Soft Power

The Means To Success In World Politics


By Joseph S. Nye

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Joseph Nye coined the term “soft power” in the late 1980s. It is now used frequently—and often incorrectly—by political leaders, editorial writers, and academics around the world. So what is soft power? Soft power lies in the ability to attract and persuade. Whereas hard power—the ability to coerce—grows out of a country’s military or economic might, soft power arises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies.

Hard power remains crucial in a world of states trying to guard their independence and of non-state groups willing to turn to violence. It forms the core of the Bush administration’s new national security strategy. But according to Nye, the neo-conservatives who advise the president are making a major miscalculation: They focus too heavily on using America’s military power to force other nations to do our will, and they pay too little heed to our soft power. It is soft power that will help prevent terrorists from recruiting supporters from among the moderate majority. And it is soft power that will help us deal with critical global issues that require multilateral cooperation among states. That is why it is so essential that America better understands and applies our soft power. This book is our guide.


JOSEPH S. NYE JR., former dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, was Chairman of the National Intelligence Council and an Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration. He is the author of several works of nonfiction, including The Paradox of American Power and Bound to Lead as well as one novel, The Power Game.

The Paradox of American Power:
Why the World's Only Super Power Can't Go It Alone (2002)
Understanding International Conflicts:
An Introduction to Theory and History, 4th ed. (2002)
Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power (1990)
Nuclear Ethics (1986)
Hawks, Doves and Owls: An Agenda for Avoiding Nuclear War, coauthored with Graham Allison and Albert Carnesale (1985)
Power and Interdependence: World Politics in Transition,
coauthored with Robert O. Keohane (1977;
3rd ed. with additional material, 2000)
Peace in Parts: Integration and Conflict
in Regional Organization (1971)
Pan Africanism and East African Integration (1965)

