Joseph Nye: Soft Power

“Soft power rests on the ability to shape the preferences of others.”


Joseph S. Nye, born in 1937, is Dean Emeritus of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Nye made a name for himself in international relations theory in the 1970s when – together with Robert Keohane – he developed the concept of neoliberalism (not to be confused with neoliberal economic theory). The theory suggests that international politics are not solely governed by interstate relations, but by a multitude of channels, from informal governmental ties to multi-national corporations. From 1977 to 1979 Nye served as Deputy to the Undersecretary of State for Security Assistance, Science and Technology and in 1994 and 1995 as Assistant Secretary of Defence for International Security Affairs.

It was Joseph S. Nye who fathered the term “soft power”, an expression often used to describe the EU’s capability to bring about change in its neighbourhood. Nye first developed the concept in 1990 in a book called Bound to Lead – the Changing Nature of American Power, disputing the idea that the United States was in decline. He developed the concept further over time and dedicated a full book, Soft Power, to the topic in 2004. “Some of our leaders,” he wrote, “do not understand the crucial importance of soft power in our reordered post-September 11 world.”

“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.

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 … A country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries – admiring its values, emulating its examples, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness – want to follow it.”

In the American policy environment, the importance of soft power is contested. Former Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once told a journalist he did “not know what it meant.” In a Foreign Affairs article in 2004, Nye deplored the decline of America’s soft power, strongly criticising the Bush administration.

Soft power, Nye argues in his book, is not 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 behavioural terms soft power is attractive power. In terms of resources, soft-power resources are the assets that produce such attraction.”

These “soft-power resources”, according to Nye, mainly derive from culture, domestic values and policies, and from foreign policy substance and style. He cites examples from the Beatles and the Hollywood film industry to democratic core values such as freedom of speech and equality of women. With regard to foreign policy, Nye points to issues like the Iraq war and America’s “new unilateralism”, both of which have undermined America’s soft power.

Nye’s most concise definition of soft power is “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. It arises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies.”

Today, Nye’s concept “soft power” enjoys widespread use in international relations and foreign policy circles. Often, however, it is difficult is to determine how soft power is actually exercised and to gauge the changes it has helped achieve. How does a country’s cultural influence or its image as a champion of human rights affect foreign policy outcomes?

“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.”

The closest competitor to the United States in terms of soft power resources, says Nye, is Europe. European art, literature, music, design, fashion and food are all “global cultural magnets”. European countries rank extremely high in terms of Nobel Prize awards, tourist visits, applications for political asylum, life expectancy and overseas development assistance. Furthermore, “soccer, Europe’s primary sport, is far more popular globally than American football or baseball.” And the new constitution of South Africa bears more resemblance to the European Convention on Human Rights than to the American Bill of Rights.

“Many European domestic policies appeal to young populations in modern democracies. For example, European policies on capital punishment, gun control, climate change, and the rights of homosexuals are probably closer to the views of many younger people in rich countries around the world than are American government policies.”

What Nye hardly mentions is the EU enlargement process. By coaching and conditioning ten former communist states – young but successful free-market democracies – for EU entry, enlargement has become the most important achievement of EU foreign policy. Its success owes overwhelmingly to soft power. Although he agrees with Timothy Garton Ash that the EU’s “soft power is demonstrated by the fact that not only millions of individuals but also whole states want to enter it,” Nye does not explore the subject further. It has fallen to other thinkers – the likes of Heather Grabbe – to do so.

  • Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Soft Power. The Means to Success in World Politics, Public Affairs, 2004.
  • Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Bound to Lead. The Changing Nature of American Power, Basic Books, 1990.
29 December 2009