Power is widely regarded as the quintessential determinant of conflicts that arise between states. A very valid issue which is raised with regards to this notion is, when and how power matters in world affairs today. Existing theories lay out at least three distinct ways of studying politics, power, and peace. First, power can be regarded as a kind of influence that governs the kinds of settlements nations can obtain, or circumstances nations must endure, with or without the use of force. Second, power could construct political geography, varying the impact of physical distance and differentiating conflicts among nations that are possible from those that are very unlikely. Third, power may be viewed as a determinant of state preferences; causing the same countries under different circumstances to cooperate or to oppose one another. Out of the three illustrations linking power and conflict, the last — power as preferences — has received the most attention from students of international relations. Work by scholars like Kenneth Waltz and John Mearsheimer validate the widespread view that power relations define who fights whom, and when. The association between power, interests, and war is also ancient, threading through the scholarship of Morgenthau, Mahan, Clausewitz, Machiavelli, Thucydides, and Sun Tzu.
Coined by Harvard Professor Joseph Nye some 20 years ago, soft power has become a popular concept both in the academic and the policy world, and both in and outside the United States. For example, the concept of soft power looms large in the 2007 volume Power in World Politics, which grew out of a forum, organized by the journal Millennium in 2005, that engaged with the concept of power in international relations. Recently, soft power, along with smart power, has become an important part in the foreign policy thinking of the U.S. government in particular. Well before Washington, Beijing has embraced soft power as a prominent part of its comprehensive national power. There is a large-scale debate on soft power among the Chinese, and the term “soft power” has been formally adopted by top PRC leaders such as President Hu Jintao.
The concept of soft power, otherwise referred to as co-opted power, by Joseph Nye, has been explained as the ability to shape what others want, can rest on the attractiveness of one’s culture and values or the ability to manipulate the agenda of politicians from other nations. Joseph Nye also describes hard power or command power as the kind of power that gives regimes the ability to change what others do. By the use of coercionand force, hard power is becoming increasingly unsuitable for addressing some of the world’s most pertinent issues, for example Iran’s Nuclear Program, the situation in the Middle East and so on.
Also, according to Joseph Nye, the soft power of a country in question rests mainly on three pillars: its culture, its political values and its foreign policy. First of all, culture is the set of values and practices which give meaning to a society. When the culture of a country embodies universal values and also creates an atmosphere conducive for the promotion of values and principles that others share, it raises the probability of achieving some of its goals on specific matters, mainly because of the creation of a relationship based on mutual interest and duty. “Narrow values and parochial relationships are less likely to produce soft power”. The United States of America can be considered as a classic example of a country that benefits a lot from a universalistic culture, a culture that cuts across borders and contributes to making it relatively easier for the United States to gain support on a wide range of issues.
Since soft power is the power to attract, the question, what constitutes soft power, becomes, what generates attraction?
China’s policy of economic aid “no strings attached” is perceived by authoritarian regimes in the developing world as a clear sign of benignity. Certainly, assistance from the PRC is not without strings, but its conditions—say no to Taiwan and say no to the “China threat” theory—are seen by many countries as harmless, while the conditions that Western countries attach to their offer—respect of human rights and democracy—represent a challenge, if not threat, to authoritarian regimes.
The provision of humanitarian assistance is another way to express benignity and project soft power. Humanitarian aid can be provided not only through civil societal actors using economic resources but also by troops using military resources. One of the major motives behind the engagement of some advanced industrial states in UN peacekeeping operations and in mediating peace negotiation is to cultivate the image of them as a responsible, peace-loving, and generous member of the international community, thereby enhancing their soft power in general. Also, the relief operations provided by the U.S. Navy after the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia and other affected countries helped improve the image of the United States as a nice country, an image that suffered large damages in the invasion of Iraq the year before.
While humanitarian assistance often mediates soft power in an indirect way, diplomatic support provides a more direct channel of soft power. For example, China’s adherence to the principle of nonintervention in domestic affairs and its votes in favor of authoritarian regimes in international organizations have helped it gain more and easier access to the natural resources and domestic markets of these countries. Also, although states often support controversial candidates for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council—candidates such as India and Japan—based on their strategic rather than opportunistic calculations, but their supports are likely to be rewarded by these ambitious candidates.
The conduct of domestic and foreign policies on normative principles provides a way to project soft power through beauty, and to some extent, also benignity. The universalistic culture and liberal norms prevalent in Western countries can presumably enhance the attractiveness of these societies in the eyes of most ordinary citizens around the world. While a number of elites in developing countries keep criticizing liberal democracy as a decadent form of life, the world-wide currents of migration suggest that more people prefer life in a liberal democracy than in an authoritarian society. This Western beauty, which resonated neatly with the people in Eastern Europe, was a major power currency that helped demolish the Iron Curtain in 1989 and extend the border of the political West to that of Russia in the following period.
Similarly, during most of the 20th century, the USSR and the PRC, with their firm ideological posture in opposition to the West and their active support for anti-Western activities, were seen by numerous individuals, groups, and governments around the world as the natural leaders of the oppressed and exploited people. Today, China’s and Russia’s advocacy for a more “democratic and just” world order and their championing for the primacy of state sovereignty over human rights make them the natural choice for many authoritarian regimes in their search for foreign allies. Admittedly, the close relationship between an authoritarian major power and a smaller authoritarian regime is not always motivated by “beauty” (the resonance of shared norms and purposes). In some cases, it is the benignity of actual nonintervention and political support from the major power that is the key motive. In some other cases, the major power does intervene in the domestic affairs of the smaller regime—but not for the sake of human rights and democracy. Instead, it intervenes in support of the incumbent rulers—yet another form of benignity although to a select partner rather than a wider population. But, many people would perceive selective benignity as more valuable than indiscriminate kindness.
Soft power is a form of power based on a country’s cultural resources. It is intangible, relative, context-based, and controlled largely by non-state actors. The relevance and ultimate effectiveness of soft power depends on the perception and response of its target audience. Soft power is based on the central assumption “to get others to want what you want”. This remains untested and it is not clear how this can be achieved in reality. Soft power is still power, and wielding is a menacing word. Two countries in this power relationship should get mutual benefits otherwise such a relationship will not last. It is important for a country to know how to set limits to its power, as suggested by Niebuhr (1932). He warns of the perils of American power and believes that US security lies in “reducing our power to a minimum”. It would be interesting to find out whether it is possible for a country to achieve its objective without using any power or using minimum power.
With enormous soft power in the form of global brands, multinational companies can play a key role in promoting a nation’s image. In the absence of a coherent nation branding campaign, corporate brands can in fact act as the ambassador for a country’s image in the world, and are a tangible manifestation of a country’s soft power. In many cases they are seen as the de facto brand of a nation, i.e. they are the nation’s brand. Japanese prime minister is quoted as saying that Sony and Matsushita (Panasonic) are the left and right faces of Japan (Fan, 2008b). Such brands emerge from the stability and success of a country’s political and economic institutions – the foundation of its hard power – and consequently contribute to nation branding in aggregate. A good cultural product and a number of successful global brands are vital in creating a long lasting impact in nation branding. Soft power and nation branding are two closely linked concepts. Nation branding concerns how a nation as a whole presents and represents itself to other nations (Anholt, 2006), whereas public diplomacy is a subset of nation branding that focuses on 20 the political brand of a nation. Compared with Nye’s notion of soft power through public diplomacy, nation branding provides a more focused, culturally unbiased and more useful approach to creating international influence in the world.
By: Joseph Mensah and Emmanuel Emenyo