For my mother, Else,
and my sisters, Deb, Naut, and Ellie

IN 2003, I was sitting in the audience at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, when George Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, asked Secretary of State Colin Powell why the United States seemed to focus only on its hard power rather than its soft power. I was interested in the question because I had coined the term "soft power" a decade or so earlier. Secretary Powell correctly replied that the United States needed hard power to win World War II, but he continued, "And what followed immediately after hard power? Did the United States ask for dominion over a single nation in Europe? No. Soft power came in the Marshall Plan.... We did the same thing in Japan."1 Later in the same year, I spoke about soft power to a conference cosponsored by the U.S. Army in Washington. One of the other speakers was Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. According to a press account, "The top military brass listened sympathetically" to my views, but when someone in the audience later asked Rumsfeld for his opinion on soft power, he replied "I don't know what it means."2
That is part of our problem. Some of our leaders do not understand the crucial importance of soft power in our reordered post–September 11 world. As former House Speaker Newt Gingrich observed about the Bush administration's approach in Iraq, "The real key is not how many enemy do I kill. The real key is how many allies do I grow. And that is a very important metric that they just don't get."3 One of Rumsfeld's "rules" is that "weakness is provocative."4 He is correct up to a point, and as a former assistant secretary of defense, I would be the last person to deny the importance of maintaining our military strength. As Osama bin Laden observed, people like a strong horse. But power comes in many guises, and soft power is not weakness. It is a form of power, and the failure to incorporate it in our national strategy is a serious mistake.
What is soft power? It is the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. It arises from the attractiveness of a country's culture, political ideals, and policies. When our policies are seen as legitimate in the eyes of others, our soft power is enhanced. America has long had a great deal of soft power. Think of the impact of Franklin Roosevelt's Four Freedoms in Europe at the end of World War II; of young people behind the Iron Curtain listening to American music and news on Radio Free Europe; of Chinese students symbolizing their protests in Tiananmen Square by creating a replica of the Statue of Liberty; of newly liberated Afghans in 2001 asking for a copy of the Bill of Rights; of young Iranians today surreptitiously watching banned American videos and satellite television broadcasts in the privacy of their homes. These are all examples of America's soft power. When you can get others to admire your ideals and to want what you want, you do not have to spend as much on sticks and carrots to move them in your direction. Seduction is always more effective than coercion, and many values like democracy, human rights, and individual opportunities are deeply seductive. As General Wesley Clark put it, soft power "gave us an influence far beyond the hard edge of traditional balance-of-power politics."5 But attraction can turn to repulsion if we act in an arrogant manner and destroy the real message of our deeper values.
The United States may be more powerful than any other polity since the Roman Empire, but like Rome, America is neither invincible nor invulnerable. Rome did not succumb to the rise of another empire, but to the onslaught of waves of barbarians. Modern high-tech terrorists are the new barbarians. As the world wends its way deeper into a struggle with terrorism, it becomes increasingly apparent that many factors lie outside American control. The United States cannot alone hunt down every suspected Al Qaeda leader hiding in remote regions of the globe. Nor can it launch a war whenever it wishes without alienating other countries and losing the cooperation it needs for winning the peace.
The four-week war in Iraq in the spring of 2003 was a dazzling display of America's hard military power that removed a tyrant, but it did not resolve our vulnerability to terrorism. It was also costly in terms of our soft power—our ability to attract others to our side. In the aftermath of the war, polling by the Pew Research Center showed a dramatic decline in the popularity of the United States compared to a year earlier, even in countries like Spain and Italy, whose governments had provided support for the war effort, and America's standing plummeted in Islamic countries from Morocco to Turkey to Southeast Asia. Yet the United States will need the help of such countries in the long term to track the flow of terrorists, tainted money, and dangerous weapons. In the words of the Financial Times, "To win the peace, therefore, the US will have to show as much skill in exercising soft power as it has in using hard power to win the war."6
