Soft Power

‘Soft Power’ – in comparison to ‘Hard Power’ – is the largely intangible aspect of power which arguably is more decisive in determining both ‘outcomes of interaction’ as well as the level of control and influence which an individual or a state can wield over others. Arguably, soft power is a lot like love. It cannot be faked or farced. Either one has it or does not have it, and it is either there or it is not there. 

And as Joseph Nye argued: “There is no contradiction between realism and soft power. Soft power is not a form of idealism or liberalism. It is simply a form of power, one way of getting desired outcomes.” Nye added: “Legitimacy is a power reality. Competitive struggles over legitimacy are part of enhancing or depriving actors of soft power, and this is particularly true in the information age of the twenty-first century.” 

Aside from the main sources of one’s soft power – namely, culture, values, and policies – credibility and legitimacy are the initial and most important springboards for developing soft power. And what credibility and legitimacy generate in turn, as Nye pointed out, are attraction, persuasion, and trust. Nye argued that in turn, attraction has three dimensions or elements of its own: benignity, competence, and beauty or charisma. Nye also makes the distinction between ‘direct and indirect’ soft power and how in the former case, there is a direct person-to-person impact and influence between leaders, whereas in the latter case, people shape the environment and in turn the environment influences people in positions of authority and power. 

Perhaps the most important point which Nye made about “Soft Power” is the following: 

“To be credible in a century where power is diffusing from states to nonstate actors, government efforts to project soft power will have to accept that power is less hierarchical in an information age and that social networks have become more important. To succeed in a networked world requires leaders to think in terms of attraction and co-option rather than command.” 

Through attraction, persuasion, and trust, one can then frame and set the agenda for entities, groups, and individuals in both the public sector and the private sector in an information age whereby power has essentially diffused to all and sundry. Whether soft power is a tool of public diplomacy or if public diplomacy is a tool of soft power is perhaps an open question. But as Nye argued, both include “three concentric circles” of communication with the broader world and in turn these concentric circles of communication shape the environment for both changes in government policy and the implementation of government policy. 

For one, there are daily communications which involve explaining everything to people. Second, there are strategic communications which involve the themes that generate from the daily communications over the long run. And third, there are the lasting relationships which people develop through their daily and strategic communications. Taken altogether, and if employed properly, these “three concentric circles” of communication or public diplomacy can lead to desired outcomes. In sum, and as Nye argued: “Under the new conditions of the information age, more than ever the soft sell proves more effective than the hard sell.” And if soft power is now more effective than any other dimension of power in an information age, the result is a crisis of control for governments, both democratic and autocratic, which is perhaps a good thing, given that government control and government power depends in large part upon sinews of hard power, and as a result, the ascendance of soft power in an information age has made power more democratic and widespread and in turn has diffused power throughout all the various levels of international society.

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