Table of contents Introduction 4 Methodology 5 An historical outline of diplomacy 8

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Soft Power

One of the central concepts developed by Joseph S. Nye, who is amongst the most prominent theorists within the Neoliberal theory, is soft power. This concept was for the first time presented in 1990 in Bound to Lead and has since been developed into its final form as presented in Soft Power – the means to success in world politics from 2004. Soft power is best explained when contrasted against its counterpart – hard power. Where hard power is signified by the utilization of sheer force and coercion to reach certain objectives, the more indirect soft power is a way of reaching the goal through persuasion and cooperation – soft power uses carrots rather than sticks so to speak. One thing the two have in common though is the term power. (Nye 2004: xi, 5-6)

Joseph S. Nye is educated from Princeton, Oxford and Harvard Universities and has been publishing works related to theory of international relations since the 1970s and is to this day very productive with several published articles and chapters in books every year – 45 in 2008 alone. Non-academic positions he has held include Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, Chair of the National Intelligence Council, and Deputy Under Secretary of State for Security Assistance, Science and Technology. (Harvard – Kennedy School)


The central term power is very difficult to give a concrete definition of. An attempt to make the term power seem more objectively measurable would be by looking at power resources of a state – this could include military and economic strength, size of territory and population or abundance of natural resources. This can be a useful approach when power is defined as the ability to get what you want. This approach to try to understand and measure power seems flawed though. Some countries which excel in many of these measurable parameters don’t have the power which they ought to on the basis of their resources – an example of this could be Japan since the 1960s. Japan having the second largest economy in the world, a large population and advanced technology has oftentimes been termed an economic giant but a political dwarf. On the other end of the spectrum some countries seem to be more powerful than what their objectively measurable resources would justify. Reasons for these discrepancies can explained by different abilities of deception or by convincingly acting more powerful than what the resources justify. Another factor which has to be taken into account is to see the resources as potential power and this has to be mobilized into realized power. Before resources are used specifically to increase the power of a state it does not really signify power. (Nye 1991: 26-27)

Traditionally the real test of a country’s power would be its ability to wage war. The basis of this ability has changed over time though. In the pre-industrialized society of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the ability to wage war was primarily based on a large population which would provide manpower and a basis of taxation in order to hire mercenaries – this is why France was the leading power in Europe in this period. This is best illustrated during the reign of the Sun King Louis XIV and culminating with Napoleon Bonaparte where the most important power resources started to change with the dawning industrial revolution. As industrial production capacity and efficient administration became more important than population size and sheer manpower as a basis of power the centers of power changed to the British Empire and slightly later Germany. In the middle of the twentieth century the industrial capacity of USA and USSR had far outgrown the traditional powers of the old world and another power factor was now nuclear weapons as well the delivery methods of these. Since then the traditional understanding of power as the ability to wage war has been significantly modified. The horrifying destructive capacities of nuclear weapons were one of the reasons of this as it had become too costly and risky for great powers to sort their disputes on the battlefield. Other reasons include that high casualties are much less acceptable to domestic populations in the post-industrialized society, territorial expansion is much more difficult in a more nationally awakened world and economic growth is often depending on a state’s reputation and relations with others. (Nye 2002: 5-7)

This change in power resources are finely illustrated in the table below where the leading states of each century are lined up and the different resources of power these utilized to achieve this status. Joseph S. Nye has furthermore included his prediction for the 21st century. An interesting detail in this table is the gradual entrance of different forms of soft power as a major resource of power:



Major Resources

Sixteenth century


Gold bullion, colonial trade, mercenary armies, dynastic ties

Seventeenth century


Trade, capital markets, navy

Eighteenth century


Population, rural industry, public administration, army, culture (soft power)

Nineteenth century


Industry, political cohesion, finance and credit, navy, liberal norms (soft power), island location (easy to defend)

Twentieth century

United States

Economic scale, scientific and technical leadership, location, military forces and alliances, universalistic culture and liberal international regimes (soft power)

Twenty-first century

United States

Technological leadership, military and economic scale, soft power, hub of transnational communications

(Nye 2002: 13)

Understanding that merely resources will not necessarily determine whether a state is powerful or not there ought to be other ways of viewing and determining power in international relations. This can be to look at as a way of achieving one’s goals. The most direct way of doing this is by forcing your will through by the use of military force or the threat thereof. Another way to get what you want would be through utilizing a state’s economic strength through threat of sanctions, bribery etc. The final and more subtle way to get what you want and make other agents change their behavior is not to coerce them but rather to convince them. Persuade them to think that your goal is identical with their goal. This is the background of the division between hard power – military and economy2 – and soft power which is the power of attraction so to speak. (Mead 2004)

To see power as getting another agent to do what he/she/it otherwise would not have done is a helpful way to explain both hard and soft power although it has one inherent trapdoor. What if the target for this exercise of power – be it hard or soft – already would have done what they are trying to be coerced or convinced to do? Then it is all of a sudden very difficult to determine whether or not the attempt to wield the tools of hard and soft power has been the deciding factor for reaching the result achieved and thereby difficult to determine whether or not the wielder truly possess power over the other agent. This is especially the case for soft power which in its nature is more subtle than the tools of hard power. (Nye 2004: 2)

The three chessboards of power

Joseph S. Nye has made a model to understand the power relations of international relations better while incorporating soft power. This model is to see the international struggle of power as a game of chess – but played on three interrelated boards rather than just one. The top board is the classical struggle between states for military dominance and centers itself on security policy, alliance building, maintenance of a balance of power etc. On the second board the game of economic growth is played where issues can be anything within the financial and the economy policy realms – trade agreements, anti-trust laws etc. The bottom board game of power is dedicated to a multitude of international issues such as international crime, climate change or for example the Olympics. It’s on this board soft power comes into play. Some political actors fail to acknowledge other spheres than the classical power game of military muscle though3 – a blunder that can have severe repercussions for the state’s standing in the two other spheres. (Nye 2004: 4-5)

