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Soft Power, How the West has Misunderstood it, And

How China might have gotten it right.
by RV.

The other day, talking to my “young American friend” over lunch, on the topic of overuse of US “hard powers” in the world.

He agreed that US “overused” its hard powers.  With his emphasis on the word “overused”, he implied that US could scale back its hard powers international and yet achieve the same objectives, such as securities abroad, etc.

Then, I realized, he, like many other Westerners did not truly understand the true essence of “Soft Power”.  In forcing myself in the discourse, I suddenly also realized, the topic of “Soft Power” is largely carried with a sense of vague assumptions in Western Academia, along with statistics and no real appreciations for what it is.

So, it is what “soft power” really is, and why the West got it wrong and used it wrong, and brought about dangerous consequences for itself and others.

Western academics defined “soft power” as an influence, from cultural, economic, and social aspects of a group of people to another.

My friend put it as “the ability to make others want to imitate you.”

The Western assumption is that one can use “soft power” to achieve goals of making others do things without directly forcing them to do things via “hard power”.

That is fundamentally illogical.

Such a notion of “soft power” is in fact imbued with dangerous hybrid notions that only delude oneself.

Such a notion of “soft power” would indeed justify all manners of hard powers, such as economic sanctions, embargoes, media propaganda, and covert operations to forment armed rebellion.  Afterall, teaching others or goading others into “imitating” one’s own revolutions in their country is merely influencing them to “imitate”, but hardly anyone would disagree that such actions are hard uses of forces, ie. borrowing other people’s forces.

The even more problem with such a notion of “soft power” is that it is really merely rubber bullets in a gun chamber, or hard power in disguise.  It might not hit you as hard, but it doesn’t make it less painful.  Indeed, sometimes, SOFT bullets are designed to cause more pain than real bullets.

And the same gun that fired the rubber bullets can easily switch to real bullets.  In other words, Western “soft power” is assumed to be meaningless without the backing of “hard power”, and cannot exert any influences without “hard power”.

Consider US’s media campaign of freedom in the Middle East.  The “imitation” comes along with US’s military presence in the region.

The problem with this type of imitation is that it is a facade.  The people only want to “imitate” so far as to achieve what they desire.  And you can’t change what they desire with such “soft powers”.

This is the same problem encountered by the Romans, and to which they failed to realize.

As the Romans spread their “culture” on the point of their legions across Europe and even Africa, barbarian tribes wanted to imitate the Romans, even adopting their money, their technologies, their religion.  But the barbarian tribes did not accept Roman politics or laws so easily.  When the Roman empires fell, the local Europeans did not take up Roman form of Senate and legal systems.  In fact, Europeans became Kingdoms with rather simplistic “might is right” legal systems.

There are some Roman things that the barbarians in Europe simply did not want, not until they decided for themselves much later on.

The problem is, when one fundamentally started out exerting “hard power” influences on others, there is naturally some amount of “soft” influence that come along with the “hard power”.  But it is not true “soft power”.  It is still part of the “hard power”.

Ie. you have been beating a man into submission, and then you put away your club, that man “voluntarily” helps you, and wants to be your friend.  Do you know if he really means it, if he really want to be like you, help you, or does he really just want to take away your club and later on beat you in revenge?

That’s the other side of this kind of “imitation”.  They may be imitating you today, but they also want to “influence” you in return.  Influence is a double-edged sword.  How does one influence others, while keeping one’s own core identities essentially unchanged?  Some say, that cannot be done.  Influence is 2 way, one must accept that one will be changed by others.

True.  However, if one is influenced very heavily by others in return, then one does not really have “soft power”.


In that sense, one’s true measure of “soft power” is the relative strength of one’s core identities/values that resists outside influences, at the same time when that same strength of core values make others want to imitate the values.

Thus, True “soft power” comes from purely the strength and merits of one’s core values, without the necessity of any military force or economic coercions.

