Is Soft Power Fungible?

March 6, 2013

If you steep yourself in the theoretical debates about power in International Relations (my advice is not to do this) you will come across the question of fungibility (eg Baldwin 1979).  In crude terms is power like money?  If I’ve got money I can buy a loaf of bread  or a book using the same resource.  Can a ‘powerful’ actor achieve its goals across different issue areas using the same resources?  The very fact of raising the question suggests a suspicion that the answer is no.

Interestingly enough in his pre soft power days Joe Nye also points in this direction in Power and Interdependence (1977).  The basic thrust of that book was that you should recognize that power resources differ across issue areas.  Switzerland may have clout in the banking field (because of its banks)  but not in the regime for oceans (landlocked).   While it may be possible to leverage different power resources through clever diplomacy, by linking different issue areas together, the overall thrust is that power is non-fungible.  It would then follow that a state can be judged to be ‘powerful’ if it could draw on resources across multiple issue areas or a spectacular array of resources in a few.

But if conventional power resources aren’t fungible what about soft power? This struck me In reading Nakano Yoshiko’s contribution to the Soft Power Superpowers collection.  Nakano’s essay looks at the reception of Japanese popular culture in China. Her finding is that Chinese consumers are gaining a more complex and nuanced picture of Japan and seeing aspects of its culture as worthy of imitation but do not connect this with  their political image and attitude towards the country.  It can be added that the political attitudes have consequence for other relationships as in the effect of the  dispute over the Pinnacle Islands* on sales of Japanese cars in China.

Where does this lead us?  Probably towards the realization that soft power is probably even more fragmented than conventional power resources.  Analytically we need to think about the composition of a country’s soft power resources (How much? Are the concentrated in one or a few areas? Who do can they influence?) rather than seeing soft power as a unity.  I suspect that doing this kind of analysis will have a rather deflationary effect on estimates of national soft power.  ‘Some soft power resources will allow you to have some influence on some publics some of the time’?


Baldwin, D.A. (1979) ‘Power Analysis and World Politics: New Trends versus Old Tendencies’, World Politics, 31: 161–194.

Keohane, R.O., and J.S. Nye (1977) Power and Interdependence: World Politics in Transition. Boston, MA: Little, Brown.

Yoshiko, N. (2008) ‘Shared Memories: Japanese Pop Culture in China’, pp. 111–127 in Y. Watanabe and D.L. McConnell (eds) Soft Power Superpowers: Cultural and National Assets of Japan and the United States, Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

*This is what those islands that China and Japan can’t agree about were called on 19th c. British naval charts



  1. A not surprising view. Pew’ researches have often shown a major difference between the USA as attractive for work, culture etc but a concurrent dislike for its foreign policy. Those wanting green cards have different motives. Same with other countries. People are far more capable of split views of a country than simplistic models seek. So Cameron’s recent visit to India may result in increase in Indian students to UK, for academic personal benefit but UK policy on say Kashmir will still influence their political view of UK.

  2. […] Is Soft Power Fungible? (pdnetworks.wordpress.com) […]

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