Soft Power: the means to success in world politics

Book Reviews | Kamran Ismayilov | 14-11-2017, 15:20

Soft Power: the means to success in world politicsThe concept of power is one of the most studied topics in International Relations (IR). Since decades, many academic works have examined power in international politics from different aspects, including how it is used, whether its accumulated through material capabilities such as economic and military strength, or it has changed the nature. Joseph Nye, one of the august scholars re-energised the debate of different concepts of power by introducing the term, soft power. In his book, Bound to Lead published in 1990, he defines soft power as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments.” The term has been broadly used in foreign policy matters by many in both academic and policy-making communities. However, the term was misunderstood by some, according to Nye. Hence, the necessity arising from exploring and developing the term further led to the publication of Soft Power: the means to success in world politics. The book is composed of five main chapters. In the first chapter, Nye explains why, while hard power remains essential for a country’s security, soft power is becoming more pertinent in the twenty-first century. Chapter two defines the sources of American soft power and chapter three is dealing with the soft power of state and non-state actors acting independently in the international arena. Nye reasons the ways to wield soft power in chapter four and in particular how the United States can improve its soft power in the face of its declining popularity across the world. The challenges to the U.S. soft power are discussed in detail in chapter five. This review at hand has two main tasks. First, it aims to adequately present the arguments developed by Nye. The second task is to provide an articulated and critical discussion of the subject matter, coming to the conclusion that although the research on soft power has grown exponentially since its introduction, it remains as something that does not really have clear edges.

If we define “power” as one’s ability to get the desired outcomes by influencing the behaviour of others, we have three ways of exercising power: coercion (sticks), induction (carrots) and attraction. While many, usually those subscribing to the realist school of thought, believe by exerting pressure or offering benefits would result in desired policy outcomes, Nye argues, if your objectives are believed to be legitimate then you can achieve the outcomes you want by persuading others “without using threats or inducements.” According to Nye, twenty-first-century world politics resembles a three-dimensional chess game. On the top board, there are interstate military issues where the U.S. has primacy. The middle one is the board of economic issues where power is distributed among several players (e.g., U.S., EU, Japan, China). And on the bottom is the board of transnational issues with many state and non-state actors possess a varying degree of influence. While hard power is useful at the top board, to be successful on the bottom board you need a successful soft power. For instance, prevailing over the issues such as international crime, terrorism, climate change and many other “require the use of soft power assets.” This way you co-opt people to want the outcomes you want. Thus, possessing economic and military capabilities are no longer preconditions for a country to be powerful. In fact, a handful of countries (e.g., Japan and Germany during the World War II and Iraq in 1990) that are rich in terms of material resources but have failed to get the outcomes they wanted. Hence, we can establish that having power resources does not guarantee to achieve the desired outcomes unless you have “well-designed strategies and skilful leadership”.

The world has gone through technological and social changes, which Nye believes made the use of force costlier. That, however, should not be understood as hard power’s irrelevance in the twenty-first-century politics. In fact, you cannot solve many issues by soft power alone and soft power’s success partially depends on economic and military strength — sources of hard power. Nye argues that use of hard power needs to be morally justified with the public support. To this background, successful soft power would save a country a lot from its sticks and carrots. As I mentioned above, if country’s values are admired by others then it can obtain the results it wants without relying on hard power.

So far we established that the main difference between hard and soft power, according to Nye, is the ways of obtaining the desired outcomes. While hard power’s sources are force, induction, threat, or economic sanctions, soft power’s currency is the seduction of others to shared values and persuade them to the justness of your policies and thus to contribute to the achievement of these policies.  However, policies based on soft power can be irrelevant to solve immediate problems such as preventing attacks, control borders, or protect allies. Rather, soft power is calculated to realise goals that require long-term strategic approach. For instance, the Cold War “was won by a mixture of hard and soft power. While hard power created the stand-off of military containment, soft power eroded the Soviet system from within.” Country’s soft power in world politics arises “in large part from the values an organization or country expresses in its culture, in the examples, it sets by its internal practices and policies, and in the way, it handles its relations with others.” Nye identifies three primary sources that soft power is influenced by culture, political values, and foreign policy. 

