The Debate

The Hard Side of Soft Power

Soft Power is widely misunderstood– military and economic capabilities can be important soft power assets.

The Hard Side of Soft Power
Credit: Wikicommons

It often seems the more well-known a concept becomes, the less it is understood.

Such was the case with Francis Fukuyama’s End of History theory, which proclaimed—quite accurately thus far— that the end of the Cold War was also the end of the Hegelian dialectic struggles between opposing universalistic worldviews. With communism and fascism discredited that world was left with only one remaining self-proclaimed universal ideology, that of liberal democracy.

There was much to criticize about Fukuyama’s theory—starting with whether Hagel had a proper view of history as a dialectic struggle towards a predetermined end—but he was most certainly not arguing that each state was on the cusp of becoming a liberal democracy, or that the U.S. should necessarily adopt an a grand strategy predicated on spreading democracy by force.     

Joe Nye’s soft power has perhaps eclipsed Fukuyama’s End of History theory in terms of its influence in the policy debate in the U.S. and elsewhere. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton became a particularly strong proponent of the concept—or at least its close cousin smart power, which seeks to integrate hard power and soft power into a coherent strategy. Indeed, Clinton began and ended her tenure as Secretary of State by touting a smart power approach to the world, and took some notable steps in between to realize this goal.

Soft power was recently back in the news owing to last week’s Pew Global Research poll of the world’s views of China and the United States. This conversation was by design as Pew included in the poll a charting comparing America and China’s soft power, which it measured by how well the U.S. and China were viewed in five areas: science and technology; music, movies and television; ways of doing business; ideas about democracy; ideas and customs spreading.

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Pew is hardly alone in using these types of measurements to define soft power. Indeed, soft power is almost always discussed as being synonymous with “soft” instruments of a national power—namely, things besides military and economic power.

This is not entirely unreasonable. Joe Nye himself has argued that “The soft power of a country rests heavily on three basic resources: its culture (in places where it is attractive to others), its political values (when it lives up to them at home and abroad), and its foreign policies (when others see them as legitimate and having moral authority).”

But commentators err when defining soft and hard power solely in terms of the types of instruments being used. Thus, Nye has also observed that soft power’s “wide usage has sometimes meant misuse of the concept as a synonym for anything other than military force.”

Indeed, rather than instruments, the distinction between hard and soft power is between the ways in which they influence (or attempt to influence) the behavior of others. Hard power, for instance, tries to induce (carrots) or coerce (sticks) others to take or not take certain actions.

Often military and economic power are the most appropriate instruments for wielding this type of power, such as when the U.S. tries to coerce Iran into putting more restrictions on its nuclear program through economic sanctions and threats of military force, or when the U.S. tries to induce Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians through promises of military or economic aid.  

But there’s no reason instruments we usually associate with soft power could not be used in hard power ways. For instance, had the U.S. threatened to disseminate its values to the Soviet population through mediums like Voice of America unless the Soviet Union agreed to an arms control proposal, or if it offered to end Voice of America broadcasts in Soviet states if the Soviet Union agreed to the proposal, the U.S. would have been using its values to exercise hard power.

In fact, President Obama’s speech to Israeli youth earlier this year was arguably a way of him using a soft instrument of national power (appeals to universal rights, including for Palestinians) in a hard power way, at least to the extent that it increased pressure on Benjamin Netanyahu to seek a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

Soft power, on the other hand, influences another’s behavior through attraction, legitimacy or agenda-setting. As the Nye quote above argues, this is usually and perhaps best done through the soft instruments of national power. Yet it is far more common for hard instruments of power to be used for soft power purposes then vice versa.

In fact, the United States has often used its military power for soft power ends. In rare instances, this is done in sweeping ways such as when the U.S. used its military superiority after WWII to transform Japan and Germany into democratic states. Originally this was done through pure coercion, but eventually the Japanese and German populations came to accept democratic values (and U.S. leadership) as legitimate.   

More frequently, the U.S. military is used more subtly for soft power ends. For instance, after the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, U.S. naval assets allowed the U.S. to be one of the first organizations on the scene helping in the rescue effort. The same was true after the 3/11 disasters in Japan. This undoubtedly made the U.S. in general, and the U.S. military’s presence in the region in particular, more attractive in the eyes of local populations who benefitted significantly from them being there.

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Similarly, when the U.S. military is used to fight piracy or uphold freedom of navigation in international waters, it is using both soft and hard power. It is using hard power towards the pirates and whichever party is threatening free navigation, by coercing or forcing them to seize their actions, but it is using soft power towards other populations who view the U.S. military’s presence in their neighborhood as legitimate thanks to these actions, and are attracted to the U.S. for its commitment to uphold freedom of navigation (assuming they are in favor of this.)

China, too, I would argue uses hard instruments of power, particularly economic power, for soft power purposes. This is probably most evident in the developing world, particularly Africa.

While China’s economic activities in Africa can produce a backlash among local populations, there is good reason to believe China’s overall economic success has increased its soft power in Africa. After all, not too long ago China was a developing nation (it would claim it still is) on par with many of the African states, and one that had suffered under foreign tutelage as well. By uplifting itself from those conditions, on emerging on the world stage as a near-equal of the United States, it very likely gains soft power among some Africans who see it as a model for their countries to emulate.  

Similarly, while American values are a much bigger soft power asset than China’s, China’s authoritarian political structure can also enhance its soft power among certain audiences.

In particular, China’s values could act as soft power among political elites in other authoritarian states. In this scenario, an African authoritarian leader (for example) may be attracted to China precisely because he believes that by emulating China’s example of opening up and reforming economically, while remaining politically autocratic, would help him and his supporters stay in power in their own countries.

Thus, as in most things in life, the distinction between soft and hard power is not so clean cut as comparing apples with oranges.