Evaluation of Joseph Nye’s Thoughts on Soft Power

Soft power has generally been accepted as a concept by academics and politicians all over the world as a tool of diplomacy ever since it was introduced in 1990 by Joseph Nye. Great Britain in May 2013, through its House of Lords set up a committee in parliament where it invited academics to come and throw more light on what soft power is and what UK’s soft power resources are. The chief policy advisor to the Turkish Prime Minister, Ibrahim Kalin put together an article on Turkey’s soft power assets “Soft power and public diplomacy in Turkey” (Kalin,2011). In modern politics, the Global Soft Power Index has been introduced to rank the top 30 countries which possess soft power with UK reclaiming the first position from France in this year’s edition. This essay is aimed at summarizing Joseph Nye’s thoughts on soft power, argue if it is the first of its kind in international relations, assessing if the concept has been effective over the period of time since it was first introduced, whether the realism theory in international relations has given way to soft power to take over and also find out if countries can solely employ soft power and public diplomacy as diplomatic tools without the use of hard power to achieve desired outcomes.

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      Joseph Samuel Nye Jr. was born on January 19,1937. He is an American political scientist, alongside with Robert Keohane they founded the international relations theory of neoliberalism. He received his B.As from Princeton and Oxford Universities and his PhD from Harvard University. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a foreign fellow of the British Academy. Joseph Nye is also a member of the American Academy of diplomacy. More recently, he introduced the concept of “soft power” and pioneered its theory. In 2011, he was ranked the sixth most influential scholar in the field of international relations in the past twenty years. (Wikipedia)

      The concept of soft power has been critically analyzed by many academics. Joseph Nye described soft power as “the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes you want” (Nye, 2004). Nye likened the concept of soft power to “attraction” in behavioral terms. It was introduced at a time when hard power was solely employed in international relations. As compared to hard power, “soft power is the capacity to persuade others to do what one wants” (Wilson,2008,p.114). During the time this approach was introduced it was odd just to use just “attraction” as a tool to combat situations. In his view, a country does not need to place sanctions or employ military force in its dealings to achieve its set target. Nye describes hard power as economic and military assets which are dependent on payments and threats (Nye, 2004:5), in this same chapter he described soft power as being “intangible” as it “rests on the ability to shape the preferences of others”. He had the support of Janice Bially Mattern who was of the notion that President Bush’s use of “you are either with us or against us” after the World Trade Centre attack on September 11 showed the use of soft power as he did not threaten or coerce any country to support the US. Nye believes the use of coercion or payment to achieve an outcome or exhibit power by some countries has lost its importance in contemporary politics and is making way for what he describes as “co-optive power”. According to Nye, a country’s soft power is based on its culture, political values and foreign policy. However, recent researches have shown that diplomacy, government, business/innovation, education and culture are also considered as sources of soft power (McClory,2011:15).

In Nye’s ‘soft power and public diplomacy’, he gives an example of how France set up the Alliance Francaise in some countries in 1883 to redeem its image after the war in 1882. The French government did this with the intention of promoting its culture and language across the globe. In this same vein, Germany also captured some parts of West Africa like Togo and Cameroon to enhance their dominance in Europe and also extend their empire to Africa through the teaching of their culture and language. Italy focused on the Ethiopian and Eritrean sides to acquire soft power. Nye mostly applied the concept to US, until the invasion of US in Iraq in 2001 during the Bush administration (Nye, 2004:14), US was noted for possessing soft power especially through their culture, this had many students going there to acquire their higher education there. The country achieved this through its film making industry which painted a perfect picture of the country to foreigners.

According to Nye, the concept of soft power was used in the cold war which was a battle of ideologies between the West led by US and UK and the East led by USSR (Russia). However, some academics believe soft power is nothing different from public diplomacy whiles others view soft power as a mere propaganda tool. (Nisbette et al, 2004:15) defined public diplomacy as “direct communication with foreign people with the aim of affecting their thinking, and ultimately that of their governments”. (Melissen,2005:4) suggested public diplomacy as the best concept of soft power.

