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The soft underbelly of “soft” power – I

Published on 18 February 2013
Updated on 16 July 2024

The vagueness of the concept

If you want to be a public intellectual in the US, find the catchy turn of phrase and then beat the chicken-mint peas-mashed potatoes circuit with it, writing op-eds in the NYTimes on week-ends to uplifting effect. The “catchy phrase” best be vague and fuzzy: empty vessels resonate best. Like patent medicine it guarantees cure for all illness and success in the “pursuit of happiness”. (In France, on the other hand, you’d slouch in the Café de Flores and make cryptic or hermetic utterances, hoping that acolytes will spread the word of your intelligence beyond the pale.)

I’ve revisited Joseph S. NYE, Jr: Soft power; recently. I was not impressed when I read it soon after it was published. I’m even less impressed today.

Here is how NYE represents “soft power”


“Hard” is everything that forces a change in behavior from without: a threat or a bribe would be part of “hard” power. Economic inducements – international trade e.g. – would be classified as part of “hard power”. I may add, in passing, that this is not the common understanding of “hard” power: most US politicians would see trade as “soft” – hence one ambiguity of the concept.[1]

In NYE’s view the transition only occur when the “other” (however defined) is coopted – he becomes a willing partner. The change is from within. This is a sleight of hand of notable proportion. “Hard” power relates to everything between the “I and you”. It is “at arm’s length dealing”, while “soft” power presupposes collective intentionality. It is about “us” – sharing values. It is all the difference between a one-night stand and a marriage.

Lord HALSBURY in 1890 defined “empire” as a “convenient state between annexation and mere alliance”[2]. “Soft” power would lead to annexation or its equivalent, while “hard” power would lead to alliances – based on GOETHE’s Alderking’s threat:

Who rides there so late through the night dark and drear?

The father it is, with his infant so dear;

He holdeth the boy tightly clasp’d in his arm

He holdeth him safely, he keepeth him warm.

“My son, wherefore seek’st thou thy face thus to hide?”

“Look, father, the Alder King is close by our side!

Dost see not the Alder King, with crown and with tail?”

“My son, ’tis the mist rising over the plain.”

“Oh, come, thou dear infant! oh come thou with me!

For many a game I will play there with thee;

On my beach, lovely flowers their blossoms unfold,

My mother shall grace thee with garments of gold.”

“My father, my father, and dost thou not hear

The words that the Alder King now breathes in mine ear?”

“Be calm, dearest child, thy fancy deceives;

the wind is sighing through withering leaves.”

“Wilt go, then, dear infant, wilt go with me there?

My daughters shall tend thee with sisterly care

My daughters by night on the dance floor you lead,

They’ll cradle and rock thee, and sing thee to sleep.”

“My father, my father, and dost thou not see,

How the Alder King is showing his daughters to me?”

“My darling, my darling, I see it aright,

‘Tis the aged grey willows deceiving thy sight.”

“I love thee, I’m charm’d by thy beauty, dear boy!

And if thou aren’t willing, then force I’ll employ.”

“My father, my father, he seizes me fast,

For sorely the Alder King has hurt me at last.”

The father now gallops, with terror half wild,

He holds in his arms the shuddering child;

He reaches his farmstead with toil and dread, –

The child in his arms lies motionless, dead.[3]

The problem with NYE’s smooth transition from “hard” to (his) “soft” power is that external inducements and inner conviction do not mix easily. The line of separation is subtle, yet noticeable; it may even be a Rubicon. Here an example:

For years, Switzerland had been trying to find a place to store its radioactive waste…. One location designated as a potential site was the small mountain village of Wolfenschiessen (population 2,100). In 1993, shortly before a referendum on the issue, economists surveyed the residents of the village, asking whether they would vote to accept a nuclear waste repository in their community if the Swiss parliament decided to build it there. Although the facility was widely viewed as an undesirable addition to the neighborhood, a slim majority (51 percent) of residents said they would accept it. Apparently their sense of civic duty outweighed their concern about the risks. Then the economists added a sweetener: suppose parliament proposed building the nuclear waste facility in your community and offered to compensate each resident with an annual monetary payment. Then would you favor it?

The result: support dropped to 25 percent. What’s more, upping the ante didn’t help. When the economists increased the monetary offer, the result was unchanged. The residents stood firm even when offered yearly cash payments as high as $8,700 per person, well in excess of the median monthly income.[4]

NYE is right in speaking of “different currencies” – currencies nevertheless. The very essence of “soft” power, however, it that it is not exhanced (hence it is not monetized) but shared – just as in a family. So “soft” power cannot be a “means to success in world politics” (as the book’s subtitle asserts) but only an end. “Soft” power cannot be wielded (Chapter IV), and even less can it be harnessed to serve American policy (Chapter V), because sharing means relinquishing direction. The explanation is simple – when we move from the “I+you” to the “us” policy is shared, hence no longer national. What you describe, Dr. Nye, is “white man’s burden” in modern garb: let the benighted foreigners see the marvel of American democracy and free markets and they’ll embrace it out of their own free will. Slick advertising won’t change the intent: to control.

But this is just one facet of this ambiguous concept. I’ll deal with the “you” – a government, a population, an elite? – in my next blog entry.

* * *

Just to prove my point about “empty vessels resonating best”: Adam SMITH’s “invisible hand” is trotted out to good effect with the ignorant crowd (pg. 7). The problem is that with his “invisible hand” SMITH is referring to in the emergent properties of markets – say demand meeting supply – not guiding individual behavior. As to the other tired quip about “the Pope’s divisions” – the Pope is the ultimate in command behavior: he argues that he’ll have us burn in eternal hell, unless we abide by his rulings.

[1] NYE himself abets the misunderstanding by speaking nowadays of “smart” power, which mixes both “hard” and “soft” – but this is the subject of an ulterior blog.

[2] Quoted in W. G. RUNCIMAN: Empire as a topic in comparative sociology. In: Petere Fibiger BANG – C. A. BAYLY (2011): Tributary empires in global history. Palgrave, Cambridge.

[4] Michael J. SANDEL (2012): What money can‘t buy. The moral limits of markets. Allen Lane.

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