative and as a competitor to the heavy reliance of the US on hard power.
  • Matthew Fraser, Weapons of Mass Distraction: Soft Power and American Empire (St. Martin's Press, 2005). Analysis is focused on the pop culture aspect of soft power, such as movies, television, pop music, Disneyland, and American fast-food brands including Coca-Cola and McDonald's.


  1. ^ Power: A Radical View, Steven Lukes
  2. ^ Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics
  3. ^ Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics pp31


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