I first developed the concept of "soft power" in Bound to Lead, a book I published in 1990 that disputed the then-prevalent view that America was in decline. I pointed out that the United States was the strongest nation not only in military and economic power, but also in a third dimension that I called soft power. In the ensuing years, I have been pleased to see the concept enter the public discourse, used by the American secretary of state, the British foreign minister, political leaders, and editorial writers as well as academics around the world. At the same time, however, some have misunderstood it, misused and trivialized it as merely the influence of Coca-Cola, Hollywood, blue jeans, and money. Even more frustrating has been to watch some policy makers ignore the importance of our soft power and make us all pay the price by unnecessarily squandering it.
I returned to soft power in 2001 while writing The Paradox of American Power, a book that cautioned against triumphalism, the opposite error from the declinism I had warned against in 1990. I spent a dozen or so pages on soft power, but it was only a small part of a broader argument about multilateralism and foreign policy. Friends and critics urged that if I wanted the term to be properly understood and used in foreign policy, I needed to explore and develop it more fully, and that is the purpose of this book.
This book reflects the fraught international relations that arose before, during, and after the Iraq War. Unlike the 1991 Gulf War, when his father built a broad coalition, George W. Bush decided to attack Iraq in 2003 without a second United Nations resolution and with only a small coalition of supporting countries. In doing so, he escaped the constraints of alliances and institutions that many in his administration chafed under, but he also produced doubts about the legitimacy of our actions, and widespread anxieties about how the United States would use its preponderant power. The sharp drop in the attractiveness of the United States around the world made it difficult to recruit support for the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq. Winning the peace is harder than winning a war, and soft power is essential to winning the peace. Yet the way we went to war in Iraq proved to be as costly for our soft power as it was a stunning victory for our hard power.
Readers who are familiar with my earlier work may properly ask what's new here, beyond a discussion of the Iraq War. The answer is "a lot." They will, of course, find some overlaps, particularly in the first chapter, which lays out the basic concepts. But here I have honed the definition, expanded the examples, used new polling data and historical research, and explored the implications and limits of soft power in ways I had not done in either of my earlier works. The first chapter also adds to my analysis of the changing context of power in international politics, and the reasons why soft power is becoming more important than in the past.
The second chapter examines the sources of American soft power in our culture, in our domestic values and policies, and in the substance and style of our foreign policy. Because Americans are not the only ones with soft power, the third chapter looks at the soft power of other nations and nonstate actors. Chapter 4 examines the practical problems of how to wield soft power through public diplomacy, and the concluding chapter summarizes what it all means for the foreign policy of the United States in the aftermath of the Iraq War.
Americans—and others—face an unprecedented challenge from the dark side of globalization and the privatization of war that has accompanied new technologies. This is properly the focus of our new national security strategy, and is sometimes summarized as a war on terrorism. Like the Cold War, the threats posed by various forms of terrorism will not be resolved quickly, and hard military power will play a vital role. But the U.S. government spends four hundred times more on hard power than on soft power. Like the challenge of the Cold War, this one cannot be met by military power alone. That is why it is so essential that Americans—and others—better understand and apply soft power. Smart power is neither hard nor soft. It is both.
Joseph S. Nye, Jr.
Sandwich, New Hampshire
January 2004