In as much as Nye has made valid arguments with supporting evidences to back his concept of soft power as an appropriate way for countries to get their desired outcomes authors like Niall Ferguson have heavily criticized his concept using the realism theory in international relations which talks about the use of power in diplomacy. Some academics have also pointed to Nye has been the inspiration for which most countries have sought to earn credibility through adopting communication-based policies like public diplomacy in order to build foreign ties with other countries (Hayden,2011). Nye on the other hand, saw public diplomacy as an “instrument that governments use to mobilize soft power resources and attract the publics of their countries, rather than merely their governments……….” (Nye 2008). He debunked the assertion that public diplomacy is purely propaganda as suggested by his critics by emphasizing on reputation as its basis. Cooper backs the need for legitimacy in the makeup of soft power (2004, p.173).

Other schools of thought also hold the view that Nye’s concept of soft power is not a new approach in international relations as other academics have already written on similarly related approached which is centered on public opinion. According to Edward Hallett Carr who was a liberal realist and an international relations theorist, Nye’s theory is similar to the theory of power which is known in international relations. Carr stated in his writing “An introduction to international relations” that power comprises economic power, military power and power over opinion, these according to him are the main proponents of power (Carr,1946:132) with military power being the last resort in negotiation processes with economic power used to control the markets, he backed his claim with public opinion being important in international relations by quoting David Humes who wrote “The Soldan of Egypt or the Emperor of Rome might drive his harmless subjects like brute beasts against their sentiments and inclinations. But he must at least have led his ‘mamelukes’ as pretorian bands like men by their opinions”.

Steven Lukes’ ‘Power’: “A Radical view” holds a similar approach to Nye’s view, he categorized power in international relations into three dimensions with soft power being the third dimension as it is generally based on the force of attraction, “is it not the supreme and most insidious use of power to prevent people, to whatever degree, from having grievances by shaping their perceptions, cognitions and preferences in such a way that they accept their role in the existing order of things, either because they can see or imagine no alternative to it, or because they see it as  natural and unchangeable, or because they value it as divinely ordained and beneficial” (Lukes, 1974:24).

Niall Ferguson, a major critic of Nye’s approach strongly opposes the theory, in his view, soft power is “merely the velvet gloves concealing an iron hand” (Ferguson, 2004:24), he believes power in international relations is tangible; coercion and threats which produce desired outcomes and asserts soft power is a termed that has been coined just to cover the actual power which goes beyond mere attraction.

A criticism of the theory is the perception that it focuses more on actors or agents just like public diplomacy makes it similar to the other types of power that can be created, meaning there is room for development. Bilgin and Elis (2008:12) describe soft power as “not so soft” since the focus is on the agents of soft power of a particular country without taking in consideration how the soft power actually affects the country. Nye’s inclusion of the term smart power which refers to the combination of soft and hard power to tackle some delicate issues such as terrorism backs the claim that soft power is always not the solution as “a well- run military can be a source of admiration” (Nye 2006). A quite recent example of the use of smart power is in the case of US and North Korea, after economic sanctions were placed on North Korea by the US government led by President Trump, he met with the leader of North Korea Kim-Jong-un in Singapore and described their meeting as “a new era”.

The most common criticism of Nye’ approach has to do with measurability, academics are of the view that the result of soft power cannot be measured in any instance; there is no clear example of a country that achieved its desired outcome solely on attraction, to such critics, they believe the main sources of power are military and economic power, this is backed by the realism theory in international relations which implies power and international system as the proponents for the way states behave.

The approach has been fiercely opposed as other say soft power is nothing different from hard power as both forms employ the use of instruments which include sanctions, agenda setting, military force, attraction and persuasion ( cf. Smith-Windsor,2000, p.52), in other words, the actors in one way or the other employ a tactic to get their desired results.

I generally agree with the arguments Nye raised in favor of soft power, in the contemporary international systems most leaders have moved from the aggressive and militant dimension which constituent hard power to strengthen its culture and extend its power or influence on other states and this is as a result of the changes in the world order. As the Princeton political scientist Baldwin (2016) has recently written, “Nye’s discussion of soft power stimulated and clarified the thoughts of policy makers and scholars alike- even those who misunderstood or disagreed with his views”. The use of coercion and threat is quickly losing its relevance in modern times, evident is Britain’s proposal to Ghana to legalize homosexuality in its country of which Ghana on two instances under two different administrations has rejected the proposal on the basis of its culture and moral make up of its citizens. A country like China through the use of its soft power has been able to get dominance in some African countries without having to threaten or coerce them. However, this is not to say that soft power is absolute as it is worth considering the strength of the smart power approach.



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