Home > Uncategorized > A Superficial Death of Soft Power: It’s another Made-Up Term.

A Superficial Death of Soft Power: It’s another Made-Up Term.

One might as well call it “the Pink Powdery Pixie Dust of Hippie Magic,” because it is really quite a made-up concept that doesn’t make sense relative to its own applications.

Joseph Nye first defined and popularized the notion of “soft power” as the ability to attract and influence others.  But somewhere down the path of popularity, such a general idea became shrouded in numbers and PR.  Now, it is no longer enough to merely “attract”, no longer enough to be “soft”.  “Power” and “Influence twisted the essence of the notion until “soft power” became a plan of attack, like a soft drink overloaded with caffeine and sugar and double spiked with rum and turned into a 12 hour Energy Drink.

Mr. Nye may have defined “soft power”, but he certainly did not create it.  He merely sought to coin a word and define what he thinks was missing from Western traditional exercise of “hard power”.  But that means, Mr. Nye may himself be wrong in what he perceived, and he cannot give all the answers.

Worst of all, it is now being used to PR against China to prove rhetorically silly media lines like “China doesn’t have Soft Power Afterall.”  Well, I don’t think any one can say China has lost that Pixie Dust of Magic, because I don’t think China ever claimed that it had it in the first place!

What Mr. Nye (and the followers of his “soft power” theory) is encountering, is the denial of the limitation of their own theory.  That being, they can’t explain why the data in China’s case don’t fit their model, and yet they still insist that their theory must be correct.

So, Mr. Nye tries to explain China as rising BECAUSE of a mystery substance of “soft power” that China must have had, i.e. via its economic influence without too much bloody baggage of foreign interventions.

Mr. Nye’s basic premise of “soft power” is that it is a power that seeks to influence or attract others by culture, value, morality, ethics, etc., instead of the “hard power” of military force and diplomatic pressure.  The strongest proof of his theory/model is that US failed to utilize its “soft power” properly, and that is why US has failed to sway other nations, especially in the War on Terrorism.  Mr. Nye argues that US needs to “balance” its “hard power” with “soft power”.

On the point of US failure, Mr. Nye will get very few disagreements on the facts.  But is it because of lack of “soft power”, whatever that means??  That theory is, I say, still debatable.

Culture, value, morality, ethics, etc., while may be “soft” by some standard, if one remember history, were still long used tools of Western imperialism and colonialism.  Afterall, the West wielded the Cross along with the Guns to dominate the world.

Some have criticized Nye’s “soft power” as potentially intrusive and unwanted.  And they clearly have a point.  Culture and values may not be as overtly destructive as bullets and bombs, but if littered like garbage on someone’s backyard, they can be just as destructive in turning some one’s nation into a wasteland, albeit a little slower.

This also explains why Nye’s “soft power” theory is wrong, because in the root of it, it is still based upon a very Western biased notion of imposing influences upon other nations, which is imperialistic in nature.  In other words, Nye is basic premise is flawed, because his narrow focus was on “how can we manipulate others”.

Of course, by this narrow focused question, Nye and others cannot understand what China is seeking to gain in its “soft power” type actions, like the 2008 Olympics, the Confucius Institute, etc.

That is because, Nye’s Premise or assumption of model of “soft power” is fundamentally flawed, i.e. if you are going to assume that there is an imaginary “pink elephant”, then you will likely be proven wrong on your assertions about the “pink elephant”.

*

In other words, Nye and others, incorrectly assumed that China had “soft power”, or was wielding “soft power” as a “power” in the traditional Western sense of the term.

They cannot fathom the possibility that ordinary Chinese would want to move to Africa to do business, for no particular collective reason OTHER than mere knowledge, profit and opportunities.  (Hard to image that 1000’s and 1000’s of Chinese would want to go to far away foreign places, just for new opportunities??  Try consider when Chinese came to America and help built the railroad system.)

No, for Nye and others, China must have a collective agenda to wield that Pixie Dust of “soft power”, generally to the detriment of the West.

But that is precisely where the Myth of the “Soft Power” has gone awry.  China’s REAL “soft power”, (if there is such a thing), is in the plain ordinary and personal goals of its 1.3 billion People, who can mobilize themselves without collective edicts, who don’t need “aid programs” to go to new places to adapt to new ways, who don’t need protections of armies and drones to build roads and hospitals.

Nye and his disciples, (among them Hillary Clinton), are unfortunately stuck in the mindset of “State-Sponsored Influence in Geopolitics,” where they can only see that to counter China, the West must pour vast resources into its own version of “soft power”, and that means, PR movies, marketing, etc., to balance the Hard Power of the “State-sponsored collateral damages.”

