Soft Power

Okhotsk Cultural Exchange Center (Echo Center 2000) in Abashiri, Hokkaido prefecture, Japan, Author: 663highland, CC 2.5

Okhotsk Cultural Exchange Center (Echo Center 2000) in Abashiri, Hokkaido prefecture, Japan, Author: 663highland, CC 2.5

Soft Power

This article will discuss the concept of soft power in international relations. It will define soft power, it will examine the forms and uses of soft power by states and non-state actors in international relations, and particularly with relations to hard power, and it will examine soft power within the context of various actors in the international system. Within this,  in the article we will discuss soft power with countries such as the United States, China and soft power, Russia and soft power, etc… Finally, there will be a number of books and resources for individuals with an interest in furthering their reading on the concept of soft power.

What is Soft Power?

Soft power has been defined in a number of ways. For example, soft power is viewed as the “non-material capabilities such as reputation, culture, and value appeal that can aid the attainment of a state’s objectives” (Viotti & Kauppi, 2013: 207). Joseph Nye, who has written the seminal work on soft power in the study of international relations, says that soft power is  “getting others to want the outcomes that you want” (5). However, with soft power, as opposed to hard power, the idea is to elicit change by altering what others prefer (their preferences) (6). Thus, soft power is more than the ability to influence other actors in international relations, but rather, it is the “the ability to attract, and attraction leads to acquiescence” (6). Vuving (2009) suggests that “we can add the word “accept” to the definition, and soft power is the ability to get others to want or accept what you want. However, there is still a problem with the word “accept” in the sense that you decide that there is nothing you can do to change an unpleasant fact and so you have to accept it or when you accept something unwillingly. Thus, the statement “soft power is the ability to get others to want, or accept, what you want” is not a precise definition but a first and useful approximation to a definition of soft power” (6). Other, such as Breslin (2011) says that “soft power is conceived as the idea that others will align themselves to you and your policy preferences because they are attracted to your political and social system, values and policies” (8). 

Historically, the attention to power has revolved around material capabilities such as a military. In fact, many who think of power tend to view it in this fashion. As Joseph Nye (1990) explains, “[b]ecause the ability to control others is often associated with the possession of certain resources, politicians and diplomats commonly define power as the possession of population, territory, natural resources, economic size, military forces, and political stability” (154). However, as Nye wrote in 1990, he said that “[t]oday, however, the definition of power is losing its emphasis on military force and conquest that marked earlier eras. The factors of technology, education, and economic growth are becoming more significant in international power, while geography, population, and raw materials are becoming somewhat less important” (154). However, some have suggested that the idea of soft power has evolved since Nye’s (1990) initial discussions of soft power. Some have suggested that soft power initially did not included international aid or international investment, and now, that this is another aspect of soft power (Kurlantzick, 2006).

Thus, to understand the importance of soft power, one has to know the limitations of hard power, as scholars see it. While hard power has been one of the most prevalent forces in the history of international relations, those who believe that hard power is in decline, in turn advocate the emphasis on soft power. There are many reasons that some have suggested hard power (or military power) is not as important, and not as used, as it may have been in the past. For example, while there is a history of military power (which still exists today), some, such as Joseph Nye (1990) say that “[t]oday…the direct use of force for economic gain is generally too costly and dangerous for modern great powers. Even short of aggression, the translation of economic into military power resources may be very costly (159). Furthermore, even with states that want to ensure security, the way to do that may not be to invest in a military, but rather, there may need to an increased need to develop forms of soft power, such as “communications, organizations and institutional skills…”, among other forms of soft power, in order for a state to maintain influence in international relations (Nye, 1990: 157-158). Morevoer, as states become more interdependent on one another economically, military options to resolve conflicts are less possible, and much less of an option. And thus, because of the decline in hard power in international relations, and because of the ability to use soft power factors, advocates of soft power have said that states must adapt to their ideas of power, not eliminating the military, according to some, but rather to invest in these other issues of soft power (Nye, 1990).

