That is not how soft power works: A rant and an ad

With the proposed budget cuts for the U.S. State Department – and USAID -, we once again started seeing soft power discussions on mainstream news outlets. For a scholar, seeing his/her research topic on news outlets is an interesting experience. On one hand, it is a validation of one’s research and academic expertise. If people are talking about your research topic, you are not irrelevant. On the other hand, after hearing the arguments made, all you want to do is to yell “YOU ARE ALL WRONG”. Well, thanks to internet, it is a lot easier to yell that!

You are all wrong, your understanding of soft power is incomplete and flawed. Here is why:


<advertisement> There is an edited book, available here, on the topic. I have a chapter on soft power and public diplomacy </advertisement>.

Let’ start with Rubio’s tweet. Foreign aid is not a way to ensure national security. It is literally the equivalent of saying “if there is a good social welfare system, I won’t get mugged”. The mugging argument is not necessarily wrong – indeed if nobody is in dire need of getting cash quickly, the odds of getting mugged really decreases. However, if your end goal is not to get mugged, there are other options such as a better law enforcement force (hard power), or understanding the needs of people in need of financial assistance and changing the social system to address their needs (soft power).

Trump signals a US shift from ‘soft power’ to military might


As Dr. Labonte also says in the article, this is not necessarily a zero-sum game. Your “let’s deal with the people outside our borders” budget does not only include “bombing them” or “giving money to them”.

This is actually the most important issue surrounding soft power. We, politicians and scholars alike, tend to make sense of soft power through a comparison with hard power. Soft power is just like hard power but with carrots instead of sticks. <shameless self-promotion> In my chapter in the Routledge Handbook of Soft Power, I entertain the same issue – soft power is ontologically distinct from hard power </shameless self-promotion>. When the term was first coined, a hard-power comparison made sense and was instrumental in explaining American foreign policy in late 1980s and early 1990s. Yet, right now, it is not! We need to understand soft power as a separate concept. There is as much “hard power” theory/concept in “soft power” as there are horses in your car engine.

Joseph Nye: Trump’s tweets harm US soft power

Well, it is quiet hard to tell Joseph Nye’s view on soft power is wrong, as he coined the term. But two quick notes about this particular piece of journalism:

1- Nye does not say “Trump’s tweets harm US soft power”, he says the political discourse surrounding the election campaign did.

2- Nye is not wrong. Trump had an impact on American soft power – just like the presidents before him did. Yet, it would be unfair to argue that his impact was purely negative because:

  • Soft power is not ‘universal’. The U.S. might have lost face with European audiences. But Trump was liked by other countries and audiences.
  • Soft power is an asset and can be communicated differently. It is not easy yet plausible to frame 2016 as a great peaceful transition of power or as an exercise in checks and balances in a democratic system.

Want to Win Wars? Fund Soft Power, Trump’s Generals Say

Soft power is not this other thing that help you win the war. The article presents a great summary of how defense-oriented organizations and individuals see soft power. It complements hard power to cement the victory in the field. That is not true. It is not winning the hearts and minds – soft power is about conversation, it is about sharing – let it be sharing a movie or sharing a political ideology; it is about understanding – let it be understanding the other’s language and culture or needs and demands. Soft power, as a strategy, takes place on a different level than hard power.

Long story short, soft power says stop trying to win, start living together.



One thought on “That is not how soft power works: A rant and an ad

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s