Sunday, 13 March 2011

How crucial is soft power to the successful conduct of diplomacy?

There have been a plethora of debates on both sides of the liberal and realist fence of the effectiveness of soft power in facilitating diplomacy in general. The former stand as proponents saying that in this age of globalization with instant communication it is important that states do not rely alone on military or economic hard power. The realists on the other hand dismiss results. It will be argued here that soft power is crucial to the conduct of diplomacy but only effective when backed up by hard power as a tool to implement it. It will further be discussed how contradiction in foreign and domestic policy with the values a states soft power proposes to represent limits its value and clearly showing that this argument is only fluid and depends on the context i.e. the power relationship changes based on interests and desires of both parties in that relationship.


Power generally has been defined as the ability of one party to get another to do something they would not normally do in order to meet a set of objectives and/or interests of the first party. Hard power usually involves not only the use and threat of force i.e. some element of force but can also be the ‘carrot’ in a carrots and stick approach to diplomacy. The use of military force and economic incentives (or sanctions) are examples of how hard power is used.

One key element of soft power often overlooked is the ability to ‘attract’. It is not solely the use of peaceful negotiation or public information schemes to ‘sell’ what in effect are the three dimensions of soft power i.e. culture, values and foreign policy.

However proponents of soft power often overstate how crucial it is from a point of view of ‘attractiveness’ by ignoring to recognize that hard power resources like military might, economic dominance have an element of attraction. The US as the strongest military and even China as a rising economic giant are attractive. In the latter case the economic hard power has made it easier to accept soft power messages. A common resource or tool of propagating soft power used in Public Diplomacy Campaigns is cultural exchange programmes for example learning languages. The rise in the number of students globally interested in learning mandarin, studying Chinese art, music architecture or studying in Chinese universities can be attributed in no small part to the knowledge that China is an economic (hard) power. Implementing an event such as the recent Beijing Olympics, by all accounts a very successful conduct of diplomacy in the use of soft power required enormous economic strength.

One of the aims of diplomacy and can be judged to be successful where there is a changed perception positively of the country.

American popular culture that has been integrated into many other countries is a strong indication of the power of media in Public diplomacy. In the Middle Easy, especially since 9/11, there has been a growing need to use soft power to change perceptions of US in the Muslim world. Hollywood is recognized as the key driver and US made films and music is especially penetrating the youth in the Muslim world. In addition to this a review of Public Diplomacy strategies highlighted the internet as a major tool of leveraging soft power.

There are however some instances where soft power becomes less crucial and can thus be counterproductive.

One such example is where actual foreign policy and the actions associated with that are contradictory. Any flexing of soft power resources are then seen as hypocritical. An example could be the fact that even though the US portrays itself as the ‘defender’ of democracy and proposes to spread democracy to the world, its virtually unilateral action in the war on Iraq amidst less support has not helped its public image abroad. There is no evidence to suggest embracing soft power resources such as culture, values etc is an indication of acceptance of policy which means soft power is only crucial and effective when this is in place. It is common knowledge that militants in Somali loved American rap music and wore Levis Jeans whilst Kim Jong-Il of North Korea is reputed to love Pizza and music.

Another example of soft power limitations is the fact it produces a ‘bounce’ effect or reaction generating competition to the proponent of soft power. Japan’s technological advancement an attraction to many in South Asia resulted in becoming so attractive that this was copied and nations like Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and now China are in competition hence posing a challenge.

One difficulty in attempting to decide conclusively that soft power is crucial is in the vague way it is measured by many. As defined soft power is the ability to get someone to do what they would not otherwise do by attraction. As such this can only be measured where we have established firstly the context that the other party wouldn’t have done it anyway. If I ask or persuade my daughter to jump, I can only claim to my soft power being crucial with the assurance that she doesn’t love jumping. The context of measuring goes also into determining if there are already shared values or cultures which serve in themselves to facilitate. The power relationship is therefore always changing and how crucial soft power is in diplomatic negotiation is also fluid.

One recent phenomenon that underlines soft power essence especially in the last two decades is the proliferation of non-state actors including NGO’s and their growing importance in diplomacy in general. As a result of this there are a growing number of new issues that face nations and their foreign services such as Climate Change, Human rights, HIV and their securitization which has minimum to do with hard power alone. States consistently have to weld soft power for legitimacy in these issues closely adopting what is in essence important stages of implementation i.e.

In conclusion therefore, soft power in isolation does not seem to dominate in its importance in diplomacy. The contemporary political landscape means it is growing in importance with need however for economic military power to implement it. The limitations remain though in it cannot be a replacement for good policy and contradiction can be counterproductive along with the fact that ‘bounce’ can create competition.

The degree to which soft power has played a role positively in any diplomatic negotiation remains dependent on the nature of the power relationship, shared values and culture amongst other things.

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