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Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics

Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics

3.5 6
by Joseph S. Nye, Jr.

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Joseph Nye coined the term "soft power" in the late 1980s. It is now used frequently—and often incorrectly—by political leaders, editorial writers, and academics around the world. So what is soft power? Soft power lies in the ability to attract and persuade. Whereas hard power—the ability to coerce—grows out of a country's military or economic


Joseph Nye coined the term "soft power" in the late 1980s. It is now used frequently—and often incorrectly—by political leaders, editorial writers, and academics around the world. So what is soft power? Soft power lies in the ability to attract and persuade. Whereas hard power—the ability to coerce—grows out of a country's military or economic might, soft power arises from the attractiveness of a country's culture, political ideals, and policies.

Hard power remains crucial in a world of states trying to guard their independence and of non-state groups willing to turn to violence. It forms the core of the Bush administration's new national security strategy. But according to Nye, the neo-conservatives who advise the president are making a major miscalculation: They focus too heavily on using America's military power to force other nations to do our will, and they pay too little heed to our soft power. It is soft power that will help prevent terrorists from recruiting supporters from among the moderate majority. And it is soft power that will help us deal with critical global issues that require multilateral cooperation among states. That is why it is so essential that America better understands and applies our soft power. This book is our guide.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This is an indispensable book for anyone wondering what sort of changes to expect in U.S. foreign policy should the Democrats retake the White House later this year. Nye (The Paradox of American Power, etc.), now dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, was an assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration and is certain to be a key player in a new Democratic administration. In fact, this book could all but guarantee it. Nye's careful analysis of the shortcomings of unilateralism and reliance solely on military power in confronting the threat posed by Islamic extremists is strong, all the more so because it is virtually devoid of partisanship. He gives credit to President Bush and his neoconservative advisers in their projection of "hard" military and economic power. But he shows how what he casts as their blindness to the significance of "soft" power seriously undermines hard power. Soft power-"the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion"-is cultivated through relations with allies, economic assistance and cultural exchanges with other countries, projecting a sense that U.S. behavior corresponds with rhetorical support for democracy and human rights and, more generally, maintaining favorable public opinion and credibility abroad. The go-it-alone approach, Nye argues, has led to an unprecedented drop in support for the U.S. abroad, which leaves us scrambling to rebuild Iraq almost singlehandedly, overstretching ourselves militarily and economically. It also hampers efforts to secure the voluntary cooperation of foreign governments essential to dismantling terrorist cells spread throughout the globe. The answer, Nye says, lies in a return to the mix of soft and hard power that cemented the Western alliance and won the Cold War. (Apr.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Foreign Affairs
Coined by Nye in the late 1980s, the term "soft power" — the ability of a country to persuade others to do what it wants without force or coercion — is now widely invoked in foreign policy debates. This short book reintroduces the idea and argues for its relevance in forming post-September 11 U.S. foreign policy. Nye argues that successful states need both hard and soft power — the ability to coerce others as well as the ability to shape their long-term attitudes and preferences. The United States can dominate others, but it has also excelled in projecting soft power, with the help of its companies, foundations, universities, churches, and other institutions of civil society; U.S. culture, ideals, and values have been extraordinarily important in helping Washington attract partners and supporters. Nye acknowledges the limits of soft power: it tends to have diffuse effects on the outside world and is not easily wielded to achieve specific outcomes. Indeed, societies often embrace American values and culture but resist U.S. foreign policies. But overall, Nye's message is that U.S. security hinges as much on winning hearts and minds as it does on winning wars.

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The Means to Success in World Politics


Copyright © 2004 Joseph S. Nye, Jr.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-58648-225-4

Chapter One

The Changing Nature of Power

More than four centuries ago, Niccolo Machiavelli advised princes in Italy that it was more important to be feared than to be loved. But in today's world, it is best to be both. Winning hearts and minds has always been important, but it is even more so in a global information age. Information is power, and modern information technology is spreading information more widely than ever before in history. Yet political leaders have spent little time thinking about how the nature of power has changed and, more specifically, about how to incorporate the soft dimensions into their strategies for wielding power.


