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Soft power: the origins and political progress of a concept



Power is the ability to affect others to get the outcomes one prefers, and that can be accomplished by coercion, payment, or attraction and persuasion. Soft power is the ability to obtain preferred outcomes by attraction rather than coercion or payment. This anecdotal comment recounts the origins of the concept as an analytical tool, and its gradual development as an instrumental concept used in political discourse in Europe, China and the United States. This article is published as part of a collection on soft power.
Received 3 Oct 2016 |Accepted 24 Jan 2017 |Published 21 Feb 2017
Soft power: the origins and political progress of a
Joseph Nye1
ABSTRACT Power is the ability to affect others to get the outcomes one prefers, and that
can be accomplished by coercion, payment, or attraction and persuasion. Soft power is the
ability to obtain preferred outcomes by attraction rather than coercion or payment. This
anecdotal comment recounts the origins of the concept as an analytical tool, and its gradual
development as an instrumental concept used in political discourse in Europe, China and the
United States. This article is published as part of a collection on soft power.
DOI: 10.1057/palcomms.2017.8 OPEN
1University of Harvard, Cambridge, MA, USA
PALGRAVE COMMUNICATIONS |3:17008 |DOI: 10.1057/palcomms.2017.8 | 1
Icoined the term soft powerin my 1990 book Bound to Lead
that challenged the then conventional view of the decline of
American power (Nye, 1990). After looking at American
military and economic power resources, I felt that something was
still missingthe ability to affect others by attraction and
persuasion rather than just coercion and payment. At that time,
there was a prevalent belief that the United States was in decline,
and Paul KennedysThe Rise and Fall of the Great Powers was a
New York Times best seller (Kennedy, 1987). Kennedy argued
that the US was suffering from imperial overstretch, and would
soon go the way of 17th century Spain or Edwardian Britain.
Many others echoed these thoughts, and believed that the Soviet
Union was passing us in military might and Japan was overtaking
us in economic strength. I doubted this conventional wisdom and
went to many seminars and conferences where I was a lonely
Both academics and practitioners in international relations
tended to treat power as tangible resources you could drop on
your foot or drop on a city. This was less true of classical realists
like Carr (1939), but particularly true of neorealist theorists such
as Kenneth Waltz and his followers who became fashionable in
the 1970s (Waltz, 1979). Everything was coercion and payments,
but sometimes people inuence others by ideas and attraction
that sets the agenda for others or gets them to want what you
want. Then carrots and sticks are less necessary, or can be used
more frugally because others see them as legitimate. With its
universalistic values, open culture and vast popular cultural
resources ranging from Hollywood to foundations and univer-
sities, the United States seemed uniquely placed to affect how
others viewed the world and us. Of course, it did not make us
attractive to everyone. Quite the contrary, as the Mullahs in Iran
proved. But where we were attractive, it was a huge advantage. As
one Norwegian scholar put it, if the Americans had created an
empire in Europe, it was an empire by invitation(Lundestad,
1998). I tried a variety of terms to try to summarize these
thoughts, and eventually settled on the term soft power. I hoped
its slightly oxymoronic resonance in the traditional discourse of
my eld might make people think again about their assumptions
when they spoke of power.
I thought of soft power as an analytic concept to ll a deciency
in the way analysts thought about power, but it gradually took on
political resonance. In some ways the underlying thought is not
new and similar concepts can be traced back to ancient
philosophers. Moreover, though I developed the term soft power
in the context of my work on American power, it is not restricted
to international behaviour or to the United States. As I became
interested in leadership studies, I applied the concept to individuals
and organizations in my 2008 book The Powers to Lead.(Nye,
2008) Nonetheless, it has taken particular root in international
relations, and as the European Union developed, more European
leaders began to refer to its soft power. The term was less used,
however, by American political leaders.
In 2002, I was one of two keynote speakers at a conference
organized by the Army in Washington. I spoke to the assembled
generals about soft power and, by their questions, they seemed to
get it. Later, one of the generals asked the other keynote speaker,
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, what he thought of soft
power. He replied that he did not understand what soft power
meant, and that was evident in his policies. This hubris was
evident well before the security drama that followed the terrorist
attacks on 9/11, but in that climate of fear, it was difcult to speak
about soft power, even though attracting moderates away from
appeals by radicals is a key component of any effective
counterterrorism strategy.
In that climate, and with the invasion of Iraq proving
disastrous, I felt I needed to spell out the meaning of soft power
in greater detail. Even colleagues were incorrectly describing soft
power as non-traditional forces such as cultural and commercial
goodsand dismissing it on the grounds that its, well, soft
(Ferguson, 2009). And a Congresswoman friend told me privately
that she agreed 100 per cent with my concept, but that it was
impossible to use it to address a political audience who wanted to
hear tough talk. In 2004, I went into more detail conceptually in
Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. I also said that
soft power was only one component of power, and rarely
sufcient by itself. The ability to combine hard and soft power
into successful strategies where they reinforce each other could be
considered smart power(a term later used by Hillary Clinton as
Secretary of State). I developed the concepts further in my 2011
book on The Future of Power Including in the realm of cyber
power (Nye, 2011). I made clear that soft power is not a
normative concept, and it is not necessarily better to twist minds
than to twist arms. Badpeople (like Osama bin Laden) can
exercise soft power. While I explored various dimensions of the
concept most fully in this work, the central denition (the ability
to affect others and obtain preferred outcomes by attraction and
persuasion rather than coercion or payment) remained constant
over time.
