Soft power is the ability of a country, organization, or even a person to influence or attract others through cultural, ideological, or diplomatic appeal rather than military force or coercion.
The concept was coined by American political theorist Joseph Nye to conceptualize the gentle and diplomatic ways by which nations can achieve their geopolitical goals.
Examples of soft power include the use of cultural exchange, global media presence, education exchange, entertainment and music exports, artistic influence, and effective global branding of a nation or culture.
Soft Power Definition (vs Hard Power)
Soft power is defined by Joseph Nye (1990) as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments” (Nye, 2009, p. 2).
This can refer to direct political diplomacy, but moreover, reflects the perception other nations have of your own. Nye often refers to “attractiveness” when talking about soft power (Nye, 2011, 2021) as it is this attractiveness that enables nations to export their cultural values and softly exert influence on others.
Furthermore, soft power garners its definition in opposition to hard power which refers to the direct use of economic and military carrots and sticks, including economic sanctions and military action.
In reality, however, nations use a mix of soft and hard power mechanisms to get their way, in a process coined by Suzanne Nossel as smart power (Nossel, 2009; Whiton, 2013).
Go Deeper: Hard Power vs Soft Power
Soft Power Examples
1. Cultural Exchange
Soft power can be exerted when a nation proposes a cultural exchange between nations. For example, when tourists come to your nation, you use your tourism industry to convince them of the beauty of your culture, the richness of your heritage, and the warmth of your people.
An active tourism industry helps to promote your nation and its values, demonstrating to other nations that you share common human values, or that your nation has intrinsic value that should be honored and respected (Fan, 2008; Nye, 2011).
Similarly, when we travel overseas (especially when government representatives travel), we attempt to portray our nation in a positive and warm manner to attract goodwill.
2. Cultural Exports
Nations export their culture through media, film (e.g. Hollywood), technologies, sports, and so forth, in a way that also generates goodwill from foreign nations.
By exporting your culture, you are spreading your values and putting your nation’s “best foot forward.” Through these behaviors, closer cultural ties are made between nations, and your cultural values may even be exported, changing other nations’ cultures to be more like your own (Nye, 2011; Lebedeva, 2017).
Take, for example, England exporting cricket around the world, which helps to sustain its cultural ties with great nations like India, despite India’s de-colonization. This bond over sports helps to bring the nations together, engendering goodwill and warm relationships.
3. Global Media
Global media is an overt way in which nations attempt to change the hearts and minds of foreign citizens, often known as public diplomacy. Today, many government-funded media outlets exist designed for global audiences: France has France24 in English, Qatar has Al Jazeera, and Britain has BBC World Service (Nye, 2011; Yukaruc, 2017).
One of the most famous examples, however, was Radio Free Europe, a US government funded radio station that would broadcast into Soviet satellite states during the Cold War in order to win over the hearts and minds of citizens who would otherwise only get the Soviet side of the story from Soviet news.
4. Education Exchangce
Education is a powerful arm of soft power. Prominent global universities with high cultural capital attract children of elites who experience several years in a country, immersing themselves in a culture, which can be a formative influence of the next generation of a nation’s elites (Nye, 2009; Yukaruc, 2017).
For example, presidents, kings, and prime ministers from around the world have attended ivy league universities in the United States. This time in the USA undoubtedly gives them a better understanding and even appreciation of western culture.
5. Moral Authority
Nye (2009) emphasizes the importance of having moral authority in order to sustain your own soft power. He gives the example of US influence in South America which has waxed and waned depending on US foreign policy.
Historically, the US has had a lot of soft power not only due to culture but also moral authority – it was the nation of freedom, human rights, and democracy. As Nye (2009) argues, “when a country’s culture includes universal values and its policies promote values and interests that others share, it increases the probability of obtaining its desired outcomes.”
US involvement in coups in South America in the 1970-80s lost them soft power influence because they were perceived to lack moral authority. While the official US line was about freedom, democracy, and human rights, their hard power actions were not reflecting this truth. As a result, respect for the nation waned through that era.
6. Nation Branding
A nation that sufficiently brands itself to foreigners can increase its soft power (Yukaruc, 2017). There is no better example of this than America, a nation that has sold “The American Dream” throughout the world (Mennell, 2014).
This not only attracts aspirational immigrants, but it also sells the nation’s image across the world to other nations whose leaders and citizens admire it. This engenders goodwill from people who want to emulate that nation, its culture and values.