Power is like the weather. Everyone depends on it and talks about it, but few understand it. Just as farmers and meteorologists try to forecast the weather, political leaders and analysts try to describe and predict changes in power relationships. Power is also like love, easier to experience than to define or measure, but no less real for that. The dictionary tells us that power is the capacity to do things. At this most general level, power means the ability to get the outcomes one wants. The dictionary also tells us that power means having the capabilities to affect the behavior of others to make those things happen. So more specifically, power is the ability to influence the behavior of others to get the outcomes one wants. But there are several ways to affect the behavior of others. You can coerce them with threats; you can induce them with payments; or you can attract and co-opt them to want what you want.

Some people think of power narrowly, in terms of command and coercion. You experience it when you can make others do what they would otherwise not do. You say "Jump!" and they jump. This appears to be a simple test of power, but things are not as straightforward as they first appear. Suppose those whom you command, like my granddaughters, already love to jump? When we measure power in terms of the changed behavior of others, we have first to know their preferences. Otherwise we may be as mistaken about our power as a rooster who thinks his crowing makes the sun rise. And the power may evaporate when the context changes. The playground bully who terrorizes other children and makes them jump at his command loses his power as soon as the class returns from recess to a strict classroom. A cruel dictator can lock up or execute a dissident, but that may not prove his power if the dissenter was really seeking martyrdom. Power always depends on the context in which the relationship exists.

Knowing in advance how others would behave in the absence of our commands is often difficult. What is more, as we shall see, sometimes we can get the outcomes we want by affecting behavior without commanding it. If you believe that my objectives are legitimate, I may be able to persuade you to do something for me without using threats or inducements. It is possible to get many desired outcomes without having much tangible power over others. For example, some loyal Catholics may follow the pope's teaching on capital punishment not because of a threat of excommunication but out of respect for his moral authority. Or some radical Muslim fundamentalists may be attracted to support Osama bin Laden's actions not because of payments or threats, but because they believe in the legitimacy of his objectives.

Practical politicians and ordinary people often find these questions of behavior and motivation too complicated. Thus they turn to a second definition of power and simply define it as the possession of capabilities or resources that can influence outcomes. Consequently they consider a country powerful if it has a relatively large population and territory, extensive natural resources, economic strength, military force, and social stability. The virtue of this second definition is that it makes power appear more concrete, measurable, and predictable. But this definition also has problems. When people define power as synonymous with the resources that produce it, they sometimes encounter the paradox that those best endowed with power do not always get the outcomes they want.

Power resources are not as fungible as money. What wins in one game may not help at all in another. Holding a winning poker hand does not help if the game is bridge. Even if the game is poker, if you play your high hand poorly, you can still lose. Having power resources does not guarantee that you will always get the outcome you want. For example, in terms of resources the United States was far more powerful than Vietnam, yet we lost the Vietnam War. And America was the world's only superpower in 2001, but we failed to prevent September 11.

Converting resources into realized power in the sense of obtaining desired outcomes requires well-designed strategies and skillful leadership. Yet strategies are often inadequate and leaders frequently misjudge-witness Japan and Germany in 1941 or Saddam Hussein in 1990. As a first approximation in any game, it always helps to start by figuring out who is holding the high cards. But it is equally important to understand what game you are playing. Which resources provide the best basis for power behavior in a particular context? Oil was not an impressive power resource before the industrial age nor was uranium significant before the nuclear age.

