Revisiting the Concept of Soft Power
By Michael S. H. Heng

Revisiting the Concept of Soft Power

May. 01, 2016  |     |  3 comments

The term “soft power” was coined by Joseph Nye, a Harvard professor of international relations. He first used it in 1990 in his Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power. In the book, he described soft power as being exercised by a country when it gets other countries to want what it wants, “in contrast with the hard or command power of ordering others to do what it wants.” He refined and elaborated the concept, and gave perhaps its most succinct definition in his 2004 book Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics:

“A country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries – admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness – want to follow it. In this sense, it is also important to set the agenda and attract others in world politics, and not only to force them to change by threatening military force or economic sanctions. This soft power – getting others to want the outcomes that you want – co-opts people rather than coerces them.” (emphasis added)

A few points may be noted. First, it is a concept developed as part of the neoliberal thinking of international relations (IR). Neoliberalism holds the position that even in an anarchic international system of autonomous rational states, cooperation can emerge through the building of norms, regimes and institutions yielding win-win results.

Second, the focus of IR scholars is how to defend and advance state interests. The different schools in the IR community are just different approaches to this goal.

Third, the concept of soft power is advocating a sophisticated way of using hard power, involving use of persuasion, drawing on a country’s cultural and intellectual resources where possible and appropriate. It does not rule out the use of pressure and force. This point is made most forcefully by Niall Ferguson, another Harvard professor. To him, soft power is not new, it used to be called imperialism, and cultural imperialism’s real engine is hard power. “Soft power is merely the velvet glove concealing an iron hand.”1 In simple language, it is a combined use of both the carrot and the stick, captured in the term “smart power” that Joseph Nye adopted subsequently.

Fourth, a corollary of “getting others to want the outcomes that you want” is “getting others to do what they do not want to do”.

It is important to pay attention to the conceptual essence of soft power, its origin, and its popularity. Its wide usage has given it meanings that are beyond its original formulation. For example, “Soft power” is the title of a song of a British rock band, Ladytron.

The essential elements of soft power are not new to students of statecraft, foreign policies or international relations, and historians. How and why then the immense popularity of its usage? Part of the reason is the choice of the two words “soft” and “power.” Like the terms “virtual reality” and “global village,” it is an oxymoron, for power is not soft. Another reason is the skill of Nye in presenting his arguments and packaging the concept. Finally, it is the historical context of the idea. Like Francis Fukuyama’s End of History, Nye’s “soft power” appeared at the time when the world was coming to terms with the new geopolitics after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. The world was in need of new ideas and ways to deal with the new situation. The catchy term “soft power” appeared at the right time.

Soft power has taken new meanings to include songs, movies, ways of life, culture, academic excellence, technological prowess, etc.

And words have a life of their own. Soon soft power has taken new meanings to include songs, movies, ways of life, culture, academic excellence, technological prowess, etc. In doing so, soft power provides a new, convenient and non-violent arena for the geopolitical competition. Foreign aid such as the Marshall Plan is re-interpreted as a kind of soft power during the early days of the Cold War. The Olympics, World Cup football matches, Confucian Institutes, the BBC, and the like are often described as a kind of soft power. Soft power can be seen as a new name for a lot of old fashioned activities conducted by states as part of their propaganda, programs of “winning friends and influencing people,” goodwill offensives, and projections of power.

Given the pedigree of soft power, it is mainly the business of state and state institutions, especially those linked to the ministry of foreign affairs to get involved in soft power activities. Nationalists would be just too happy to contribute to their nation’s soft power.

What about those who are more drawn to the cause of the humanity? A simple position to take is to keep a fair distance from activities promoting the soft power of his or her country. A more nuanced position is to select those activities that contribute to both the institutional, cultural and intellectual resources of one’s country and that of the whole of humankind. The poetry of Rabindranath Tagore is one such example. Another example: instead of criticizing the flaws of Western democracies, Asian political activists would do well to find ways to contribute to the theory and practice of democracy in their own countries with an aspiration to surpass the West. It is in such areas that public intellectuals, writers, musicians, poets, thinkers, artists and globally oriented activists can and should work together to advance a truly global civilization. If done well, it will strengthen the force for peace, promote unity in diversity, and the enrichment of cultures through productive exchange.