Culture, both high and popular culture, has an important role in wielding soft power. Nye claims, if a country’s culture is attractive to others, it increases the probability of others countries becoming more willing to cooperate. To Nye, high cultural contacts among the U.S. and Soviet elites during the Cold War often yielded soft power, which in turn made “important contributions to the American policy objectives.” Popular culture, too, has “political effects as it often contains subliminal images and messages about individualism, consumer choice, and other values.” For instance, popular-cultural attraction helped the U.S. to achieve important foreign policy goals (e.g., ending apartheid regime in South Africa, democratization process in Latin America, the overthrow of Milosevic regime in Serbia and liberalization in Iran). In Europe, American pop-culture was equally important as monetary assistance under the Marshall Plan to reconstruct post-World War II Europe. Nevertheless, culture’s attractiveness very much depends on the context. Hollywood movies may be received positively in China and negatively in Saudi Arabia. Nye argues that while cultural differences between the U.S. and Japan and South Korea did not have so much negative impact on American soft power, Nye argues that cultural barriers between the U.S. and the Middle Eastern peoples will not likely be easy to overcome. By the same token, in some countries, people regard America’s promotion of modernity as a threat to their identity. According to 2002 polls, most of the respondents in 34 of 43 countries agreed with the statement “It’s bad that American ideas and customs are spreading here.” As it becomes clear, American culture may increase its soft power in one place or repulse existing American soft power in other places depending on how receivers react. Interestingly enough most of the American soft power derives from private actors such as firms, universities, foundations, churches, and other non-governmental groups. For this reason, as U.S. government is not in control of some cultural activities, they might be at odds with the official U.S. foreign policy and more importantly may either create or erode soft power. 

Other sources of soft power include country’s political values and foreign policy. Nye argues that if a country’s domestic or external policies “appear to be hypocritical, arrogant, indifferent to the opinion of others, or based on a narrow approach to national interests can undermine soft power.” In the U.S., domestic measures are taken as part of the “war on terror” such as hardening visa procedures, in fact, damaged America’s popularity abroad. Similarly, policies such as capital punishment or the absence of gun control may diminish its attractiveness elsewhere. On the other hand, foreign policy initiatives will produce soft power if they are promoting shared values. To Nye, soft power is particularly effective when it entails cooperation with other countries without threatening them. In the case of U.S., its political values such as protection and promotion of democracy and respect to human rights are powerful sources of attraction. Though, if to examine the validity of this argument, we can see that majorities in some countries where the U.S. is promoting democratic principles perceive American policies “aggressive” and, in some cases, “hostile”. In fact, Nye affirms that the 2003 Iraq war made the U.S. unpopular. Diminishing American popularity during the 2003 Iraq War had consequences for the U.S. ability to attain its policy goals, in particular in the Muslim world. In such a way that less than 15 percent of the public in Indonesia, Pakistan, and Jordan and less than 27 percent in Lebanon and Morocco, had a favorable opinion of the USA in 2003. This negative trend in foreign policy may have the spill-over effect in other areas of American soft-power too. According to Nye, failures of the 2003 Iraq War proved the importance of multilateralism. “Since the currency of soft power is an attraction based on shared values and the justness and duty of others to contribute to policies consistent with those shared values, multilateral consultations are more likely to generate soft power than a mere unilateral assertion of the values.” In other words, multilateralism helps to legitimate one’s policy actions abroad. Whereas, unilateralist foreign policy direction is costly for the soft power. Therefore, a legitimate image of a country and thus its soft power depend largely on the “substance and style” of its foreign policy.