In earlier periods, international power resources may have been easier to assess. A traditional test of a Great Power in international politics was "strength for war." But over the centuries, as technologies evolved, the sources of strength for war often changed. For example, in eighteenth-century Europe, population was a critical power resource because it provided a base for taxes and the recruitment of infantry. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Prussia presented its fellow victors at the Congress of Vienna with a precise plan for its own reconstruction with territories and populations to be transferred to maintain a balance of power against France. In the prenationalist period, it did not matter that many of the people in those transferred provinces did not speak German. However, within half a century popular sentiments of nationalism had grown greatly, and Germany's seizure of Alsace and Lorraine from France in 1870 became one of the underlying causes of World War I. Instead of being assets, the transferred provinces became liabilities in the changed context of nationalism. In short, power resources cannot be judged without knowing the context. Before you judge who is holding the high cards, you need to understand what game you are playing and how the value of the cards may be changing.

For example, the distribution of power resources in the contemporary information age varies greatly on different issues. We are told that the United States is the only superpower in a "unipolar" world. But the context is far more complex than first meets the eye. The agenda of world politics has become like a three-dimensional chess game in which one can win only by playing vertically as well as horizontally. On the top board of classic interstate military issues, the United States is indeed the only superpower with global military reach, and it makes sense to speak in traditional terms of unipolarity or hegemony. However, on the middle board of interstate economic issues, the distribution of power is multipolar. The United States cannot obtain the outcomes it wants on trade, antitrust, or financial regulation issues without the agreement of the European Union, Japan, China, and others. It makes little sense to call this American hegemony. And on the bottom board of transnational issues like terrorism, international crime, climate change, and the spread of infectious diseases, power is widely distributed and chaotically organized among state and nonstate actors. It makes no sense at all to call this a unipolar world or an American empire-despite the claims of propagandists on the right and left. And this is the set of issues that is now intruding into the world of grand strategy. Yet many political leaders still focus almost entirely on military assets and classic military solutions-the top board. They mistake the necessary for the sufficient. They are one-dimensional players in a three-dimensional game. In the long term, that is the way to lose, since obtaining favorable outcomes on the bottom transnational board often requires the use of soft power assets.


Everyone is familiar with hard power. We know that military and economic might often get others to change their position. Hard power can rest on inducements ("carrots") or threats ("sticks"). But sometimes you can get the outcomes you want without tangible threats or payoffs. The indirect way to get what you want has sometimes been called "the second face of power." 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.

Soft power rests on the ability to shape the preferences of others. At the personal level, we are all familiar with the power of attraction and seduction. In a relationship or a marriage, power does not necessarily reside with the larger partner, but in the mysterious chemistry of attraction. And in the business world, smart executives know that leadership is not just a matter of issuing commands, but also involves leading by example and attracting others to do what you want. It is difficult to run a large organization by commands alone. You also need to get others to buy in to your values. Similarly, contemporary practices of community-based policing rely on making the police sufficiently friendly and attractive that a community wants to help them achieve shared objectives.

Political leaders have long understood the power that comes from attraction. If I can get you to want to do what I want, then I do not have to use carrots or sticks to make you do it. Whereas leaders in authoritarian countries can use coercion and issue commands, politicians in democracies have to rely more on a combination of inducement and attraction. Soft power is a staple of daily democratic politics. The ability to establish preferences tends to be associated with intangible assets such as an attractive personality, culture, political values and institutions, and policies that are seen as legitimate or having moral authority. If a leader represents values that others want to follow, it will cost less to lead.

Soft power is not merely the same as influence. After all, influence can also rest on the hard power of threats or payments. And soft power is more than just persuasion or the ability to move people by argument, though that is an important part of it. It is also the ability to attract, and attraction often leads to acquiescence. Simply put, in behavioral terms soft power is attractive power. In terms of resources, soft-power resources are the assets that produce such attraction. Whether a particular asset is a soft-power resource that produces attraction can be measured by asking people through polls or focus groups. Whether that attraction in turn produces desired policy outcomes has to be judged in particular cases. Attraction does not always determine others' preferences, but this gap between power measured as resources and power judged as the outcomes of behavior is not unique to soft power. It occurs with all forms of power. Before the fall of France in 1940, Britain and France had more tanks than Germany, but that advantage in military power resources did not accurately predict the outcome of the battle.

