As someone who works on religion and politics, I encounter the term “soft power” a lot. Most of the time it’s in a good way; soft power is a means to advocate for policies that draw on our values but still advance our interests. But, occasionally, the term frustrates me. Too often it’s used as a catch-all to address any foreign policy that doesn’t involve military force or economic sanctions. If we want to advocate for a broader set of foreign policy tools, we need a better set of terms to describe them.

Soft power

Soft power was famously introduced by Joseph Nye in a 1990 Foreign Policy article. He argued that it is the ability to get others to “want what we want,” rather than merely doing what we want. It amplifies, or even replaces, conventional “hard power.” Since then, scholars have tried to test it, policymakers have advocated for its use in US foreign policy, and skeptics have questioned the usefulness of the term or whether it really matters.

I’ve run into this term often. I study how religion influences states’ foreign policy and–in my new book project–how states try to use religion as a power political tool. One question I keep running into is “why isn’t this just soft power?” In some ways it is. Peter Mandaville and Shadi Hamid started an important project on religious soft power–which has continued with Georgetown’s Berkley Center. I’ve contributed to this project, and have two chapters co-authored with Gregorio Bettiza for an upcoming edited volume.

So I certainly believe that states use religious figures and organizations as a way to increase their soft power. But there are other ways to use religion in foreign policy. States can sponsor religious militants to destabilize an enemy. They can attack an enemy on religious grounds, stirring up their populace. They can point to shared religious identity to convince states to ally with them. None of this fits under a strict definition of soft power, but trying to shove them all into that box makes it harder to advocate for an assess these policies.

The misuses of soft power

A recent New York Times article revived my ongoing feud with the casual use of “soft power.” The article discusses Samantha Power’s direction as Administrator of USAID, noting USAID is one of America’s primary “soft power” instruments. This is true–many believe that foreign aid increases global opinion of America, enhancing our soft power.

But other examples of American “soft power” efforts stretch its meaning:

  • “highlighting what officials call China’s malign ideology and self-interests as it expands an influence campaign”
  • USAID “support to journalists, legal advisers and legitimate opposition groups could “expose and combat” corrosive foreign leaders who had benefited from Beijing’s financial backing and playbook for how to remain in power”
  • expanding funds to “to advance human rights and democracy while thwarting corruption and authoritarianism.”

This is unfortunately common. Pundits and policy experts describe any instrument of US foreign policy that is not military or economic as “soft power.” Deploying US values to undermine the appeal of an authoritarian state? Soft power. Referencing shared beliefs to convince a wary ally of joining in an international endeavor? Soft power. A hostile authoritarian state supporting right-wing movements to disrupt rival societies? Soft power.

Sometimes people will recognize this issue, and try to amend the soft-ness of soft power. “Smart power” is the use of both soft and hard power. “Sharp power” is the use of authoritarian practices to undermine freedom of speech and expand influence. The issue, of course, is that these new neologisms get us even farther from the precise policy debates of “bomb/don’t bomb.”

I discussed this problem (and provided solutions) in a forthcoming article with International Studies Perspectives (it is still in production, and I will update the links when it comes out). We can find numerous examples of the painful stretching of soft power, with everything from economic development to cybersecurity framed as soft power. Meanwhile, offensive uses of values and ideology lack a clear description. This leaves the impression that any non-material foreign policy tool is a passive long-term strategy inapplicable to immediate crises. The vague buzzword-y nature of soft power discussions also leaves scholars hesitant to adopt the term in their work.

A potential solution

There are resources we can draw on to have a more concrete discussion, however. Barnett and Duvall famously discussed the varieties of power in international relations. Relevant here is their distinction between direct and diffuse power; one can both use power in direct interactions with others or to more generally influence behavior of other states. A more recent resource is Nexon and Goddard’s work on power politics. They discuss the varieties of instruments of power states can use, which includes military and economic tools as well as cultural-symbolic instruments of power. And they distinguish between attempts to integrate and fragment international action.

Combining these concepts, I’d argue that soft power is a cultural-symbolic instrument of power using values to diffusely integrate international action. The idea with soft power is that we can generally make ourselves attractive, and states will want to work with us. This leaves three other forms of cultural-symbolic instruments of power; we can use values in direct interactions to draw states to our side, while also using them to fragment international action both directly and diffusely.

Soft power and the Biden Administration

I expand on this in the article, and please read it (I’d love to hear your thoughts). I wanted to bring this discussion back to the Biden Administration. Biden has a real opportunity to reframe American foreign policy, ending the endless military commitments while restoring American leadership in a world that is slowly slipping away from us. This will require instruments of power besides military and economic resources. So this should be the time for soft power advocates (including me) to shine, and finally have a real impact on US foreign policy.

We will squander this opportunity, however, if we continue to present the same tired soft power strategies–public diplomacy! foreign aid!–or struggle to explain how our values can be a tool. The policy debate needs to shift, and I’m hoping my work on soft power can help. We need to be clear that soft power is one among many tools that draw on our values; these tools can generally increase world opinion of us, but also be deployed alongside military and economic might in crises. I’ll admit “direct integrative use of cultural-symbolic instruments of power” is not as catchy as “smart power,” so I’ve got to work on it. But this discussion can give us some resources to better insert ourselves into policy debates.