However, just because a leadership realizes the importance of soft power in international relations, does not mean that establishing soft power is without difficulty. Many see both military and economic power as “straightforward.” However, soft power, on the other hand, “is more difficult, because many of its crucial resources are outside the control of governments, and their effects depend heavily on acceptance by the receiving audiences” (Nye, 2004). Furthermore, soft power is also difficult to achieve because it can take a long time for a county to be able to develop adequate soft power capabilities (Nye, 2004)

Furthermore, it is not enough to build one’s soft power in international relations, but rather, it has to be done within a context that is filled with various pieces of information. Because there is so much information, the need for credibility with regards to soft power is more important than ever before. Whereas before, governments were the primarily modes of communication of information, and thus, they could better control the information, and in turn, their influence on soft power. However, with the rise of media, and the belief that citizens are better recognizing propaganda, this has led governments to be in a competition with other media sources with regards to the sharing of information (Nye, 2004), which can in turn alter their level of soft power. It is for this reason that viewed credibility has become the cornerstone of information sharing. Thus, states will often compete to tell their side of the story, and often with the intention of reducing the voice (and therefore the level of soft power) of an actor’s political rival (Nye, 2004). And inaccurate reporting, while achieving a goal with regards to one objective, may damage the level of soft power an actor has in the future (Nye, 2004).

How Do States Use Soft Power?

States have a number of ways to use employ soft power techniques in their international relations, as well as in their domestic politics. Much of this revolves around their public diplomacy with other countries and other international actors. And with this, it is not enough to provide information, or pitch an idea that the state or non-state actor wants to convey, but effective diplomacy, and the successful building of soft power “involves building long-term relationships that create an enabling environment for government policies” (Nye, 2004: 8). This can be done in a number of capacities. For one, governments often communicate daily about decisions that they have made, or plan to make. And while much of the attention is on domestic media outlets, soft power can be built through focusing on international media as well (Nye, 2004). Along with daily communications is also strategic communication, which can be the use of symbols, as well as planned campaigns towards particular issues in international relations (Nye, 2004). Lastly, in diplomacy is the importance of friendship building among states, and among citizens of the respective states. Soft power can be developed with this approach through the establishment of places where citizens can dialogue, or programs that promote cultural exchanges between the different countries (Nye, 2004).

However, one has to remember that soft power can only work if the policies promoted or represented by the states are favorable to others. Bad policy cannot be fixed or hidden by soft power, as “even the best advertising cannot sell an unpopular product, and policies that appear as narrowly self-serving or arrogantly presented are likely to consume rather than produce soft power” (Nye, 2004: 10).

But again, soft power doesn’t even have to be built through programs that are constructed with the primarily intention of sharing information or promoting a particular issue or agenda. For example, in the case of Norway, they have a very limited budget for these practices. Instead, its continued attention, references, and actions to ideas of world peace have helped build its soft power with regards to their international relations (Nye, 2004). And often times, despite the best effort of a state to improve upon its soft power (e.g. the United States and its relationship with Muslim-majority countries), sometimes even non-government actors shape the soft power of the state. One example of this that Nye (2004) gave in his work on soft power was the role of American missionaries, and their work in Muslim-majority states. While these actors were not sanctioned nor connected to the policies and government branches of the United States, these actors will continue to exist (Nye, 2004) it can always be viewed by some as a negative reflection on the state or that said society. A recent case of this has been the issue of Islamophobic actions by non-government actors in the US, whether it is Terry Jones’ burning of the Quran, or the film the “Innocence of Muslims” which was not only Islamophobic, but it did have American officials condemning the film, knowing that some Muslims may attempt to tie this film to the United States government.

Furthermore, even branches of the government that have traditionally viewed as being part of the “hard power” establishment can build soft power (and country’s can also develop a combination of both, which has been termed “smart power” (Wilson, 2008) (and some say that where soft power exists, hard power is not too far away) (Cooper, 2004). When looking at hard power and soft power, one example of state using traditional hard power entities for soft power is a country’s military. While the military is the epitome of hard power, troops can also work with troops of other countries, which in turn can build soft power as it related to friendships and the reputation of the country. However, the military can also become involved int eh communications of the state, helping shape what the public hears and sees with regards to a war or conflict, which of course can influence perceptions, and soft power, and again, in different ways (Nye, 2004), depending on the actions, foreign policies, history of activity, etc…

Non-Government Organizations and Soft Power

Along with government initiating policies that help build soft power in their international relations, this can also be done through non-state channels, such as non-governmetnal organizations, multinational corporations, or private citizens. In these cases, it may be that the government itself is not responsible for the actions of these independent entities, yet their actions could be a positive for the development of soft power for the country. For example, non-governmental organization who work on issue sod human rights and development can build international trust, which in turn might shed a better light on the state in which the non-governmental organization is from. In addition, NGOs that have strong ties in other countries can build friendships and communications with others citizens, or even between political parties (Nye, 2004).

Moreover, corporations can also have an influence on soft power. If they are well known, and well-liked, then citizens may associate their actions with those of the state. Or at least can have a positive image of the country, as it allowed such companies to exist and flourish. All of this can improve upon a country’s soft power. But along with this, many multinational corporations are influential throughout the world. For example, “[t]heir representatives and brands directly touch the lives of far more people than government representatives do. Some public-spirited business people have suggested that companies develop and share sensitivity and communications training for corporate representatives before they are sent abroad” (Nye, 2004: 14).