In 2007, as the situation in Iraq continued to deteriorate, John
Hamre, Richard Armitage and I co-chaired a Smart Power
Commissionfor the Centre for Strategic and International
Studies in Washington. With former senators and Supreme Court
justices participating, we hoped to use soft and smart power for
the political purpose of centring American foreign policy.
Subsequently in the Bush Administration, in 2007 Secretary of
Defense Robert Gates called for the United States to invest more
in soft power. It was a long way from the modest ambitions for
the analytic concept scribbled out on my kitchen table 17 years
earlier. The term smart power(the successful combination of
hard and soft power resources into effective strategy) was clearly
prescriptive rather than just analytical.
Even more impressive in terms of distance from that kitchen
table was the fate of the concept in China. As China dramatically
developed its hard power resources, leaders realized that it would
be more acceptable if it were accompanied by soft power. This is a
smart strategy because as Chinas hard military and economic
power grows, it may frighten its neighbours into balancing
coalitions. If it can accompany its rise with an increase in its soft
power, China can weaken the incentives for these coalitions. In
2007, Chinese President Hu Jintao told the 17th Congress of the
Chinese Communist Party that they needed to invest more in
their soft power, and this has been continued by the current
President Xi Jinping. Once the top leader had spoken and the
word was out, billions of dollars were invested to promote soft
power, and thousands of articles were published on the subject.
China has had mixed success with its soft power strategy. Its
impressive record of economic growth that has raised hundreds
of millions of people out of poverty and its traditional culture
have been important sources of attraction, but polls show it lags
behind the United States in overall attractiveness in most parts of
the world, including Asia. Portlanda consultancy in London
that constructs an annual index of soft powerranks the United
States rst and China as number 28 of the top 30 countries
(Portland Communications and Facebook, 2016).
Top level endorsement in China affected me directly. Hardly a
week went by in the year after Hu Jintaos use of the concept
without an e-mail asking me to write an article or participate in
some soft power seminar or conference. Chinese ofcials
contacted me for private conversations about how to increase
Chinas soft power. My advice was always the same. I say that
China should realize that most of a countrys soft power comes
from its civil society rather than from its government.
2PALGRAVE COMMUNICATIONS |3:17008 |DOI: 10.1057/palcomms.2017.8 |
Propaganda is not credible and thus does not attract. China needs
to give more leeway to the talents of its civil society, even though
this is difcult to reconcile with tight party control. Chinese soft
power is also held back by its territorial disputes with its
neighbours. Creating a Confucius Institute to teach Chinese
culture in Manila will not generate attraction if Chinese naval
vessels are chasing Philippine shing boats out of Scarborough
Shoal that lies within 200 miles of its coastline. When I said this
on a televised panel at Davos in 2013, Wang Jianglin, the richest
man in China interrupted the panel to criticize me for hurting
the feelings of the Chinese people.
One of the most intriguing occasions was an invitation to
address the School of Marxism at Peking University in Beijing. I
was treated royally. When it came time for my lecture to some
1500 students, I was seated alone at a table on a podium covered
with gorgeous owers with a large screen on the wall behind me
with an enlarged video of my performance. In the course of my
speech, I addressed the question of how China could increase its
soft power and I mentioned the harassment of the great Chinese
artist Ai WeiWei as an example of too tight control over civil
society. There was a slight titter in the crowd, but at the end of my
lecture, the dean of the School of Marxism took the stage and
gave a long owery thanks that author of the concept of soft
power had come to address the school. As he went on, however, I
noted that my translator was skipping much of what he said. I
later asked a Mandarin-speaking Canadian friend who was
present in the front row what the dean had said. In summary: we
are attered to have Professor Nye here, but you students must
realize that his use of the concept is overly political and we prefer
to restrict it to cultural issues.
With time, I have come to realize that concepts such as soft
power are like children. As an academic or a public intellectual,
you can love and discipline them when they are young, but as
they grow they wander off and make new company, both good
and bad. There is not much you can do about it, even if you were
present at the creation. As the Princeton political scientist
Baldwin (2016) has recently written, Nyes discussion of soft
power stimulated and claried the thoughts of policy makers and
scholars alikeeven those who misunderstood or disagree with
his views. Perhaps that is all one can hope for.
Baldwin DA (2016) Power and International Relations: A Conceptual Approach.
Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ.
Carr EH (1939) The Twenty YearsCrisis, 19191939: An Introduction to the Study
of International Relations. Palgrave Macmillan: London.
Ferguson NC (2009) Think again: power. Foreign Policy(MarchApril): 1824.
Kennedy PM (1987) The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and
Military Conict from 1500 to2000. Random House: New York.
Lundestad G (1998) Empireby Integration: The United States and European
Integration, 19451997. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Nye JS Jr (1990) Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power. Basic
Books: New York.
Nye JS Jr (2008) The Powers to Lead. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Nye JS Jr (2011) The Future of Power. Public Affairs: New York.
Portland Communications and Facebook. (2016) The Soft Power 30 Report,
power/pdfs/the_soft_power_30.pdf, accessed 12 January 2017.
Waltz KN (1979) Theory of International Politics. Addison-Wesley: Reading, MA.
Additional information
Competing interests: The author declares no competing nancial interests.
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The Future of Power. Public Affairs
  • Js Nye
  • Jr
Nye JS Jr (2011) The Future of Power. Public Affairs: New York.
Think again: power. Foreign Policy
  • Nc Ferguson
Ferguson NC (2009) Think again: power. Foreign Policy(March-April): 18-24.