Soft Power

May 12, 2010

I was writing about something else when I noticed that John Brown’s PD Press Review for 11 May opens with this quote from Joe Nye

“With soft power, unlike hard power, it matters very much what the target thinks.”

And my inner pedant kicked in.  Is it possible to think of modes of hard power that do not depend on what the target thinks? With the narrow exception of an attempt to exterminate a population the answer is no. Military force normally turns on its moral effect or is an application of a coercive strategy. Coercive diplomacy is seen as a mode of bargaining (for instance in the work of Thomas Schelling) .  Bargaining is a process of communication so the issue of what the target thinks is central.  Ironically there are modes of influence that could be argued not to depend on what the target thinks – for instance through shaping the rules of the game – which would count as soft power in Nye’s early formulation (eg in Bound to Lead)

The importance of soft power as a concept was that it expanded the range of ways that we could think about power and influence but if anything it now seems to be having the opposite effect.  The key point is to understand the full range of modes of influence.


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