The Changing Nature of Power
MORE THAN FOUR CENTURIES AGO, Niccolo Machiavelli advised princes in Italy that it was more important to be feared than to be loved. But in today's world, it is best to be both. Winning hearts and minds has always been important, but it is even more so in a global information age. Information is power, and modern information technology is spreading information more widely than ever before in history. Yet political leaders have spent little time thinking about how the nature of power has changed and, more specifically, about how to incorporate the soft dimensions into their strategies for wielding power.


Power is like the weather. Everyone depends on it and talks about it, but few understand it. Just as farmers and meteorologists try to forecast the weather, political leaders and analysts try to describe and predict changes in power relationships. Power is also like love, easier to experience than to define or measure, but no less real for that. The dictionary tells us that power is the capacity to do things. At this most general level, power means the ability to get the outcomes one wants. The dictionary also tells us that power means having the capabilities to affect the behavior of others to make those things happen. So more specifically, power is the ability to influence the behavior of others to get the outcomes one wants. But there are several ways to affect the behavior of others. You can coerce them with threats; you can induce them with payments; or you can attract and co-opt them to want what you want.
Some people think of power narrowly, in terms of command and coercion. You experience it when you can make others do what they would otherwise not do.1 You say "Jump!" and they jump. This appears to be a simple test of power, but things are not as straightforward as they first appear. Suppose those whom you command, like my granddaughters, already love to jump? When we measure power in terms of the changed behavior of others, we have first to know their preferences. Otherwise we may be as mistaken about our power as a rooster who thinks his crowing makes the sun rise. And the power may evaporate when the context changes. The playground bully who terrorizes other children and makes them jump at his command loses his power as soon as the class returns from recess to a strict classroom. A cruel dictator can lock up or execute a dissident, but that may not prove his power if the dissenter was really seeking martyrdom. Power always depends on the context in which the relationship exists.2
Knowing in advance how others would behave in the absence of our commands is often difficult. What is more, as we shall see, sometimes we can get the outcomes we want by affecting behavior without commanding it. If you believe that my objectives are legitimate, I may be able to persuade you to do something for me without using threats or inducements. It is possible to get many desired outcomes without having much tangible power over others. For example, some loyal Catholics may follow the pope's teaching on capital punishment not because of a threat of excommunication but out of respect for his moral authority. Or some radical Muslim fundamentalists may be attracted to support Osama bin Laden's actions not because of payments or threats, but because they believe in the legitimacy of his objectives.
Practical politicians and ordinary people often find these questions of behavior and motivation too complicated. Thus they turn to a second definition of power and simply define it as the possession of capabilities or resources that can influence outcomes. Consequently they consider a country powerful if it has a relatively large population and territory, extensive natural resources, economic strength, military force, and social stability. The virtue of this second definition is that it makes power appear more concrete, measurable, and predictable. But this definition also has problems. When people define power as synonymous with the resources that produce it, they sometimes encounter the paradox that those best endowed with power do not always get the outcomes they want.
Power resources are not as fungible as money. What wins in one game may not help at all in another. Holding a winning poker hand does not help if the game is bridge.3 Even if the game is poker, if you play your high hand poorly, you can still lose. Having power resources does not guarantee that you will always get the outcome you want. For example, in terms of resources the United States was far more powerful than Vietnam, yet we lost the Vietnam War. And America was the world's only superpower in 2001, but we failed to prevent September 11.
Converting resources into realized power in the sense of obtaining desired outcomes requires well-designed strategies and skillful leadership. Yet strategies are often inadequate and leaders frequently misjudge—witness Japan and Germany in 1941 or Saddam Hussein in 1990. As a first approximation in any game, it always helps to start by figuring out who is holding the high cards. But it is equally important to understand what game you are playing. Which resources provide the best basis for power behavior in a particular context? Oil was not an impressive power resource before the industrial age nor was uranium significant before the nuclear age.
In earlier periods, international power resources may have been easier to assess. A traditional test of a Great Power in international politics was "strength for war."4 But over the centuries, as technologies evolved, the sources of strength for war often changed. For example, in eighteenth-century Europe, population was a critical power resource because it provided a base for taxes and the recruitment of infantry. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Prussia presented its fellow victors at the Congress of Vienna with a precise plan for its own reconstruction with territories and populations to be transferred to maintain a balance of power against France. In the prenationalist period, it did not matter that many of the people in those transferred provinces did not speak German. However, within half a century popular sentiments of nationalism had grown greatly, and Germany's seizure of Alsace and Lorraine from France in 1870 became one of the underlying causes of World War I. Instead of being assets, the transferred provinces became liabilities in the changed context of nationalism. In short, power resources cannot be judged without knowing the context. Before you judge who is holding the high cards, you need to understand what game you are playing and how the value of the cards may be changing.
For example, the distribution of power resources in the contemporary information age varies greatly on different issues. We are told that the United States is the only superpower in a "unipolar" world. But the context is far more complex than first meets the eye. The agenda of world politics has become like a three-dimensional chess game in which one can win only by playing vertically as well as horizontally. On the top board of classic interstate military issues, the United States is indeed the only superpower with global military reach, and it makes sense to speak in traditional terms of unipolarity or hegemony. However, on the middle board of interstate economic issues, the distribution of power is multipolar. The United States cannot obtain the outcomes it wants on trade, antitrust, or financial regulation issues without the agreement of the European Union, Japan, China, and others. It makes little sense to call this American hegemony. And on the bottom board of transnational issues like terrorism, international crime, climate change, and the spread of infectious diseases, power is widely distributed and chaotically organized among state and nonstate actors. It makes no sense at all to call this a unipolar world or an American empire—despite the claims of propagandists on the right and left. And this is the set of issues that is now intruding into the world of grand strategy. Yet many political leaders still focus almost entirely on military assets and classic military solutions—the top board. They mistake the necessary for the sufficient. They are one-dimensional players in a three-dimensional game. In the long term, that is the way to lose, since obtaining favorable outcomes on the bottom transnational board often requires the use of soft power assets.