Understandably, a nation must have some “hard power” to defend its basic sovereign interests.

The truth of “soft power” also comes with the knowledge that “soft power” is not an influence that guarantees results or peace.  Some arguments cannot be solved by “soft power”, and must be fought with “hard powers”.

In that view, Western foreign policies in much of the world are misapplication of their soft and hard powers based upon their fundamental errors of assumptions.

Take Middle East, West assumes that they are keeping the Peace, as “soft power”, but they do so with force, so it is really “hard power” that teeters on an unstable balance.  This kind of solution cannot benefit anyone.  No one really believe it is a long term solution.  And when the whole thing collapses, with the waning Western powers in the region, then it would leave no one in the region thinking that they will want to imitate Western “democracy” to solve their problems.

*Even more dangerous, the discourse of Western notion of “soft power” is driving the West itself into extremism, perhaps as the effect of “reverse influence”.

While the West eagerly applied its “soft power” in propagandizing “democracy” all over the world, itself is questioning what that “democracy” really is.

Partisan extremist ideologies are on the rise in US and Western Europe, in primarily the “native” population segments, questioning everything fundamental in their own political cultural value systems, such as the place of religion in politics, the issue of gun rights, homosexual rights, rights of taxation or resistance to it, etc.

Instead of civil discourses to solve problems peacefully, West turn their own propaganda “soft power” skills even on their own citizens, in vicious smear campaigns, (which they had great practice in other countries).

Some many Westerners are now fearing that their traditions of peaceful political discourse have been lost in the prevailing wind of their own eager propagandas.

That should not be any surprise to a Chinese person who lived through the Cultural Revolution, when so much propaganda flooded a nation, there is no room for peaceful politics.

Instead of finding and practicing strengths in their core values, Westerners fear precisely now ever more that their values are being misunderstood, eroded, and lost, even in their own countries.  That they themselves and their own children seem to take extremist and rather impractical and imaginary views of their own values, does not seem to matter to them.

Money influences in their politics as propagandizing is now business as usual, even though everyone knows it’s the cause of the problem, they can’t seem to see ways around it.

Campaign contributions to the last 2 US presidential campaigns were double of the one before each.  2012 is projected to double yet again!


Paul Krugman recently said in a BBC Documentary, “We fear the Chinese not for their Communism, but for their Capitalism.  We see things in them that use to see in ourselves, can-do, hard work…”

I only dispute Mr. Krugman on 1 point:  The Chinese always had those values.  And they are the Chinese “soft power”.

Did China get it right?

Perhaps, China has a glimmer of the right idea of soft power, in that China’s strict non-intervention policies left China bare to influence others on the strengths of Chinese values themselves.

Chinese trade go to other nations with little or no conditions.  (Except perhaps the sovereign interest in recognizing 1 China).  That is far from the type of Western coercions that are traditionally seen in the world.  If those countries do not want to trade with China, (and there are), they don’t have to trade with China.

But there is a danger that China may become complacent in its own hard powers eventually and forget to play the soft power the way it really is.

That is a danger that we Chinese must be vigilant against.  We must remind ourselves the lessons in the failing of the West in their “soft power”.

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  1. February 19th, 2011 at 22:33 | #1


    Perhaps the problem you have with your friend’s conception of “soft power” has less to do with the “soft” part per se, but the “power” part.

    What is power? In the West, I think it’s defined as the ability to make others do what you want, even if it’s not in their interest. In China, the notion of power – if you study traditional Chinese philosophy – is to respect others to do what’s is in their interest, but to do everything you can to align their interest with yours.

  2. r v
    February 20th, 2011 at 08:53 | #2

    Yes, I think you might be right. the “power” part is harsher than the Chinese concept of “influence”.

    I told my friend that we Chinese believe that “soft influence” is more about the HOPE that something happens, not so much as a DIRECT causality.

    Or as the old Chinese proverb goes, “He who is willing, bite the straightened fish hook.”

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