Though Nye might not be aware of it, the discussion on soft power has the potential to lead us to the realm of civilization. On this point, the spotlight shifts from Hollywood to Greek civilization, from Wall Street to the Renaissance, from James Bond to Jesus Christ. The Chinese should drop projects of erecting more ultra-tall buildings and divert their resources to improving rural education, which has better chances of nurturing another Li Bai than the ultra-tall buildings in the financial district of Shanghai.

A critical note here may be appropriate. Many Asian scholars, journalists, and political leaders are charmed by the term soft power, sometimes using it with meanings that depart from Nye’s formulation. Sadly, there are many other examples where Asia just follows the intellectual fashion of the US, be it neoliberalism in politics and economics, or downsizing in management. Such phenomena should give us pause for serious reflection. Why does Asia lack the intellectual confidence to hack an independent path in understanding and solving societal problems? On this point, Asian universities and ministries of education have to bear a share of the responsibility. They have failed to nurture top quality academic journals in Asia as outlets for their researchers. When you are in a situation of “publish or perish” with pressure to publish in top journals, you submit your works to Western journals. It is only rational to use concepts and theories that originate from that part of the world, for doing so increases the odds of the papers being accepted.

Here I would not add other factors often cited, namely, the method of teaching in schools and the control of the mass media and the low tolerance of dissent by Asian governments. Though these two factors have negative impacts on cultural and intellectual development, they do not explain adequately the dominance of Western intellectual fashions. Reason? Asian intellectuals who have migrated to the West enjoy the same degree of freedom as their Western counterparts, but they still continue to follow the Western intellectual fashions.


1. Ferguson, N. (2004). Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire. New York: Penguin, p. 24.

3 Comments To This Article

  • TertiaryEducationWorker

    on May 02, 2016 at 06:11 AM - Reply


    Good article - to advocate this: Governments might want to avoid focusing short term indicators and look into the soft powers which is the outcome of long term investment. Universities need to be funded to the intrinsic value of education - the long term softpower which can not measured easily. Thus, the focus of KPIs on tertiary education might also need to be pondered over again by decision makers and funders. Eventually, those softpowers are the fundemental source of social and economical developments.

  • liuyi

    on May 24, 2016 at 06:12 PM - Reply


    Hi Dr Heng, great article on unpacking the concept of 'soft power'. Just two thoughts: 1) The concepts of 'hard' and 'soft' power, as you have noted, derive from a neoliberal tradition that bears a strong state-centric assumption. How, then, do non-state actors, such as civil society actors, multinational companies, or international institutions, exert power? This would have implications on state actors, since state behaviour is arguably constrained by non-state actors as well (as you have hinted in your article). Perhaps we can consider another way of understanding power, ala Barnett and Duvall (2005), which acknowledges the power of norms and discourse (which you have hinted in the article) in a clearer analytical framework. A possible topic for a follow-up article on power, perhaps? (: 2) I agree that there is an Anglo-American bias in academia, though I am uncertain if/how this 'problem' should be fixed. Rather than criticising the intellectual tradition upon which Asian scholars utilise, perhaps there is more utility in standing on the proverbial shoulders of Western intellectual giants while drawing from insights in Asian philosophy and history? Deng's (2008) conceptualisation of a "Chinese model" of international relations, based on his analysis of China's foreign policy, comes to mind.

    • Michael Heng
      Michael Heng

      on Jun 13, 2016 at 05:37 AM - Reply


      Thanks for raising the two questions. I shall try to address them. In democratic systems, civil societies can exercise power through the ballot box and actions like mass protests. In autocratic states, there is not much they can do that is visible to ordinary observers. Their discontent remains "underground" until a point is reached when it bursts out in the open at a time very difficult to predict. We have seen this in East Europe and Iran, and more recently in the Arab Spring. Transnational companies exert their power primarily in the realm of economic activities. Historically, big money has been influencing directly the policies of government via loans to finance military campaigns. I am not against drawing on western intellectual achievements in generally or as a matter of principle. In fact, I am a big fan of the European Renaissance and Enlightenment. What i hope to see is serious attempt by Asian scholars and intellectuals to develop original concepts and theories as part of the process to understand and solve Asian societal problems. In doing so, they will contribute to the body of knowledge, which the West will welcome. You are right to refer to the contributions of Deng Xiaoping. Coming to mind are his concept of one country two systems, and his advice to put in cold storage issues of territorial disputes, to be handled by future generations when the international conditions are more conducive.

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