Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 15:04 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 15:04 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: What is soft power?


Sam Roggeveen


18 February 2009 10:56

Carl Ungerer writes:

Mr Shearer has apparently found some evidence for his longstanding thesis that the Bush Administration ran a ‘good’ Asia policy. He cites a 2008 survey conducted for the Chicago Council on World Affairs suggesting that America’s ‘soft power’ outranks its rivals. Great. But what is ‘soft power’? Since Harvard University’s Joe Nye first coined the term it has become a rallying point for those who argue that diplomacy and persuasion should trump military or ‘hard power’ in the pursuit of America’s global interests. But not even Mr Shearer would argue that soft and hard power are mutually exclusive or that the Bush Administration was averse to the occasional use of military force, sometimes preemptively, in the name of the national interest.

Notwithstanding the conclusions of the survey about the continuing appeal of American ideas and products around the world, I find the whole ‘soft power’ thesis a bit too squishy and ill-defined to be of much value to foreign policy practitioners. For example, can you measure ‘cultural power’? The survey asks respondents if they feel proud of American achievements in the arts and sciences. I certainly do, but I don’t think the evidence is sufficient to support Mr Shearer’s rather lofty claims. And the survey of just 811 Indonesians from a population of over 230 million would suggest that this may not be a representative sample of the region’s views.

For a better reading of the Bush Administration’s Asia policy, I would defer to 2005 Jakarta Post article written by two former US Ambassadors, Abramowitz and Bosworth, and their assessment that Bush was guilty of a rather ‘spasmodic’ approach to the region. Perhaps Hillary Clinton’s choice of capitals to visit this week is a sign that Washington is determined to take a more consistent approach. And that can only be good news for Australia. 

I'll let Andrew Shearer defend himself, but I will say that it strikes me as wrong to argue that, since soft power cannot be measured, it is of little value to foreign policy practitioners. First of all, why can't it be measured? Isn't that precisely what the Chicago Council has just done?

But even if you want to argue that the shortcomings of any such survey are too great to make the results useful, that doesn't mean soft power itself is a chimera. Anyone who works in the humanities would acknowledge that intangible concepts can have great intellectual force, and indeed can move nations and change history.