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Soft Power Crisis in 2024


Soft power will enter a crisis in 2024, as dialogue spaces contract around the logic of "us" and "them." The function of public and digital diplomacy will be impacted. This page retrospectively examines Joseph Nye's seminal notion of 'soft power' and its subsequent development spanning nearly two decades.

2024 will be defined by ‘our’ and ‘wrong’ stories. Persuasion spaces will significantly shrink.

As actors amplify their stories while ignoring ethics, common sense, and fairness, hypocrisy and double standards will become more prevalent.

The decline of soft power, public diplomacy, and persuasion in ‘winning hearts and minds’ will have far-reaching consequences, as words can easily escalate into wars. Due to inertia, traditional ‘soft power’ mechanisms (people, institutions, academics) will continue to function ‘as always’. They will be propagandists rather than facilitators of conflict resolution and engagement for a better future for humanity.

What is soft power?

Soft power definition is the capacity to influence other nations through the use of persuasion and attraction rather than coercion or force. Soft power relies on culture, arts, and science. In the diplomatic field, soft power is built via, among others, education diplomacy, science diplomacy, public diplomacy, and digital diplomacy.

Hard power vs soft power

Hard power refers to the use of coercion, military or economic force to influence the behavior of another state. Soft power is the ability to shape the preferences of others through the use of culture, values, and ideas. Soft power attempts to influence indirectly by creating a desire for the power holder’s goals, whereas hard power relies on coercion and military power to achieve its objectives.

How does the USA use soft power? The USA has been using ‘soft power’ to achieve foreign policy objectives in support of military and economic powers. The USA uses soft power for persuasion, influence, and promoting its values and ideals. Soft power has allowed the USA to expand its influence and shape the behaviour of other countries without resorting to military force or economic coercion. For example, the USA has used soft power to get other countries to adopt policies like sanctions and diplomatic isolation against rogue states. 

Diplomatic instruments of soft power?

Soft power resources are used in numerous contexts of international relations and world politics.

E-diplomacy is an important tool of soft power. It includes using websites, blogs, and social media to shape public opinion and influence global conversations. During the Arab Spring, the importance of social media led to the use of Twitter and Facebook diplomacy. You can learn more about the use of social media and other online tools to increase soft power

Cultural diplomacy is an important way to connect with different groups and help people understand the values and culture of a country. Cultural diplomacy includes the organisation of festivals and exhibitions, the exchange of artists, and support for film and other art projects. Cultural diplomacy is part of the broader umbrella concept of public diplomacy.

Education diplomacy is becoming more important as countries use educational exchanges and scholarships to build relationships, international prestige, and their overall soft power. This includes providing opportunities to study abroad, as well as educational programs and exchanges to improve diplomatic relations and international cooperation. Typically, students and academics participating in educational exchange programmes develop a positive image and bond. 

Public diplomacy is used to connect with people all over the world and spread a good image. Public diplomacy is an important part of soft power which is used as an umbrella concept for cultural diplomacy, educational exchanges, and media outreach. Through public diplomacy, countries foster relationships, promote their foreign policy objectives, and increase their influence in the international arena.

Sports diplomacy is becoming an important part of soft power. It has a wide range of aspects. The hosting of events such as the FIFA World Cup improved Qatar’s public image. The relevance of major sports events for soft power is the reason why countries lobby heavily to host the Olympics, the World Cup, and other sporting events. The second important aspect is success in sports. Argentina’s victory in Qatar has increased the visibility and prestige of the country. 

Economic diplomacy is also used to increase soft power. After the Second World War ‘Marshall Plan’ was used to develop the economy of the European Union. However, ‘Marshall Plan’ also shaped European culture and societal priorities. China’s Belt and Road Initiative is another example of something that affects more than just economic and infrastructure projects. 

National practices of developing and using soft power?

What is India’s soft power?

India makes a lot of movies, music, books, and other forms of art that are enjoyed all over the world. This has increased India’s cultural influence in a big way. 

India has also been using yoga diplomacy as a tool for cultural exchange and international cooperation. The flagship activity is International Yoga Day.

How does China use soft power? 

China uses soft power to influence other countries and promote its interests by appealing to their interests, values, and priorities. It does this through various activities, such as providing international development aid, sponsoring cultural events and sports competitions, and investing in media outlets to promote its views. China also uses soft power to shape global discourse and increase its influence by developing relationships with other countries and organizations, such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization. It also uses soft power to promote its own economic, technological, and political agenda.

What is Qatar’s soft power?

Qatar is a small country and a soft superpower. For a long time, Qatar has used its wealth strategically to develop a wide range of soft power tools. The most recent was the organisation of the highly successful 2022 FIFA World Cup, which put Qatar very high on the soft power ranking. But, it was not an isolated initiative. Qatar’s Al-Jazeera television has become one of the most influential global news channels, with programs in all major languages. Qatar also has numerous educational diplomacy initiatives. It promotes excellence in education through special awards from the Qatar Foundation. The leading universities in the world have campuses in Qatar’s Educational City and Science and Technology Park. Qatar Airways is a part of Qatar’s image and its soft power as a whole. All of these parts of soft power have been built up over a long time, making Qatar first a leader in the region and, more recently, a leader in soft power on the global level. 

