Soft Power For All

Because ‘soft power’ is very difficult to wield given its impact and the influence which emanates from it, soft power cannot be wielded by everyone. Soft power can only be wielded by those who are capable of wielding it. Although power is dispersed and diffused in a digital and information age, there is nevertheless a hierarchy of power even as it pertains to the soft power which has been diffused throughout the international system. Thus, and as Lao Tzu suggested, a leader is best not when people obey his commands, but when they barely know he exists.

One major distinction between soft power and hard power is that the latter is about the individual or the individuals who wield it, whereas the former is about the target of one’s soft power strategy. In other words, hard power is about control, whereas soft power is about persuasion. Another benefit or upside of the ascension of soft power aside from its diffusion in an information age is that soft power can get governments which are for the most part oriented and inclined towards hard power to orient and incline themselves towards regular people. Arguably, getting people in power to orient themselves and to incline themselves towards regular people would have been difficult had it not been for the ascension of soft power over the course of the last few years. 

Attention has been said to be the most valuable commodity in an information age because attention is scarce, short-lived and it cannot be directed towards too many things at any given point in time. Thus, attention has to go towards what is either worth learning and knowing or towards what is of little to no value. In turn, having the right judgment and the ability to distinguish between what is worth the attention and what is not worth the attention in an information age can either make or break one’s fortunes and desired outcomes in an information age. 

But just because soft power has ascended does not mean that it cannot diminish. It all depends on how soft power is used. Just as hard power has become “diluted” as a result of the conditions of the balance of world power, soft power – to borrow from Moises Naim – is still very much “a volatile concept, highly vulnerable to short-term twists in world affairs, in an environment where news travels more rapidly than ever.” However, given the ascendance of soft power over hard power in recent years, Naim added: “That has not stopped numerous countries from embracing the concept and looking into ways to increase their soft power.” 

“Media penetration and popularity” are “among the more reliable indicators of soft power” according to Naim. Hence, a decline in the penetration and popularity of mainstream media in the United States, for instance, is a strong indicator of the overall decline in America’s soft power over recent years. A number of countries as well as a number of intellectuals and thinkers from around the globe now believe that China has surpassed the United States as the world’s foremost superpower. China’s rise in soft power directly correlates with its rise in hard power. Arguably, China was better at converting hard power into soft power than the United States over the course of the last few decades. In a sense, the main purpose of hard power is for it to be converted into soft power amidst international society. Samuel Huntington argued that: “Cultural assertion follows material success; hard power generates soft power.” In short, both hard power and soft power have gone up in tandem for China in recent decades, whereas both have gone down in tandem for the United States over the course of the last few decades. Hence, the nexus and interconnection of a wide range of political and social phenomena which may seem disparate and disconnected on the surface. 

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