Wednesday 19 Sep 2018 | 13:55 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 19 Sep 2018 | 13:55 | SYDNEY

Confessions of a soft power skeptic


Raoul Heinrichs

14 May 2009 15:50

Over at Worldview, The Age’s international affairs blog, Daniel Flitton last week took up where many before him left off: grappling, somewhat incredulously, with the elusive concept of ‘smart power’ and the implications of its increasing centrality to US foreign policy.

In practice, smart power seems to have become short-hand for a more pragmatic statecraft, defined by a renewed emphasis on negotiation, a more conciliatory diplomatic style, and the relegation of economic and military coercion to a less prominent role in America’s foreign policy conduct. Its theoretical foundations, however, derive from Joseph Nye’s concept of ‘soft power’, a concept which is well known, widely misunderstood and, in my view, highly problematic.

Soft power refers to a state’s ability to achieve desired objectives through attraction rather than coercion or inducement – to get others to ‘want what you want’. According to Nye, soft power arises not from the accumulation of capabilities that can affect the behaviour of other states, but from the magnetism of a country’s culture, values, ideals, and the style — as well as the substance — of its domestic and foreign policies.

Two problems come to mind. First, even if a state is full of admiration for those elements of another society that supposedly give rise to its soft power, it is not clear to me why, when divergent interests are concerned, that admiration might lead the first state to subordinate its own objectives to the other’s.

And second, the concept seems to imply that a state can be powerful, and capable of attaining its preferences in international affairs, by virtue of its goodness, and not just its strength. This is a nice thought, though one that does not square with reality, as demonstrated by the need to create ‘smart power’, which seeks to integrate all elements of national power. 

Photo by Flickr user -nathan, used under a Creative Commons license.