On table 1 seen below the tripartite division of the forms of power Joseph S. Nye describes are illustrated keywords attached to each in relation to type of behavior, primary currencies and government policies. Here it is seen how soft power really is markedly different from the other two. Where military and economic power both utilize very direct means to gain power, soft power uses more subtle and difficult to evaluate means. Where the two types of hard power is signified by terms such as coercion, deterrence, sanctions and threats the soft power keywords include attraction, values and culture. The thing which is possibly most important to notice in the table the vast amount of primary currencies soft power is spanning – values, culture, policies and institutions – while the government policies are limited to diplomacy. This is an area which will be explored more thoroughly later in this chapter.


Primary Currencies

Government Policies

Military Power






coercive diplomacy



Economic Power








Soft Power


agenda setting





public diplomacy

bilateral and multilateral diplomacy

(Nye 2004: 31)

As mentioned above there is an interplay between the three chessboards of power. Using hard power without analyzing possible impacts on its soft power can be very counterproductive. Even if a state actor has significantly more military power than any potential opponents, the unrestrictive use of force will possibly lead to mistrust, alienation of allies and neutrals and in turn restrict the freedom of action for the state actor in the long run to restore goodwill, avoid possible sanctions or boycotts and ultimately avoid unfriendly alliance building to create a balance of power. The classic illustration of some of these points is the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Another of the many examples of a time where a state actor ignored the importance of soft power which in turn led to repercussions in other areas was China after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, through which event China destroyed its power of attraction and was hit hard in the economic realm through trade embargoes and boycotts. (Nye 2004: 25-29)

Growing importance of soft power

As mentioned above, soft power has gradually increased its importance to states struggle for power. This tendency is like to increase exponentially in the dawning global information age where access to the most and widest channels of information will be a determining factor for who will experience the fastest growth in soft power. The access to the most and widest channels of information will not be the sole determining factor in relations to growth in soft power though – two other general factors are also very important. The first of these is that a state with an ideological background of their dominant culture which is closest to the general predominant global norms and values of a certain time will command a vaster soft power than a state with a dominant culture far away from the global standard norms. Key values in the world of today include terms such as pluralism and liberalism – it is therefore unlikely to see a state far away from these values being successful in the realm of soft power as it will not seem very attractive to the broad global public. If a state is not a genuine supporter of these values at least it will have to pretend to support these if it has any interest and acknowledgement of the importance of soft power. The second factor important to a state in order to be successful in the realm of soft power is enhancing one’s credibility – which can be done both through domestic as well as international actions. If a state generally lives up to expectations and practice what it preaches its chances of gaining soft power in the long run significantly increases. (Nye 2002: 69-73)

Soft power and public diplomacy

Now after having dealt with the presentation of the concept of soft power, its interplay with the two forms of hard power and the growing importance of soft power in the global age of information it has yet to be explored further from what sources soft power actually stems and what direct tools can be conducive to the growth of soft power for a state. It will be explored to what extent the state actually is able to directly control its progress in soft power or lack thereof.

In the two main forms of hard power – military and economic – the state has a very large direct impact on the development of power resources through diverse economic policies, beneficial trade agreement, subsidies to reach technological breakthroughs or development of more efficient military doctrines to give but a few examples. Soft power is not as straightforward though as this encompasses fairly uncontrollable terms such as culture and values. Much of any country’s soft power resources have little or nothing to do with the state, be it anything from famous writers, painters, architects or singers, natural beauty, important mass media or well known brands. Many of the sources of soft power are therefore not determined by direct actions of the state apparatus but rather of the people and the land they inhabit. (Mead 2004: 51)

With this being said it seems as if the state has little to do with how much soft power it has which of course is not the case. Soft power is more than just a matter of which states got lucky to have the most sides that attracts people from around the world. Soft power has more to it than just culture, and it is a mistake to think of soft power as a direct result of culture although culture is conducive to the growth of it. The two other main sources of soft power include foreign policy and general political values. (Nye 2004: 11)

General political values and foreign policy can both be linked to governmental policies. These policies can, as mentioned earlier, diminish the soft power of a state – for example through committing atrocities or displaying arrogance towards the opinions of others. The opposite can also be true though. Both domestic as well as foreign government policies can help increase the country’s soft power if these policies help increase its attractiveness to population segments. Examples of these could be comparably generous contributions of development aid, a strong profile in peacekeeping operations or a tolerant and fair treatment of domestic minorities. Also the more general political values reflect on the growth or decline of soft power – a clean record of democracy and rule of law will for example generally benefit a growth of soft power. (Nye 2004: 13-15)

One of the seemingly most effective tools to increase soft power and which would probably be a big mistake to overlook is public diplomacy. While public diplomacy is not a primary source of soft power itself, it is one of the most direct tools a state has to market itself for the foreign public. Even if a state tries to act in a way that would increase its soft power the attempt might not be successful or there might be more attention on negative actions the same state. Here the role of public diplomacy is to attract focus on the positive sides of a country, not through mere propaganda which is hopelessly obsolete but rather through dialogue. (Nye 2004: 105-107)

To sum up, the logic behind include the concept of soft power is that this exact concept is vital to the success and in the end the very existence of public diplomacy. Soft power is the raison d’être of public diplomacy because public diplomacy seeks to increase the attractiveness of a country, signifying that attractiveness is important i.e. worth competing over. If attractiveness is worth competing for it must contain a certain amount of power – soft power.

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