Soft Power in International Relations

Despite the recent attention to soft power, states have attempted to use soft power in their international relations for centuries. For example, Nye (2004) says of France, that “[i]n the 17th and 18th centuries, France promoted its culture throughout Europe. French not only became the language of diplomacy, but was even used at some foreign courts such as Prussia and Russia. During the French Revolution, France sought to appeal over the heads of governments directly to foreign populations by promoting its revolutionary ideology” (2). And after it lost the Franco-Prussian War, it was said that the French government “sought to repair the nation’s shattered prestige by promoting its language and literature through the Alliance Francaise, which was created in 1883” (Nye, 2004 2). Now this doesn’t mean that soft power is always well intentioned, since France, under the Third Republic beginning in 1870, pushed its idea of French civilization and French culture, at the expense of others (Conklin, 1997). Furthermore, states attempted to also use soft power during World War I (Nye, 2004). And even afterwards, with the technological advances of radio, countries began using these tools to advocate various messages (Nye, 2004).

However, despite the rich history of soft power, it could be argued that we have seen an increased attention to soft power in international relations evolved from the end of the Cold War. During this time, many of the international relations interactions revolved around military and economic aid. The United States, as well as the Soviet Union, each used such incentives to attract allies in pursuit of their preferred economic and government systems. And despite the fall of the Soviet Union, and the economic and military costs to both the United States and the Soviet Union, the United States was viewed as arising out of the Cold War not necessarily more militarily or economically powerful than they were years before, but rather, the United States has risen in soft power (Nye, 1990).

The United States and Soft Power

The United States has also used soft power throughout its history, although it “was a relative latecomer to the idea of using information and culture for the purposes of diplomacy” (Nye, 2004: 2). For example,

“In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson established a Committee on Public Information, which was directed by his friend the newspaperman George Creel. Creel’s task, he said, was “a vast enterprise in salesmanship, the world’s greatest adventure in advertising.” Creel insisted that his office’s activities did not constitute propaganda and were merely educational and informative. But the facts belied his denials. Among other things, Creel organized tours, churned out pamphlets on “the Gospel of Americanism,” established a government run news service, made sure that motion picture producers received wartime allotments of scarce materials, and saw to it that the films portrayed America in a positive light. The office aroused sufficient suspicions that it was abolished shortly after the return of peace” (Nye, 2004: 2-3).

"Together We Win". First World War US propaganda poster by James Montgomery Flag (1917-1918). James Montgomery Flag, public domain

“Together We Win”. First World War US propaganda poster by James Montgomery Flag (1917-1918). James Montgomery Flag, public domain

Furthermore, other United States presidents also understood the importance of soft power, both in terms of domestic politics, as well as international relations. For example, in the 1930s, President  Roosevelt understood that the United States needed to promote their own ideas throughout the world, particularly to counter Nazi messages coming out of Germany. In fact, Germany and the United States was in a competition for influence through soft power in Latin America (Nye, 2004). And such commitment to soft power approaches did not dissipate during the war. In fact, the government began working with the film industry in Hollywood to help. For example, “[i]n 1942, Roosevelt created an Office of Wartime Information to deal in presumably accurate information, while an intelligence organization, the Office of Strategic Service, included dissemination of disinformation among its functions. Even the OWI worked to shape Hollywood into an effective propaganda tool, suggesting additions and deletions to films and denying licenses to others. And Hollywood executives, motivated by a mixture of patriotism and self-interest, were happy to cooperate” (Rosenberg, 1982; Nye, 2004: 3).

American Propaganda during the Cold War. December 31, 1946, public domain

American Propaganda during the Cold War. December 31, 1946, public domain

Then, the idea of using soft power continued throughout the Cold War. Here, different voices debated the best approach towards soft power, namely, whether it was better to be “direct” messages, or whether the process of soft power would be gradual (Nye, 2004). And again, as we see with the case of the United States and soft power during the Cold War, soft power doesn’t necessarily mean that this power is used for good, or used honestly. Information could be viewed as propaganda, as it was sometimes difficult to discern the differences, with a “thin line” between the two (Nye, 2004: 4).