As usual, “Soft Power” in the Nye sense, is turning into another Orwellian Newspeak term that means almost nothing at all, because it was afterall, Made-up.

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  1. Zack
    March 18th, 2013 at 15:36 | #1

    Interestingly, the Western discourse on China’s so-called lack of soft power could be another case of Western-centrism. Indeed, it can be argued that China is not trying to conform to Western models, to adopt foreign standards or to operate according to exogenous references but is developing a unique modus operandi in a permanent effort to maximize effectiveness.

    If the notion of “smart power”, an approach strongly advocated by US State Secretary Hillary Clinton, is generally defined as the combination of hard and soft powers, “subtle power”, China’s way of extending influence, can be described as the art of using three minimalist axioms – non-confrontation, non-interference and readiness for paradigm change – congenial with the Chinese classical strategic thinking.

    Source: http://www.atimes.com/atimes/China/MD12Ad01.html

    this goes back to thorsten pattberg’s thesis on how the West attempts to restrict Chinese terms and understanding with Western concepts and terms. An attempt at psychic domination and imperialism that ultimately becomes self defeating.

  2. Mulberry Leaf
    March 18th, 2013 at 15:47 | #2

    While “soft power” (软实力) was coined by Joseph Nye in 1990, it was present in Chinese international relations discourse since Wang Huning of Fudan University wrote about it in 1993, according to David Shambaugh’s 2013 book.

    Many elite Chinese universities have held symposia on the idea of Soft Power, and during the Seventeenth Party Congress in 2007, Hu Jintao said: “The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation will definitely be accompanied by the thriving of Chinese culture…. We must enhance culture as part of the soft power of our country…. We will further publicize the fine traditions of Chinese culture and strengthen international cultural exchanges to enhance the influence of Chinese culture worldwide.”

    It’s pretty self-evident how, for example, the exploding popularity of Japanese anime and South Korean television dramas have translated into support for those countries on a political level. On a more basal level, China has a piss-poor image in Europe and North America. While some of this has to do with cultural products, it also has to do with public diplomacy.

    Also, you say “Well, I don’t think any one can say China has lost that Pixie Dust of Magic, because I don’t think China ever claimed that it had it in the first place!” But Chinese civilization was tremendously influential in the Sinosphere countries like Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. This was not “hard power” imposed by force but the power of attraction and seduction, which Chinese thinkers desire to get back.

  3. March 18th, 2013 at 19:03 | #3

    I do not view soft power as an imaginary and false concept; difficult to concretely define, yes, but hardly fake. However, a necessary prerequisite for a society’s possession of soft power is hard power – which I’ll broadly define as a relatively high level of material wealth generation and accumulation, along with the ability to protect that material wealth against both man-made (e.g. regime changes, wars) and natural (e.g. environmental degradation, natural disasters) threats. There has never been a single example of a relatively “hard power-poor” society whose culture is widely admired and emulated.

    Some people (who are most commonly found amongst left-leaning liberals in the West) might argue that there are plenty of people who “admire” technologically backwards & primitive cultures that forgo modernity and rapid wealth creation in favor of traditional lifestyles. To those people I would say do not confuse pity & curiosity with genuine admiration. Moreover, while there is no shortage of people who express verbal “admiration”, far fewer actually emulate such lifestyles, and emulation – in my opinion – is a far better indicator of genuine admiration than any other measure we have to date.

    That said, even though hard power is a necessary precursor of soft power, I don’t believe hard power alone is sufficient. Soft power is something that must be actively cultivated, as well as maintained through a society’s actions in the eyes of others. The growth of soft power is not simply something that inevitably follows an increase in hard power. To give an extreme example: a resurgent Nazi Germany and its Fuhrer had no shortage of admirers abroad, and no shortage of people who saw fascism as an effective and admirable form of governance (e.g. Ukrainians initially welcomed the Wehrmacht as liberators from the ‘evil communists’), but any such admiration quickly diminished into insignificance when Germany chose to use their hard power by invading everywhere and brutalizing everyone in sight.

    The US also conducts warfare and subversion with nearly as much frequency. However, relative to the Nazis, they’re patient, calculated, and have the most sophisticated propaganda machine to justify any and every unpopular/questionable act. As China continues to advance on the material wealth front, it’ll have to find its own way to project soft power, and we have a long way to go.

  4. aeiou
    March 18th, 2013 at 22:46 | #4

    Mulberry Leaf :It’s pretty self-evident how, for example, the exploding popularity of Japanese anime and South Korean television dramas have translated into support for those countries on a political level.