What is the EU’s soft power? 

The European Union (EU) is frequently described as a major player in “soft power,” or the use of non-military tools to influence the behaviour of other countries. This situation has been changing with the Ukraine War when EU has been supporting more and more military assistance.

EU’s soft power is exercised through a commitment to core values, including democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. In addition, the EU’s soft power has also been associated with peace, stability, the environment, and other global public goods. 

The EU has a strong institutional infrastructure with instruments such as development aid that include health, education, and poverty reduction.  In the educational realm, the EU supports research projects and exchange programs like Erasmus Plus. In the cultural realm, the EU supports film, music, and literature programs and events. 

Review of the book ‘Soft Power’ by Joseph Nye

If power means the ability to get (or influence directly) the outcomes one wants’ from others (mainly by coercion or inducements) then soft power is ‘the ability to shape the preferences of others’. If ‘the others’ want the same thing because we share the same worldview, outlook and culture, we can enlist their power in achieving ‘our’ goal.

Examples of ‘soft power’ are the number of foreign students enrolled in the U.S., the extent of academic exchanges, the worldwide consumption of American media products – America as the beacon of modernity with its values of openness, mobility, individualism, pluralism, voluntarism, and freedom. Culture – both in its ‘high brow’ and popular forms – and sports. An ‘attractive’ foreign policy takes pride of place. He quotes approvingly former Defence Secretary Robert McNamara: “If we can’t persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we’d better re-examine our reasoning.”

The concept of ‘soft power’ as developed by Nye is akin to that of mana among the Maoris. The authority of the chief is augmented by his successes in war. He increases his mana by marriages, feasts and displays of power. His mana is diminished by overt humiliation, or loss in war or negotiation – the Chinese might call it ‘losing face’. Napoleon’s secret weapon was the aura of invincibility that froze his opponent’s hearts and minds. Modern words would be ‘political capital’ – the ability of a leader to rally the electorate around his political goals. Image and ‘public relations’ are everyday terms for ‘soft power’. In the business world one would use the term ‘goodwill’.

There is no doubt that image can be a very powerful tool – witness the fortunes that rock singers obtain for just about anything they might release. Or the mark-ups that brand names command for what is essentially a generic product. In an international negotiation a country would have to make concessions to achieve its goals – it would be a matter of give and take. The great advantage of using ‘soft power’ is that it ‘does not cost anything’. Using ‘soft power’ a country need not make concessions: it simply gets its way – softly.

The use of soft power

Accumulation of ‘soft power’ is in any case costly, difficult, and time consuming. Solid reputations are only made over years. ’Soft power’ has its drawbacks, though: it constrains as much as it enhances power. ‘Honour’ a term much used by governments of yore – dictated unpalatable political choices by excluding e.g. the possibility of compromise. As many an actor knows, furthermore, image is very constraining. The public expects behaviour in conformity with the image – sudden deviance may lead to severe loss of image. Coherence too, however, may be treacherous – solidity may be perceived as boring. The key factor is the availability of an alternative. There may be a smouldering dissatisfaction with the situation but no overt revolt against it. As soon as people have a choice, they may exercise it.

Like a river, says Nye, a country’s image has many sources. Only a few are under direct government control and amenable to deliberate enhancement. Whether states should enhance their image – spend to strengthen their ‘soft power’ – is an issue debated in the book, without clear outcome. In an ideal world ‘soft power’ would accumulate automatically through good and convincing deeds – anything else is ‘propaganda’. Visions of crude manipulation by Nazis or Soviets come to mind. But convincing others of one’s worth might need some pro-active doing. And in any case as any post-modernist intellectual might cynically interject – there is no truth, just opinions. So what’s wrong with pushing a favourable opinion?

Many countries have ‘soft power’ to a different extent – Nye reminds us. Their origins are different, but they work in the same way as ‘soft power’ of the US. These forces may be competitive (e.g. France and U.S.) or supportive of each other (as the duo Bush-Blair has shown).

Nye chides the current U.S. administration for wantonly or foolishly destroying the country’s image abroad. The brutal use of hard power may yield results but no dividends in ‘soft power’. ‘Shock and awe’ might cower Iraq’s resistance, but spawn resistance to American leadership worldwide. In the end, power is exercised either through force or legitimacy. A regime that has lost his legitimacy can survive through terror for a while, but in the end it will be toppled as it is seen to have ‘lost the mandate from Heaven’. While this lesson is applicable within a state, extrapolation is possible. There is an international legitimacy of sorts – as when the U.S. led the free world in its fight gainst totalitarianism.

So what else is new? Little, I’m afraid. The book is a rather tortured and repetitive exposition of plain old truths – states have images; rulers have always been keen to enhance their image and they have not recoiled from doing so deliberately and often deviously. Reputations of states and leaders can be made, and destroyed also, as Napoleon discovered to his chagrin in 1812. Calling image ‘soft power’ does not really add to our ability to understand the issues

Review by Aldo Matteucci

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