Although the book’s centre of interest is the U.S. and its soft power, there are other statal and non-statal actors who produce soft power. In the aftermath of the World War II, the Soviet Union was regarded attractive by many in the Western Europe and beyond mainly because it stood up to Hitler and opposed to European imperialism in Africa. Aware of its attraction, Moscow used its soft power to spread the Communist ideology in the world. However, the Soviet Union could not generate much of soft power as its credibility and popularity declined due to its closed system and military invasions. Interestingly enough though, Nye’s analysis does not cover the contemporary Russia that enjoys a significant degree of soft power in the post-Soviet space. While Russia’s influence in the ex-Soviet countries has been diminishing, the EU speeds up its soft power in the region. The success of the EU’s soft power is evident from the desire of neighboring countries to join the Union, Nye continues. The EU’s soft power derives from its culture, domestic and foreign policies based on the historical tradition of international cooperation and multilateralism. It particularly enjoys credibility for its policies such as environmental protection, rights advocacy and others issues that largely perceived to be serving for the global good. Despite having a world-scale soft power, in the medium to long run the EU’s shrinking population will likely to lessen European soft power, with an impact on its influence in the international arena. Besides the EU, leading Asian countries like Japan, South Korea, China and India, too, have soft-power resources. However, each of them faces various problems that make it difficult to yield soft power. In the case of Japan, for instance, problems arise from declining population and its adversarial relations with China. While in China and India domestic and foreign policies are the burden for their positive reputation abroad. Even though for the time being Asian countries do not rank high on the indices of soft power resources, Nye expects their soft power to increase in the future. The information age that we are living in now has also benefited non-state actors to develop soft power. One of them is the United Nations who is seen as a source of legitimacy in the world thanks to its universality and legal framework. Although, Nye makes a debatable point by arguing that, “governments cannot afford to ignore it [UN] without paying a price”, his argument follows by pointing out the limitations of the UN’s soft power caused by political events. By contrast, soft power has also served for an evil purpose. Technological developments led to the “privatisation of war”, enabling terrorist organisations “killing millions without the instruments of governments”. Nye argues extremist groups wield soft power through which they strive for gaining support and new recruits. “If the Soviet Union and Communism presented the most dangerous soft-power challenges to the United States in the Cold War era, today’s greatest challenge comes from radical Islamist ideology and organisations.”

In the 1990s, Nye was criticised for the ambiguity surrounding the term. One of the confusion was over the ways of wielding soft power. Nye addresses this issue in this book. In addition to above-mentioned ways, another way of wielding soft power is through public diplomacy. Coming back to the example of the U.S., public opinion abroad creates a friendly or hostile environment for the U.S. actions. While in authoritarian countries leaders may not care about the public opinion to cooperate with the U.S., it is extremely difficult for politicians to disregard public opinion in their foreign policy decisions. For example, the Turkish government declined to support the American operations in Iraq in 2003 as Turkish public was highly against the invasion. Soft power could also be wielded through the traditional hard power structures. Intelligence agencies, in this regard, by building friendly relationships with agencies of other countries and exchange intelligence information “can have a powerful effect on other countries’ perceptions of both the United States and world events.” Similarly, the military would be able to wield soft power by developing contracts with foreign military officers and shape their outlook in line with own worldview.

Nye concludes the book by empirically observing the potential costs of ignoring the soft power. According to him, policies that disregard soft power are likely to be “self-defeating in terms of the outcomes we want”, Nye argues. In fact, ignoring credibility and legitimacy of the U.S. actions serves the interests of transnational terrorists. A country cannot prevail over terrorism if it is taking positions which make it easy for terrorists to recruit among people who do not share extremist views. Therefore, it is important for the U.S. to live for its standards. Regardless how much the 2003 Iraq war damaged U.S. soft power, it can still be regained “by adjusting the style and substance of our foreign policy.” Nye warns that while hard power remains an essential element of the U.S. security, its use should not be damaging to soft power.  Because “America’s success will depend upon our developing a deeper understanding of the role of soft power and developing a better balance of hard and soft power in our foreign policy. That will be a smart power.”

The central focus of the book is the 2003 Iraq invasion, which is one of the most controversial military operations conducted by the U.S. and its impacts on the American soft-power. In addition to its comprehensive analysis of the Bush administration’s foreign policy doctrine, ideas and theories developed in the “Soft Power: the means to success in world politics” could be used to explain the U.S. foreign policy during the Obama administration, which has often been criticised for its “weakness”. My own understanding from this is that Obama administration refrained from taking steps that could potentially harm the U.S. image in the world, and instead, it invested in normative policies to regain the America’s diminished soft power. As for the new U.S. administration, Nye’s “Soft Power” will be relevant to analyse policies introduced by Donald Trump. Besides the U.S., now, almost fifteen years since Josephs Nye authored this “academic bestseller”, findings of this book and Nye’s policy recommendations are broadly being followed by the number of world powers of the twenty-first century. For instance, countries like China and Russia regard improvement of soft power as a priority in their foreign policy objectives. However, we are yet to see to what extent government-sponsored policies can be attractive for others. Taking everything into account, I can conclude that Nye has successfully revealed that although soft power may not be the answer to many immediate security threats, it is becoming more and more pertinent to prevail over the long-term issues in the, what Nye calls, “three-dimensional chess game” of international politics.


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Kamran Ismayilov

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