Soft Power

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Soft Power is a phrase coined in 1990 by Joseph Nye, an American political scientist at Harvard University. It refers to the ability to attract, persuade and co-opt other actors, as opposed to Hard Power, which relies on brute force and coercion. Soft power works to promote the sponsor’s preferred outcomes in the targeted territory, and can be exercised by a variety of actors, not just the nation-state, in international politics, like non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and transnational corporations (TNCs) [1].

According to Nye, an organisation’s Soft Power is based on three resources: its culture (and how attractive it looks to others), its political values (and whether it lives up to them at home and abroad), its foreign policies (and whether these are seen as legitimate and moral)[2]. In describing the effectiveness of Soft Power, Nye argues that "seduction is always more effective than coercion, and many values like democracy, human rights, and individual opportunities are deeply seductive"[3].

Soft Power is often used as one of the key tools of Public Diplomacy, an area of foreign policy which seeks to overtly promote the sponsor’s interests abroad by influencing foreign audiences [4], and has been described by some as having no significant difference to pure Propaganda [5].


In an attempt to chart the Soft Power resources of different countries, the media outlet "Monocle" releases an annual Soft Power Survey in association with the Institute for Government, which ranks nations according to the amount of attractiveness and influence they have within international politics. This measure is calculated using 50 different indicators of Soft Power assets; which includes diplomatic infrastructure, appeal to business, cultural output, quality of architecture, Olympic success, famous brands, and standard of government [6].

The 2014/2015 Monocle Soft Power Survey Results – Top 20

1. United States

2. Germany

3. United Kingdom

4. Japan

5. France

6. Australia

7. Switzerland

8. Sweden

9. Denmark

10. Canada

11. Spain

12. Italy

13. Netherlands

14. New Zealand

15. South Korea

16. Norway

17. Finland

18. Belgium

19. China

20. Austria[7]

Problems with Soft Power

Plurality of Opinion

One issue with the exercise of Soft Power is that the ideas it aims to progress will not appeal to everyone. Many different sections of a foreign audience will hold different values. Because of a growing plurality of opinion in an increasingly globalised world, different parts of populations will be attracted or repelled by different things. Soft Power is eroded when significant sections of a target audience are repelled rather than attracted to the ideas being presented to them[8].

Openness to Persuasion

Soft Power is not as easily or readily wielded as Hard Power. Soft Power must take into account the fact that its success relies on a large extent to the mind-set of the group it is targeting. The target audience must be willing to be persuaded, and open to the ideas being sold to them. This is more easily achieved in societies that are similar to the one that is being sponsored, because parts of the audience are more likely to be innately sympathetic to the ideas it presents. However, a Soft Power strategy that is inherently contradictory to the society it operates in is likely to encounter increased friction with the target audience, and a higher difficulty of implementation[9].

Building Cooperation

The building of a Soft Power campaign is a very demanding and time-consuming process, and its success often relies on factors outside the control of the sponsor. In order to successfully build Soft Power abroad, the sponsor organisation may need to utilise other domestic organisations to effectively further its cause, such as individual actors, parts of civil society, NGOs, and TNCs. These groups may be inherently reluctant or resistant to cooperate. They could also hold the ability to damage existing Soft Power campaigns (both intentionally and unintentionally), or run rival ones[9].

Examples of Soft Power

The Marshall Plan

After the destruction of the Second World War, many European nations were left on the brink of disaster. The United States developed a Soft Power initiative known as the Marshall Plan, named after the then Secretary of State, George Marshall. This Plan involved a program of massive humanitarian aid to sixteen western and southern European countries, which aimed to improve their economies and promote democracy during the build up to the Cold War. The Marshall Plan aimed to prevent European powers from falling into the hands of the communist Soviet Union by promoting American economic and cultural hegemony. The Marshall Plan has also been described as an attempt to get European nations to act ‘continentally’, rather than a divided group of independent states [10].



  1. Joseph Nye (2005), "Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics", U.S.: PublicAffairs
  2. Joseph Nye (2011), "The Future of Power", New York: PublicAffairs, p.84
  3. Joseph Nye (2005), "Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics", U.S.: PublicAffairs, p. x
  4. Jan Melissen (May 2005), Wielding Soft Power: The New Public Diplomacy, Netherland Institute of International Relations: Palgrave Macmillan, accessed 12 March 2015
  5. John Brown, Public Diplomacy & Propaganda: Their Differences, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill website, September 2008, accessed 12 March 2015
  6. Institute for Government (December 2010), The New Persuaders: An international ranking of soft power, Institute for Government website, accessed 13 March 2015
  7. Monocle, Soft Power Survey 2014-2015, "Monocle" website, accessed 13 March 2015
  8. Angelo Codevilla (2008), "Political Warfare: A Set of Means for Achieving Political Ends" in Waller, (ed) Strategic Influence: Public Diplomacy, Counterpropaganda and Political Warfare, IWP Press
  9. 9.0 9.1 Peter Layton (Aug 2013), Soft power, strategy and policymaking, accessed 13 March 2015
  10. Robert Wilde, The Marshall Plan, About website, accessed 13 March 2015