Nye (1990) as early as 1990, argued that since military power was less relevant in the international relations system, that other forms of power, such as soft power, would be critical for states. And within this, he spent time speaking about soft power within the context of the United States of America. For example, many have argued that while the United States still boasts the strongest military in the world, and has done so for decades, and particularly following the end of the Cold War, and “[a]lthough the United States still have leverage over particular countries, it has far less leverage over the system as a whole” (Nye, 1990: 156).  For example, the United States continues to have influence through films made in the United States. Moreover, the US also builds its soft power through connections to American corporations operating abroad (Cooper, 2004). They have a great presence through such corporations; “[i]n 2012, four out of the five top department corporations in the world were U.S.-based (the fifth also had strong links with U.S.-based media corporations” (Thussu, 2014: 6). 

And when looking at media, the United States has a great presence in his category of soft power. As Thussu (2014) explains, “…the global media continue to be dominated by the U.S. Due to its formidable political, economic, technological, and military power, American or Americanized media are available across the globe, in English or in dubbed or indigenized versions. The American media’s imprint on the global communication space, by virtue of the ownership of multiple networks and production facilities —from satellites to telecommunication networks, from cyberspace to “total spectrum dominance” of real space—gives the U.S. a huge advantage” (6). 

However, in recent years, many have wondered whether the United States is losing soft power in international relations, with some suggesting that the United States actually has been losing its soft power in international relations. Clearly, there have been cases where this has certainly been true. For example, “[e]xaggerated claims about the imminence of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and the strength of his ties to Al Qaeda may have helped mobilize domestic support for the Iraq war, but the subsequent disclosure of the exaggeration dealt a costly blow to British and American credibility. Under the new conditions more than ever, the soft sell may prove more effective than a hard sell” (Nye, 2004: 8). 

Moreover, we are also seeing the rise of soft power with other states, which in turn may also be at the expense of US control of many aspects of soft power. For example, when looking at entertainment as it relates to soft power, one sees the rise of other entertainment markets through film and television distributions from countries such as Turkey, India, and Brazil (Thussu, 2014). For example, Turkey is producing soap operas that are popular throughout the Balkans and Middle East. And India’s Bollywood films are also highly popular around the world, and itself is a 3.5 billion dollar industry, with “the Indian entertainment and media industry was worth $29 billion in 2013” (Thussu, 2014: 14).

The Rise of China and Soft Power

States in East and elsewhere are building their relationships with China, as they see China’s power in the region and in the international system as increasing. And while China clearly has continued to build their military, and their economy has improved greatly in the past couple of decades, some have argued that part of the reason that states are viewing China in this light is because of China’s soft power (Kurlantzick, 2006). However, many have argued that their rise of soft power has not always been there at the levels that we have seen in recent years. Before the 1990s, China was focused on military power, and did not spend as much time and resources on soft power initiatives with regards to other states. However, Kurlantzick (2006) argues that 1997 was a critical year for China’s rise of soft power. He states that “[t]he year 1997 provides a convenient date to mark China’s soft power emergence. Beijing refused to devalue its currency during the financial crisis, portraying its decision as standing up for Asia. After the crisis, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Secretary General Rodolfo Severino announced, “China is really emerging from this smelling good.” With Southeast Asian opinions of Washington falling, and with Taiwan’s 1990s investment push into Southeast Asia faltering, a window was open for Chinese soft power” (3). However, along with this, the leadership in China also shifted their international relations towards more attention on soft power. And it seems to have paid off, with more and more people seeing China as an important state in the world (Kurlantzick, 2006). Speaking on China’s overall approach to soft power, Kurlantzick (2006) explains that “Since 1997, then, it is possible to identify Chinese soft power strategies. First, Beijing enunciates a doctrine of “win-win” relations. China implicitly contrasts its “win-win” philosophy with that of the United States, which Beijing portrays as disrespectful of sovereignty and punitive toward Southeast Asia. By contrast, Chinese leaders emphasize that Beijing is willing to listen to other nations. China has backstopped this “win-win” rhetoric with real initiatives, signing Southeast Asia’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation…” (3).

China has spent a great deal of money on building soft power through communications, as they are “investing heavily in its external communication, including broadcasting and on-line presence across the globe” (Thussu, 2014: 11). For example, “[i]n 2011, two years after President Hu Jintao announced a $7 billion plan for China to “go out” into the world, Chinese broadcasting has expanded greatly, with CCTV News’s Beijing headquarters appointing English-fluent foreign journalists to develop a global channel. By 2012, CCTV News was claiming 200 million viewers outside China and broadcasting in six languages, including Arabic. In the same year, CCTV also opened a studio in Nairobi and has plans to increase the size of its overseas staff dramatically by 2016” (11-12).

