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Soft Power and Hegemony

November 11, 2011

Yelena Osipova at Global Chaos has been thinking about soft power and hegemony and she asked me what I thought.  A few slightly random thoughts.

  • Joe Nye’s writings on soft power need to be read as a series of policy interventions rather than  the unfolding of a theoretical project.  The adoption of soft power in policy discourses around the world is  due to the ambiguities of the concept rather than its clarity.  The corollary of this is researchers should be cautious about using the concept as the basis for academic analysis.
  • One of my problems with ‘soft power’ is the way that is the conceptual distinction that it draws with ‘hard power’ (which in turn leads to the question of where this boundary is drawn).  In the older International Relations literature the key boundary distinction is between power and force which allows the discussion of ‘power’ without the arbitrary between hard and soft distinction. (There is something of a cottage industry in showing that soft is really hard and hard is really soft – see some of the contributions to Berenskoetter and Williams and Parmar and Cox)  Thomas Schelling’s writings on compellence  even draw the distinction between ‘war’ and the coercive use of force so that dropping bombs on people actually remains within the realm of power. The hard/soft distinction also tends to obscure the centrality of negotiation and bargaining  and hence exchange within the international realm.
  • I think that the  way that Gramscian conceptualizations of hegemony refuse the hard/soft distinction is very useful. Hegemony  combines coercion, resource distribution and the impact of ideolog and involves an element of consent.  It then becomes possible to examine the extent to which different elements of these combinations change.
  • The question that remains is how hegemony can be constructed both in general and in the contemporary international order.  A successfully consolidated hegemonic position will look normal and inevitable.  From an analytical point of view failed attempts at hegemony and challenges to a hegemonic position are  informative about the difficulties at work.  It could also be argued that when Gramsci (like all the early 20th c. Marxists) had to explain the absence of revolution in the developed capitalist countries he was starting from a position where the workers were expected to revolt and if he was overestimating the propensity to socialist revolution he would then have to overestimate what was necessary to prevent it.
  • The popularity of ‘hegemony’ in cultural and communications studies sometimes leads to downplaying of the coercive and economic bases of the concept.  This leads to a tendency to see hegemony as purely being about ideas/ideology.

There is a more fundamental question about the role of the concept of ‘power’ in the analysis of international politics: simply has it become a red herring taking more attention that is really worth? But that’s a subject for a later post.

Berenskoetter, F., and M.J. Williams (2007) Power in World Politics. New edition. Routledge.
Parmar, I., and M. Cox, eds. (2010) Soft power and US Foreign Policy : Theoretical, Historical and Contemporary perspectives. London ;;New York: Routledge.
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One comment

  1. […] seem to overlap in many ways – but it has also been criticized as a potential expression of hegemony. Perhaps, some of the criticisms towards nation branding discussed earlier, particularly the fact […]



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