    Anime and kpop are just another mindless curiosity for most westerners, not even taken as a serious art forms – more often than not they are criticised as shallow, infantile reflections of the culture by western critics. If it were not for the fact that Japan and Korea are harmless lackeys to the west even those ideas would be considered insidious and degenerate.

    What are Japan and Korea but honorary whites? Subservient, useful pawns. When was the last time political powers in the west deferred to Korea/Japan on international matters? The only time Japan even features in American narrative is when American interests are threatened in Asia by China, so suddenly Japan is a “trusted allie” what a laugh.

    No matter what China does, even if it did nothing its mere existence is a existential treat to the west because 1.4 billion people will always put their own priorities ahead of others – just like the west has done for the last 300 years.

  5. Zack
    March 18th, 2013 at 23:58 | #5

    the conduct of Western countries, predominantly the anglo countries, with respect to China is absolutely disgusting and ensures that their descendants are going to bear the brunt of Chinese retribution in the future. How much longer do you suppose the Chinese are going to stand idly by and allow the Anglo countries to actively subvert and attempt to constrain China’s ascendancy?

  6. Black Pheonix
    March 19th, 2013 at 07:17 | #6

    @Zack

    I doubt very much about “Chinese retribution in the future.” I doubt very much any retribution is needed.

    Western self-propagandization is just setting themselves up to a monumental failure.

    If “Hard Power” doesn’t work, try COPYING “Chinese soft power”?

    I don’t think they understand it well enough to copy it, and it shows.

    * Which reminds me, Westerners like to deride China for “copying.”

    I always say, well, you have to be really good to do a good enough copying that works for your own situation.

    Afterall, ALL students learn by “copying” or emulating their Teachers in “lessons”.

    If a student only learns to copy the answers, the student hasn’t really “copied” the important part of the lesson or the teacher.

    But if a student can learn to copy the method well enough to understand how to get to the answers, then the student did exactly the intended lesson.

    Yes, China can do copying very well. And we should be proud of it.

    I can proudly say, we Chinese can copy any thing other people can do, quickly, and then do it faster and cheaper and better.

    That’s our adaptability.

  7. Black Pheonix
    March 19th, 2013 at 07:22 | #7

    @Mulberry Leaf

    “Also, you say “Well, I don’t think any one can say China has lost that Pixie Dust of Magic, because I don’t think China ever claimed that it had it in the first place!” But Chinese civilization was tremendously influential in the Sinosphere countries like Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. This was not “hard power” imposed by force but the power of attraction and seduction, which Chinese thinkers desire to get back.”

    Yes, Chinese civilization was influential, but this influence was not a conscious policy of any kind.

    Even when the Chinese politicians discuss “soft power” of Chinese culture, they don’t mean that they are intending to institutionalize or organize some kind of public campaign.

    While some have argued that language institutes like the Confucius Institutes were the Chinese policies of spreading Chinese “soft power”, I seriously question such a weak linkage.

  8. Zack
    March 19th, 2013 at 14:33 | #8

    @Black Pheonix
    well when i say ‘Chinese retribution’, i’m thinking the Western efforts at influencing China backfiring upon them when the Chinese decide to do some ‘old testament’ style retributive justice. lol 😀

    soft power implies an attraction for talent. Well, China has no shortage of that, and not just because of it having 1/5 of the world’s population. You have returning ‘sea turtles’ who formerly held high positions on many western sci/tech establishments (hence why the CIA and USG are nervous and paranoid about these scientific exchanges, and hence also why they’ve arrested so many Chinese americans on trumped up charges of espionage) as well as foreign experts who do stay on in China.

  9. March 20th, 2013 at 02:50 | #9

    Wow, so much here – in the main article and in the comments – to discuss. I probably won’t do so here as my formal academic work and my blogs touch upon all these areas. These are interesting debates and contribute to the de-Westernisation of soft power. Understanding Chinese soft power on Chinese terms is absolutely essential. However, it is wrong to say that the Chinese have no strategy or institutionalisation. Just read the work of Zhao Qizheng (in English and Chinese) to see this in operation. The aims of the strategy are very minimal – changing international perceptions about China – but it is there. However, the main problem China faces in marshalling its soft pwer capacity to achieve success is international audience’s perceptions of reality in China (and it is the audience, not the government, who wields the power). Taiwan, Tibet, Tiananmen, human rights, the absence of free speech and democratic institutions and processes – these all weaken the possible impact of China’s international engagement. Opinion polls repeatedly show that the image of China is negative – especially in East Asia – despite the huge amount of resources devoted to soft power. This is because of policy. Presentation cannot solve or substitute for bad policy.
    Also the fact that China’s soft power and public diplomacy are so embedded within the state system. China’s developmental or international economic engagement model is interesting. I wrote about this at http://wwwpdic.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/a-report-in-guardian-newspaper-chinese.html.

