On Soft Power

The term “soft power” was first coined in a 1990 book by Joseph S. Nye Jr. of Havard University. He then expounded on the concept in his 2004 book Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics.

Nye explains power as being the ability to influence others’ behavior to get the outcomes one wants in one of three ways: (1) coerce them with threats, (2) induce them with payments, and (3) attract or co-opt them.

Soft power rests on the ability to shape the preferences of others.

“Soft power is not merely the same as influence. After all, influence can also rest on the hard power of threats or payments. And soft power is more than just persuasion or the ability to move people by argument, though that is an important part of it. It is also the ability to attract, and attraction often leads to acquiescence. Simply put, in behavioral terms, soft power is attractive power. Soft power resources are the assets that produce such attraction.” (Excerpted from Nye’s essay ‘Soft Power and Leadership’ in the Spring 2004 issue of Compass)

In other words, the essence of the concept lies in the ability to attract others to shared values, and the justness and duty of contributing to the achievement of those values.

Another insightful point made in the essay is that soft power resources are difficult to control and that many crucial resources are outside the control of governments, and their effects depend heavily on the acceptance of the receiving audiences.

Why do audiences the world over fall in love with Hollywood movies? The reason is simple: because most of the themes of those movies (be they about parental love, brotherly love, sisterhood, romances, friendship, heroism or righteousness) appeal to the better side of human nature. That’s the same reason why the audiences are moved by the protagonist in “Avatar” – by his human capacity for love and compassion. It’s true that many of the movies sell dreams that are elusive in everyday life. But aren’t dreams what we all need and want to have? Isn’t that exactly the attraction of watching a movie, so that we can momentarily live in dreamland and enjoy a little breathing room away from reality? It goes without saying that movies have always been one of the most potent soft power resources owned by the American private sector that have the profoundest impact on world audiences. Undeniably, Hollywood movies are the assets that attract them to American values, which are also their own values.

As Nye said, if I am persuaded to go along with your purposes without any explicit threat or exchange taking place, then soft power can be considered to be at work.

I have not seen “Confucius” (nor “Avatar” for that matter), but from Han Han’s giving it a thumbs down review, I would gather that most Chinese youths would think likewise. If the supposedly culture-rich historical-themed movie can’t find rapport among the Chinese audience, the chances of it being well received by the international audience are most probably slim. Any domestic political purpose (like an attempt to revive the Confucian values of ruler benevolence and social harmony in a patriarchal community) would undoubtedly fall flat.

Before attempting to try out her soft power, China may want to have a more thorough understanding of what values are shared by her citizens and the world at large, as well as of what part of her culture is most attractive to the non-Chinese world audience (Confucianism has a lot of admirable aspects, which certainly do not include the dated patriarchal and hierarchical mentality). Without such an understanding as a foundation, tactics employed will more than likely hit against a wall. Soft power is not something that you can 打造 (construct). Likewise, public opinion is not something you can guide. Whether the use of soft power can be effective depends on the acceptance or otherwise by the audiences. Opinions are formed freely by independently thinking individuals without any need for guidance. Opinions that cannot withstand the test of reason and logic would ultimately wither away.