Soft Power as an Umbrella Concept?

February 18, 2011

A few weeks ago I suggested that public diplomacy should be thought of as an umbrella concept that covers a range of different activities rather than a single thing.  The point was that from an academic perspective at least it was important to recognize while a lot of countries have some sort of external promotional/communications activity not all of them conceptualize or organize it in the same way.

I think that we can think about soft power in a similar way.  If you unpack the usages of the term you find that it covers a range of mechanisms of influence, for instance in looking at the first decade or so of soft power I identified five elements

Attraction: Agents preferences are redefined as a result of either intentional actions or long term process such as the exposure to American cultural exports. This can be seen a variation of persuasion.

Institutions: the creation of, and effects of,  institutions that shape political processes in desirable ways.

Agenda-setting:  The existence of these institutions influence political agendas however agenda-setting (and the congnate idea of agenda-building) goes beyond an institutional dimension.  In the literature of political science and communications studies agenda setting is recognized as a form of influence that exists independently of institutional factors, events and protest movements can influence both the agenda of the media (which may influence both public and policy agendas) and of political actors.

Framing: Framing…. involves influencing how a problem is defined

Credibility: This may be seen as a reputational effect that develops over time that will tend to increase the ability to persuade, set agendas and frame problems.

If we look at the next 10 years of Soft Power literature we are going to find additional mechanisms with the label applied.
So on one hand soft power is an umbrella concept but I’m going to argue in my next post we actually need a much bigger umbrella.

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