One way to think about the difference between hard and soft power is to consider the variety of ways you can obtain the outcomes you want. You can command me to change my preferences and do what you want by threatening me with force or economic sanctions. You can induce me to do what you want by using your economic power to pay me. You can restrict my preferences by setting the agenda in such a way that my more extravagant wishes seem too unrealistic to pursue. Or you can appeal to my sense of attraction, love, or duty in our relationship and appeal to our shared values about the justness of contributing to those shared values and purposes. If I am persuaded to go along with your purposes without any explicit threat or exchange taking place-in short, if my behavior is determined by an observable but intangible attraction-soft power is at work. Soft power uses a different type of currency (not force, not money) to engender cooperation-an attraction to shared values and the justness and duty of contributing to the achievement of those values. Much as Adam Smith observed that people are led by an invisible hand when making decisions in a free market, our decisions in the marketplace for ideas are often shaped by soft power-an intangible attraction that persuades us to go along with others' purposes without any explicit threat or exchange taking place.

Hard and soft power are related because they are both aspects of the ability to achieve one's purpose by affecting the behavior of others. The distinction between them is one of degree, both in the nature of the behavior and in the tangibility of the resources. Command power-the ability to change what others do-can rest on coercion or inducement. Co-optive power-the ability to shape what others want-can rest on the attractiveness of one's culture and values or the ability to manipulate the agenda of political choices in a manner that makes others fail to express some preferences because they seem to be too unrealistic. The types of behavior between command and co-option range along a spectrum from coercion to economic inducement to agenda setting to pure attraction. Soft-power resources tend to be associated with the co-optive end of the spectrum of behavior, whereas hard-power resources are usually associated with command behavior. But the relationship is imperfect. For example, sometimes countries may be attracted to others with command power by myths of invincibility, and command power may sometimes be used to establish institutions that later become regarded as legitimate. A strong economy not only provides resources for sanctions and payments, but can also be a source of attractiveness. On the whole, however, the general association between the types of behavior and certain resources is strong enough to allow us to employ the useful shorthand reference to hard- and soft-power resources.


Excerpted from SOFT POWER by JOSEPH S. NYE, JR. Copyright © 2004 by Joseph S. Nye, Jr.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, was Chairman of the National Intelligence Council and Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration. He is the author of several books, including The Paradox of American Power: Why the World's Only Superpower Can't Go It Alone and Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power. PublicAffairs will publish his political thriller, The Power Game, in Fall 2004.

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Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Nye makes a good case for beefing up American spending to influence world opinion through American culture.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
For over a decade and a half, Nye has self-promoted by coining 'soft power' as if this is a novelty, when any one reading Antonio Gramsci's writings in 1920s or 1930s can see Gramsci was a far more complex, superior thinker who, unlike Nye, does not instrumentalize culture, movies, etc., as a functionaly utility for political power. Worse, Nye has changed his mind about the meanings, components, and uses of soft power that by now it is impossible to see what is and what isn't soft power, i.e., an excercise in futility. Kaveh Afrasiabi
Guest More than 1 year ago
Nye's 'soft power' in a nutshell: smart parents know that getting their child to 'want what they want' is more efficient than wielding sticks or withdrawing weekly allowances. A more 'critical' approach to soft power, often used on the left as Nye notes, could be healthier for us in moderate doses. It gets us to examine the biases, interests, and ethnocentrism conditioning our worldview. How our interests are not always the world's. How only self-serving arrogance could suggest otherwise. Does the US ('born to lead') always want the best for 'her chidren'? Who awarded it special access to that font of wisdom? Parents sometimes want the kids in bed early less out of concern for their welfare, but because an adult movie is about to start. Look elsewhere than Nye if you're searching out a way to negotiate a pluralistic world, one in which none of us has 'the answer'. At the moment we presume ourselves capable of parenting others, we seem most prone to childish vanity.