Moreover, they are willing to use foreign aid as a soft power tool, employing a variety of soft power tools to build relationships not only with leaders, but with citizens of other countries as well, such as farmers (reassuring them regarding China’s trade), and students (through scholarships (Kurlantzick, 2006). This has been a center of focus for many, as there is a belief that a lot of reason why China’s soft power is increasing is due to their economic influence. Lastly, one cannot ignore references to China’s history in attempts to form their soft power now as it relates to present and future actions (Breslin, 2011).

It must also be noted that the rise of China’s soft power can be coupled with the argument that United States soft power is declining, particularly in East Asia, where China’s enrollment of foreign students has risen, whereas the United States’ international student enrollment has declined (Gates & Huang, 2006). In addition, the United States not sign the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, but the United States continues to have many sanctions on South-East Asian states (Kurlantzick, 2006). As Kurlantzick pointed out in 2006 during President Bush’s term “America’s popularity is plummeting around the world. Washington has made it harder for foreigners to obtain visas, undermining the idea of the United States as a land of opportunity. The United States’ unrivaled global power has fostered resentment in some nations toward the United States. The George W. Bush administration’s disavowal of multilateral institutions has damaged the U.S. moral legitimacy abroad. The failures of neoliberal economics, linked to Washington, in regions like Latin America have rebounded against the United States” (7). Furthermore, many have also been upset with current US President Barack Obama and what is seen as a continuation of Bush foreign policies, along with US support of Israel, and thus, some continue to see a decline in US soft power. And along with this, looking at China’s approach towards soft power, they have also reached out to countries that used to have stronger ties with America, but that don’t now (such as Cambodia, Sudan, and Venezuela, for example) (Kurlantzick, 2006). Moreover, people see China’s hard power increase in the future, which could affect their soft power today (Breslin, 2011).

However, this is not to say that China’s soft power is absolute. For example, in a study looking at China’s soft power in Europe, one of they key findings from a public opinion study has been that there are perceptions of credibility issues amongst Europeans. And it seems that much of this is due to the political system in China (d’Hooghe, 2010). As as d’Hooghe (2010) explains, “[t]he mechanisms of maintaining control over its society seriously hamper the growth of China’s soft power and cautious international impressions that China is moving towards a more open society” (30). d’Hooghe (2010) goes on to say that “[t]he majority of China’s soft-power messengers, are, in one way or another, censured by Beijing” (31), although the state is seeming to at least acknowledge the importance of non-state actors with regards to China’s soft power (d’Hooghe, 2010).  It will be interesting to see if they open up their control of the media and of non-governmental actors.

Soft Power Books

Joseph Nye Jr., Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics.

Craig Hayden, The Rhetoric of Soft Power: Public Diplomacy in Global Contexts.




Breslin, S. (2011). The Soft Notion of China’s ‘Soft Power.’ Chatham House. February 2011, pages 1-18. Available Online:

Conklin, A. (1997). Chapter 1: The Setting: The Idea of the Civilizing Mission in 1895 and the Creation of the Government General, pages 11-37.

Cooper, R. (2004). Hard Power, Soft Power, and the Goals of Diplomacy.  In: David Held/Mathias Koenig-Archibugi (eds), American Power in the 21st Century, 2004, pp. 167-180. Available Online:

d’Hooge, I. (2010). The Limits of China’s Soft Power in Europe: Beijing’s Public Diplomacy Puzzle. Netherlands Institute of International Relations. ‘Clingendael.’ January 2010, pages 1-42. Available Online:

Gates, B. & Huang, Y. (2006). Sources and Limits of Chinese ‘Soft Power.’ Survival, Vol. 48, No. 2, pages 17-36.

Kurlantzick, J. (2006). China’s Charm: Implications of Chinese Soft Power. Carnegie Endowment Policy Brief. 47, June 2006, pages 1-7. Available Online:

Nye, J.S. (1990). Soft Power. Foreign Policy, No. 80, Twentieth Anniversary, (Autumn 1990), pages 153-171.

Nye, J.S. (2004). Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. Chapter 4, Wielding Soft Power. April 5, 2004. Available Online:

Nye, J. S. (2005). Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. PublicAffairs. New ED Edition

Rosenberg, E. (1982). Spreading the American Dream. New York, New York. Hill and Wang.

Thussu, D. (2014). De-Americanizing Soft Power Discourse? Figueroa Press. Available Online:

Vuving, A.L. (2009). How Soft Power Works. “Paper presented at the panel “Soft Power and Smart Power,”  American Political Science Association annual meeting, Toronto, September 3, 2009,” pages 1-20.

Wilson, E.J. (2008). Hard Power, Soft Power, Smart Power. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 616, pages 110-123. 

Leave a Reply