Facing the rising Dangers · Scope and Limits of Soft Power

Jean-Sylvestre Mongrenier, Research Fellow at the Thomas More Institute

March 16, 2015 • Analysis •

After the Cold War, the concept of Soft Power defined by Joseph Nye became a very common term in geopolitical writings. Somehow, “Soft Power” is used as a key word in political communication and even seen as a betting system. However, “Soft Power” is also a soft concept, and it will not compensate the lack of power on one hand, the lack of dialog between various confessions, ethnics and cultures on the other hand. This last issue is situated on another plan…

It has become customary today to talk about “Soft Power” in international relations and geopolitics. After the Cold War, it is well known that the concept of Soft Power expanded and has been much used. Soft Power is supposed to explain and solve many situations. Somehow, it is used as a key word in political communication and it is even seen as a betting system. However, Soft Power could also be seen as a soft concept and it will not compensate the lack of dialog and tolerance between various religions, ethnics and cultures.

This will be the approach of this paper on this issue: Soft Power is a soft concept and cannot be the response to conflicts all around the world. First, this analysis shall come back on the origin of this concept. Then, it will develop the critics of Soft Power as a pragmatic approach of international relations. Lastly, we will insist on the fact that this rhetoric will not be powerful enough to find a middle ground between religions, ethnics and cultures.

About Soft Power: A post-Cold War debate

Joseph Nye has elaborated his concept of Soft Power at the end of the Cold War. It was a quarter of century ago, in “Bound to Lead”, an essay published in Foreign Affairs, in 1990. Since then, Joseph Nye has refined his analysis of power (See in particular “Recovering American Leadership”, Survival, vol. 50, 2008).

“Bound to Lead” was written as a reply to Paul Kennedy who published Rise and Fall of Great Powers three years before (1987). This British historian studied great powers’ destiny on the long run, since 1500. The rise and fall of Spain, Ottoman Empire, the Netherlands, France, England, Germany are analyzed, and imperial overextension is supposed to explain the successive declines of past empires. His conclusion was the following: as all great powers in history, America’s decline was also unavoidable. At the end of the Cold War, Heroes were tired and the future would belong to other young and new powers.

Beyond the context of that time, this debate between Paul Kennedy and Joseph Nye was also about the grandeur and decline of nations and the idea of decadence as such. Indeed, this debate is very old and recurrent in the Western world. One could say that the West is on the wane since the Roman Empire’s fall! Eschatology is a recurring theme in Western history. In other words, the fear of decadence has always been a powerful driving force in the long term: decadence is a promise of renaissance and the spectre of the fall has been an incentive to meet and face down various challenges.

Joseph Nye did not agree with Paul Kennedy’s analyses. Indeed, he explained that international relations and the issue of power changed with economic interdependence and globalization. Let us sum up his position. Joseph Nye distinguishes between two types of power: Hard Power and Soft Power. Hard Power is the ability to coerce other states and international actors, i.e. to lead them to act in ways that are against to their initial preferences and strategies. Soft Power is the ability to get others to want the outcomes that you want.

When Hard Power relies on threats and inducements (“sticks” and “carrots” according to Joseph Nye’s words), Soft Power relies on attraction and persuasion. In the post-Cold War context, Joseph Nye wanted to prove that the US were not in decline, and that isolationism was not a realistic option and was therefore to be avoided. Armed forces and a global reach from North America could not solve all problems. Thus, the US would have to cooperate through international institutions, and should keep on promoting universal values worldwide.

A Soft Concept?

Undoubtedly, there is a fascination for the American way of life all around the world. However, on various geopolitical theaters, it appears that Soft Power has no real effects upon the adverse countries, and even less upon the enemy countries and their foreign policy. Indeed, what are the consequences of America’s attraction and the exports of cultural products on China’s policy and its ambitions in East Asia and the Pacific Ocean?

No effect in the short and medium term at least, and containment of China by the US relies on an active diplomacy, on the deployment of armed forces and strong regional alliances. That means “old fashioned” power i.e. Hard Power (sticks and carrots). In the geopolitical business, Hollywood is powerless. For instance, what is the impact of the American Soft Power on Russia and its policy in what the Kremlin calls the “Near Abroad”, especially in Eastern Ukraine? Here again, it does not work.

