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‘Soft power’ is nothing more than influence

01 July 2020

Diplo Wisdom Circle

The term soft power (and its siblings hard power and smart power), employed to embrace a particular category of resources of potential power, originated in the stable of Joseph S Nye, Jr, a Harvard University distinguished service professor and former senior member of the US military-intelligence complex. Not only has it subsequently spread like a virus through the pages of academic works in International Relations but it has also found its way into the statements of foreign ministers and their bureaucracies – and even of presidents. Keying the term recently into the search box of the website of the US Department of State spewed up 1160 hits, and even 125 on the English version of that of the Quai d’Orsay – 222 for puissance douce in the original French. I learn from a chapter on the subject in the recently published Oxford Handbook of Modern Diplomacy (to which all subsequent page numbers refer) that the concept of soft power was employed by Chinese president Hu Jintao in a report delivered to the 17th Communist Party Congress in 2007 (p. 544). It is, therefore, probably just a matter of time before the US Secretary of State is renamed the Secretary of Soft Power, and the Secretary of Defense – the Secretary of Hard Power, although no doubt only as a compromise after an unseemly scramble between them to be called the Secretary of Smart Power had resulted in a stand-off. Well before this happens someone will certainly turn in a thesis (for all I know it has already happened) purporting to grade the potential power of states, NGOs, etc. (why not?) in the same way that mattresses are graded by soft furnishing stores (only Special Forces get their bedding from hard furnishing stores): Hard – Firm – Medium – Soft – SuperSoft. Does any of this matter?

In a chapter in the same handbook mentioned above, a ramshackle monument to ‘innovative’ language, Nye says that ‘fully defined’ (one wonders about the value of a partial definition) soft power is ‘the ability to affect others to obtain preferred outcomes by the co-optive means of framing the agenda, persuasion, and positive attraction’ (p. 565).Two things strike me about this definition. One is that it is cluttered with redundant words; the other is that it describes something for which we have long had a more elegant term: influence. Removing the clutter makes this obvious. In the first place, only masochists would seek to affect others in order to obtain an outcome which they did not prefer, so why labour the obvious, i.e. that the point of affecting others is to obtain ‘preferred outcomes’? Second, ‘the co-optive means’ is simply an inessential umbrella term synonymous with soft power itself. Third, ‘persuasion’ subsumes ‘framing the agenda’ since a proffered agenda is useless unless the others can be persuaded to accept it. Finally, ‘positive attraction’ is a pleonasm. (Addition of the superfluous adjective positive is a stylistic flourish to which Nye does not fall victim when he repeats the definition in endnote 8, although here unfortunately he makes a different error: he distinguishes between co-option and one of the means which in his text definition it embraced; namely, attraction.) Uncalculated rather than positive attraction would catch his meaning better, I think; this seems to be the idea contained in his statement that ‘In 18th-century Europe, the spread of French language and culture enhanced French [soft] power’ (p. 566).

In plain English, therefore, Nye defines soft power as the ability to affect the behaviour of others by persuasion and uncalculated attraction. Since, most notably in contrast to control, coercion, and force, this is also a perfectly acceptable definition of influence, why call it soft power and stimulate legions of scholars and foreign ministries to contemplate it as if it were an original and blinding revelation, the conceptual equivalent of the Holy Grail?

Nye actually concedes – although only implicitly – that influence and soft power are one and the same (p. 559). But the trouble is, he insists, that while ‘some people’ distinguish influence from power, ‘the dictionary’ defines influence and power interchangeably. This is the only reason he gives for jettisoning influence in favour of soft power. But which dictionary is culpable? Certainly not Roger Scruton’s highly regarded Palgrave Macmillan Dictionary of Political Thought (2007) or the Oxford Handbook’s more famous publishing stablemate the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). On the contrary, both define influence as a form of power achieved without threat, typically by reasoned appeal to interest, morality, class, or national solidarity. It is worth adding that to its author’s credit, the Palgrave Macmillan Dictionary contains no reference to soft power at all. As for the OED, this does not have ‘soft power’ either (‘soft porn’, yes), although there is a draft addition of September 2006 mouldering in the online edition which it is to be hoped will never achieve the undeserved cachet of having been incorporated in the dictionary proper.

There is another problem with the substitution of soft power for influence, apart from being a waste of time. There are numerous meanings of the adjective ‘soft’, one of which applied to speech is ‘quietness’, as in the proverb famously favoured by the early twentieth century US president Theodore Roosevelt: ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick.’ And soft power meaning ‘quiet power’ is, I suppose, a reasonable enough term to embrace the pursuit of influence by means of cultural diplomacy (less so by TV and radio broadcasts). But there can be little doubt that the commonest meaning attributed to the adjective at issue is ‘yielding’, as for example in soft cushion, soft mattress, and … er … soft on communism. In translation, therefore, what we really have is ‘yielding power’, which is not only a spectacular but also perhaps a risky oxymoron. Foreign minister, beware!

Why has this silly and inelegant synonym for influence caught on? Three reasons suggest themselves. First, the soft power/hard power contrast is easy to grasp, while by contrast the concept of influence is – as Scruton says – like many of the basic concepts of political science, ‘extremely difficult’ to define with confidence, although I think he exaggerates a little. Second, the influence, sorry, soft power, of the leading American universities, the US International Relations establishment (especially via the International Studies Association), and major American publishers, reinforced by the pull of the English language, is immense. Third, the word concept has come to be applied too casually by soft power worshippers to the object of their adoration, thereby suggesting the discovery of something new. Nye himself says that ‘Though the concept of soft power only goes back to 1990, the behaviour it denotes is as old as human history’ (p. 566). It is, of course, the term – his peculiar name for the concept – that only goes back to the year in which he coined it, and the concept of this behaviour which is as old as diplomacy itself.

This post first appeared on the personal blog of Prof. GR Berridge and is republished here with permission.

Discussion topic

Soft power might be nothing more than another term for influence but perhaps signals its meaning better?

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