Nye on Soft Power

When “Soft Power” was published in Foreign Policy (1990), people didn’t expect it to be referenced by the likes of Hu Jintao or Vladimir Putin. Yet Hu told the Chinese Communist Party in 2007 that China needed to increase its use of soft power, and Putin recently urged Russian diplomats to apply soft power more extensively. Neither leader, however, seems to have understood how to accomplish these goals. What is soft power? It is power (the ability to get others to work towards the outcome one wants) that comes from positive sources instead of from fear or payment. For a rising power like China, whose growing economy and military may frighten its neighbors into counter-balancing coalitions, soft power could make China look less frightening and the balancing coalitions less effective. For a declining power like Russia (or Britain before it), residual soft power helps to cushion the fall.

The soft power of a country rests primarily on three resources: its culture; its political values (when it lives up to them at home and abroad); and its foreign policies (when they are seen as legitimate and moral). Combining these resources is not always easy. Establishing, say, a Confucius Institute in Manila to teach Chinese culture might help produce soft power, but it is less likely to do so in a context where China has just bullied the Philippines over possession of Scarborough Reef. Much of America’s soft power is produced by civil society – everything from universities and foundations to Hollywood and pop culture – not from the government. Sometimes the United States is able to preserve a degree of soft power even when government actions – like the invasion of Iraq – are otherwise undermining it. In a smart power strategy, hard and soft reinforce each other.

Watch more

People on the street: what is power?