The response to this attack against Ukraine and Russia’s threat upon Europe is a mix of diplomacy, geoeconomic sanctions and strategy, including the reinforcement of NATO and a strong solidarity within the transatlantic framework. Once again, this is about Hard Power, and this is a classical scenario. “History as usual”.

In fact, the concept of Soft Power is useful to analyze the foundations of power and its multiple facets. Before this neologism, historians and geographers specialized in Geopolitics and political analysts used other words: prestige and glory, intellectual and cultural influence or civilizational influence. Decidedly, there is nothing new under the sun.

All these factors have to be taken into account in international relations and in the competition among various powers. However, the expression of Soft Power has been used as a master key, even a fairy tale in the US.

The exports of cultural products and the power of attraction of the American way of life would allow dissolving the balance of power and geopolitical conflicts. That is how the Soft Power theory has been turned into a soft concept without real substance.

It was the same in Europe where the so-called EU Soft Power has been a political way-out. Indeed, globalization and economic interdependence have standardized the tastes of consumers all around the world, but this process did not standardize the geopolitical situations and did not wipe out the will to power, in addition to what Spinoza named “sad passions” including resentment and revanchism.

As a result, Soft Power is too soft for tough powers and their rulers: Soft Power is softness.

Soft Power Is Not Dialog and Tolerance

Whatever the effectiveness of Soft Power, it must be clear that this concept is a part of a reflection about the competition among nations, the balance of power and the sources of strength. All too often, some commentators and epigones of Joseph Nye talk about Soft Power as if this idea was synonymous with dialog and tolerance. Soft Power would be the means to resolve conflicts and make peace in the world. Even if we consider that Soft Power is not really efficient, this concept is polemological and not the pivot of a no-violence therapy. In fact, Soft Power reminds us of what Antonio Gramsci, an Italian communist imprisoned by Mussolini, wrote about “cultural hegemony” as a way to impose a corpus of values, to build a consensus  and maintain one’s political domination: the exert of “cultural hegemony” is a sort of symbolic violence.

Thus, there is no irenicism in this theory which is an analysis of power and its various modalities. First and foremost, the Soft Power issue is nothing else but a question of power. Once again, let us report to Joseph Nye’s writings. In 2008, his analysis took into account the limits of soft power and introduced the concept of “Smart Power”, i.e. “the ability to combine Hard and Soft Power effectively”. In the long term, Soft Power is always more important than Hard Power, in Joseph Nye’s view, but the coercion and the use of armed forces, in exceptional circumstances, are still relevant.

What does it mean?

It means that Soft Power and Hard Power are not contradictory. These are the two sides of a same coin. In last analysis, the concept of Smart Power is another name for Power Politics. What does it imply for the Multidimensional security challenges among the Islamic countries?

This implies that Soft Power is not the adequate response to tensions and conflicts within the Islamic sphere and, a fortiori, among states, nations and civilizations all around the world. At most, the use of Soft Power and its wider application would contribute to the civilizing process described by the great sociologist Norbert Elias. In this way, the struggle for life would be turned into a competition with rules. However, it must be repeated that Soft Power is not a substitute to Hard Power but another dimension of a “Grand Strategy”. Definitely, Soft Power will not pave the way to the “End of History”.

In Conclusion

This approach of the concept of Soft Power may sound tough and even cynical. There would not be any reality beyond strength and balance of power. All the rest would be rhetoric and illusion. In such a Weltanschauung, political Darwinism would be the last word of the life.

In fact, the quest for truth through dialog is most important but does not come under the task of diplomats, strategists and political rulers. Politics, diplomacy and strategy have to deal with conflicts, to negotiate, to deter and sometimes, to use force, instead of practicing a Socratic dialog.

This latter and its virtues rely upon theologians, philosophers and spiritual authorities. It requires good will and good faith on both sides, with a clear awareness about what is at stakes. Far beyond politics, this is metaphysics, another level of reality. Pragmatism and invocation of Soft Power will not do the whole thing.