    I also take issue with the comment: ‘It’s pretty self-evident how, for example, the exploding popularity of Japanese anime and South Korean television dramas have translated into support for those countries on a political level.’ Where is the evidence for this? Where is the evidence for such a positive correlation between popular culture and political power/support/sympathy? Again, I wrote about this in relation to Japan.
    http://wwwpdic.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/japan-declares-propaganda-war.html

    Anyway, I could go on, but as I am writing a book on this very subject, it is probably best to save some comments for the finished volume!

  10. Black Pheonix
    March 20th, 2013 at 06:28 | #10

    @Gary Rawnsley

    “Just read the work of Zhao Qizheng (in English and Chinese) to see this in operation.”

    Books don’t make “operations”.

    “The aims of the strategy are very minimal – changing international perceptions about China – but it is there.”

    That aim is hardly out of normal character of any nation. What nation doesn’t want good perception?

    A bit of making of mountain out of mole hill.

    “despite the huge amount of resources devoted to soft power.”

    What “huge amount of resources” are you talking about?? “Huge” relative to what??

  11. March 20th, 2013 at 08:54 | #11

    @ Black Phoenix. Of course books does not make operations. What a strange comment to make! Zhao Qizheng is the most vocal and visible advocate for public diplomacy and soft power in China. His books lay out the operationalisation of the Chinese soft power strategy.

    All nations want to influence perception, but few make this the sole reason for the strategy. China is one of the few. No mountains and mole hills here, I am afraid.

    China spends c.US$9 billion p/a on its soft power activities – the biggest spender in Asia – and has seen little return on its investment. If you like I can send you a reading list that might help you understand Chinese soft power a little better. Just let me know.

  12. Black Pheonix
    March 20th, 2013 at 09:23 | #12

    @Gary Rawnsley

    “Of course books does not make operations. What a strange comment to make! Zhao Qizheng is the most vocal and visible advocate for public diplomacy and soft power in China. His books lay out the operationalisation of the Chinese soft power strategy.”

    Again, as you admitted, “books do[es] not make operations.” What’s your point? There is “operation” because there is books on strategy?

    Sun Tzu had all kinds of strategies, doesn’t mean China is doing them currently, does it?

    “China spends c.US$9 billion p/a on its soft power activities.”

    I like to see some actual evidence for this assertion. skip the “reading list”, just give some citations.

  13. Black Pheonix
    March 20th, 2013 at 11:11 | #13

    @Mister Unknown

    I think it is falsely premised to discuss “soft power” in terms of a traditional controllable tool of policy that can be wielded.

    At most, “soft power” can only be measured as an indicator of performance.

    It is akin to an index of performance, like GDP. Yes, GDP does indicate some “power” of economy, but you can’t make a policy vaguely like “increase GDP.”

    In that sense, “soft power” is a vaguely and loosely defined collection of influences that many cannot agree on, and difficult to strategize.

    One might as well call it “any thing other than guns” influences.

    *Hence the problem with its very vague definition, especially when it is in the cultural context.

    In theory, some can lump just about every thing into “soft power”. Then what’s even the point of discuss it? If “any thing other than guns” can be “soft power”, then of course, we want to do better.

    Why do we even need a label of “soft power” for it? Other than to make it sound special (and magical) somehow?

    *Unfortunately, for followers of Nye, the “Pixie dust” is talked about as if it is a REAL thing, to be sprinkled on whatever paper pulp they glued together, to make it taste more like a real cake!

    That is just plain silly.

  14. March 20th, 2013 at 11:57 | #14

    @Mister Unknown. You make some good points here. The problem with the way soft power has developed indicates that it has come to mean everything and nothing. It is losing its conceptual relevance partly because of the way all governments – including China and Taiwan – claim to exercise it, but don’t really understand what it is. Nye understands this and the development of his ideas is very interesting to follow – from his Bound to Lead in the early 1990s up to his 2011 book, The Future of Power.

  15. Black Pheonix
    March 20th, 2013 at 13:06 | #15

    @Gary Rawnsley

    “It is losing its conceptual relevance partly because of the way all governments – including China and Taiwan – claim to exercise it, but don’t really understand what it is.”

    Where did China “claim to exercise” soft power??

  16. Zack
    March 20th, 2013 at 22:01 | #16

    china’s always had what Nye calls ‘soft power’. the cultures of east asia is a monument to the influence of chinese culture. Just because there wasn’t the equivalent of CNN or hollywood/media complex until the 2000s doesn’t mean squat.

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