By contrast, a nation that is seen as an internal mess or lacking in values (i.e. the internal security is poor) may lack soft power because it’s seen as a lower-branded nation that is less attractive.
Diplomacy is a soft power mechanism that involves fostering relationships, negotiating treaties, resolving disputes, and facilitating interaction among countries (Nye, 2009; Yukaruc, 2017).
Highly skilled diplomats can influence the decisions and behavior of other nations without resorting to threats or force by crafting mutual beneficial agreements or creating alliances.
Diplomacy can also involve providing foreign aid, hosting international events or promoting cooperative efforts, such as peacekeeping missions and international scientific research.
8. Globalized Brands
Multinational corporations and their brands play a significant role in soft power. Well-known brands like McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Apple, and IKEA are seen as embodiments of their home countries’ ideals, lifestyles, and values (Nye, 2009).
These companies not only garner revenue but also generate a cultural familiarity and appreciation for their home country around the world.
Once a globalized brand has established a strong presence and reputation in foreign markets, nationals of other countries are more inclined to perceive the brand’s home nation in a positive light, thereby contributing to increased influence and attraction – a form of soft power.
Benefits and Limitations of Soft Power
Soft power is generally seen as the preferred means for achieving geopolitical ends (Nye, 2021). It prevents widespread economic and humanitarian harm and changes hearts and minds better than hard power.
However, oftentimes, soft power doesn’t work. If it does, it generally takes a lot of time and requires consistency across many years to create a national brand, change people’s minds about you and your values, and engender goodwill (Fan, 2008; Yukaruc, 2017).
So, there are pros and cons to soft power.
Some key benefits of soft power include:
- Fosters Positive Relationships: Soft power helps build and maintain positive international relationships based on cooperation and mutual benefit rather than coercion, making interactions more stable and consistent.
- Non-Violent: Soft power does not involve the use of force or violence, so it promotes peace and prevents unnecessary conflict (Nye, 2011).
- Cost-Effective: Soft power mechanisms, such as cultural exchanges, diplomacy, and developing globalized brands, are generally less costly than military operations (Qin, 2018; Yukaruc, 2017).
- Enhances Reputation: Using soft power improves a country’s image globally and makes it attractive to others, thereby gaining their support or cooperation (Qin, 2018; Wagner, 2014).
Limitations of soft power include:
- Time-Consuming: The influence of soft power is not immediate; it takes time to change perceptions and build influence through cultural exchanges or diplomacy (Yukaruc, 2017).
- Unpredictable: Unlike hard power, the effects of soft power can be unpredictable as they rely on the perception of others, which can be influenced by a variety of factors (Wagner, 2014; Nye, 2021).
- Difficult to Measure: The impact of soft power is challenging to quantify, making it hard to evaluate its effectiveness.
- Limitation in Serious Conflicts: In high-stakes situations such as war or severe political conflicts, soft power may be insufficient to bring about the desired outcomes. Sometimes the use of hard power, such as military intervention, may be necessary (Wagner, 2014).
Fan, Y. (2008). Soft power: Power of attraction or confusion?. Place branding and public diplomacy, 4(2), 147-158. (Source)
Lebedeva, M. M. (2017). Soft power: the concept and approaches. MGIMO Review of International Relations, 3 (54), 212-223.
Mennell, S. (2014). Globalisation and the ‘American dream’. Human Figurations, 3(2). (Source)
Nossel, S. (2009). Smart Power. Foreign Affairs. No. March/April 2004
Nye, J. S. (1990). Soft power. Foreign policy, (80), 153-171.
Nye, J. S. (2009). Soft Power: The Means To Success In World Politics. PublicAffairs.
Nye, J. S. (2011). The Future of Power. PublicAffairs.
Nye, J. S. (2021). Soft power: the evolution of a concept. Journal of Political Power, 14(1), 196-208. (Source)
Qin, Y. (2018). A Relational Theory of World Politics. Cambridge University Press.
Volten, P. (2016). Hard power versus Soft power or a balance between the two?. All Azimuth: A Journal of Foreign Policy and Peace, 5(2), 91-94. (Source)
Wagner, J. P. N. (2014). The effectiveness of soft & hard power in contemporary international relations. E-International Relations, 1-2. (Source)
Whiton, C. (2013). Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War. Potomac Books.
Yukaruc, U. (2017). A critical approach to soft power. Bitlis Eren University Journal of Social Sciences, 6(2), 491-502.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]