The Duck of Minerva

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Time to Redefine the Term “soft power”?

February 25, 2013


The broad goal of this blog, to the credit of its founders, is to bridge the gap between foreign policy practitioners and foreign policy scholars.  Prior to joining it recently, I have known its reputation for doing just that.  While in government I kept a mental note every time I came across a policymaker who regularly followed the Duck, and frankly I lost count.  So in this vein I’d like to quibble with something I thoroughly digested as a student, regularly promulgated as a professor, and gradually began to question as a policymaker.  It seems high time to question the usefulness of how we define the term “soft power,” which has gained credence ever since the scholar Joseph Nye came up with it more than decade ago.

Nye’s classic definition of the term–the attractiveness of a country based on the legitimacy of its policies and the political and cultural values that underpin them–seemed reasonable enough when I first became familiar with it in the mid 1990s.  The notion that a country’s cultural power could influence other countries and cause their governments to either agree more with a country of cultural prowess or adopt similar values made a lot of sense.  The Cold War had recently come to an end, and the rush of East Central European governments to join the West in all ways seemed just the evidence one needed to subscribe not only to the concept, but also the view that the U.S. possessed a whole lot of soft power that was causing other countries to agree with or emulate it.  After all liberalism and openness of all kinds were being celebrated, and the new concept of globalization was further and futher in evidence while the third wave of democracy was spreading fast.

But something I always feared as an academic was readily confirmed when I entered the government:  more than a decade later, despite the large number of policymakers who learned Nye’s definition in graduate school, for the vast majority of them soft power‘s academic definition is of little practical use.  To a pragmatic policymaker the concept is too complex, too difficult to measure, and near impossible to manipulate as a device of influence.  While Nye’s definition is intuitive on some level, most policymakers–and especially non American ones–simply choose to define soft power as exercising influence by non military means.  And why shouldn’t they?  For even more intuitive is the notion that the counterpart to hard power (by military means) naturally is soft power (by non-military means).  Thus, the other tools in one’s foreign policy toolbox–from diplomacy to economic sanctions, and development aid to cultural attractiveness–make perfect sense as comprising soft power.  Indeed, Hillary Clinton, whom I knew as Madame Secretary, became well known for promoting the concept of smart power, which basically means the same thing and was part of her somewhat successful effort to elevate the D’s of diplomacy and development next to the big D of defense.

So isn’t time we redefine Joseph Nye’s concept as cultural power, one in a number of non military means of Country A attempting to get Country B to do what it otherwise is not inclined to do?  Most of the other tools are easier to measure, and almost all of them are easier to use as devices of a state’s foreign policy.  It would appear that doing so would further help to reduce the gap between foreign policy thinkers and foreign policy doers.  What do you think?

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Dr. Jeffrey A. Stacey is currently Managing Partner of Geopolicity USA, an overseas development firm. Formerly he was Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS, before which he served in the Obama Administration as a State Department official specializing in NATO and EU relations at the Bureau for Conflict Stabilization Operations. At State he founded and managed the International Stabilization and Peacebuilding Initiative (ISPI), which has over 20 government and international organization partners.

Dr. Stacey is the author of "Integrating Europe" by Oxford University Press and is currently working on a follow-up book entitled "End of the West, Rise of the East?" He has been a guest blogger at The Washington Note and Democracy Arsenal, a professor of U.S. foreign policy at Tulane University and Fordham University, a consultant at the Open Society Institute and the U.S. Institute of Peace, and a visiting scholar at George Washington, Georgetown, and the University of California. He received his PhD from Columbia University.