Everyone is familiar with hard power. We know that military and economic might often get others to change their position. Hard power can rest on inducements ("carrots") or threats ("sticks"). But sometimes you can get the outcomes you want without tangible threats or payoffs. The indirect way to get what you want has sometimes been called "the second face of power." A country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries—admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness—want to follow it. In this sense, it is also important to set the agenda and attract others in world politics, and not only to force them to change by threatening military force or economic sanctions. This soft power—getting others to want the outcomes that you want—co-opts people rather than coerces them.5
Soft power rests on the ability to shape the preferences of others. At the personal level, we are all familiar with the power of attraction and seduction. In a relationship or a marriage, power does not necessarily reside with the larger partner, but in the mysterious chemistry of attraction. And in the business world, smart executives know that leadership is not just a matter of issuing commands, but also involves leading by example and attracting others to do what you want. It is difficult to run a large organization by commands alone. You also need to get others to buy in to your values. Similarly, contemporary practices of community-based policing rely on making the police sufficiently friendly and attractive that a community wants to help them achieve shared objectives.6
Political leaders have long understood the power that comes from attraction. If I can get you to want to do what I want, then I do not have to use carrots or sticks to make you do it. Whereas leaders in authoritarian countries can use coercion and issue commands, politicians in democracies have to rely more on a combination of inducement and attraction. Soft power is a staple of daily democratic politics. The ability to establish preferences tends to be associated with intangible assets such as an attractive personality, culture, political values and institutions, and policies that are seen as legitimate or having moral authority. If a leader represents values that others want to follow, it will cost less to lead.
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. In terms of resources, soft-power resources are the assets that produce such attraction. Whether a particular asset is a soft-power resource that produces attraction can be measured by asking people through polls or focus groups. Whether that attraction in turn produces desired policy outcomes has to be judged in particular cases. Attraction does not always determine others' preferences, but this gap between power measured as resources and power judged as the outcomes of behavior is not unique to soft power. It occurs with all forms of power. Before the fall of France in 1940, Britain and France had more tanks than Germany, but that advantage in military power resources did not accurately predict the outcome of the battle.
One way to think about the difference between hard and soft power is to consider the variety of ways you can obtain the outcomes you want. You can command me to change my preferences and do what you want by threatening me with force or economic sanctions. You can induce me to do what you want by using your economic power to pay me. You can restrict my preferences by setting the agenda in such a way that my more extravagant wishes seem too unrealistic to pursue. Or you can appeal to a sense of attraction, love, or duty in our relationship and appeal to our shared values about the justness of contributing to those shared values and purposes.7 If I am persuaded to go along with your purposes without any explicit threat or exchange taking place—in short, if my behavior is determined by an observable but intangible attraction—soft power is at work. Soft power uses a different type of currency (not force, not money) to engender cooperation—an attraction to shared values and the justness and duty of contributing to the achievement of those values. Much as Adam Smith observed that people are led by an invisible hand when making decisions in a free market, our decisions in the marketplace for ideas are often shaped by soft power—an intangible attraction that persuades us to go along with others' purposes without any explicit threat or exchange taking place.
Hard and soft power are related because they are both aspects of the ability to achieve one's purpose by affecting the behavior of others. The distinction between them is one of degree, both in the nature of the behavior and in the tangibility of the resources. Command power—the ability to change what others do—can rest on coercion or inducement. Co-optive power—the ability to shape what others want—can rest on the attractiveness of one's culture and values or the ability to manipulate the agenda of political choices in a manner that makes others fail to express some preferences because they seem to be too unrealistic. The types of behavior between command and co-option range along a spectrum from coercion to economic inducement to agenda setting to pure attraction. Soft-power resources tend to be associated with the co-optive end of the spectrum of behavior, whereas hard-power resources are usually associated with command behavior. But the relationship is imperfect. For example, sometimes countries may be attracted to others with command power by myths of invincibility, and command power may sometimes be used to establish institutions that later become regarded as legitimate. A strong economy not only provides resources for sanctions and payments, but can also be a source of attractiveness. On the whole, however, the general association between the types of behavior and certain resources is strong enough to allow us to employ the useful shorthand reference to hard- and soft-power resources.8
In international politics, the resources that produce soft power arise in large part from the values an organization or country expresses in its culture, in the examples it sets by its internal practices and policies, and in the way it handles its relations with others. Governments sometimes find it difficult to control and employ soft power, but that does not diminish its importance. It was a former French foreign minister who observed that the Americans are powerful because they can "inspire the dreams and desires of others, thanks to the mastery of global images through film and television and because, for these same reasons, large numbers of students from other countries come to the United States to finish their studies."9 Soft power is an important reality. Even the great British realist E. H. Carr, writing in 1939, described international power in three categories: military, economic, and power over opinion.10 Those who deny the importance of soft power are like people who do not understand the power of seduction.
During a meeting with President John F. Kennedy, the senior statesman John J. McCloy exploded in anger about paying attention


On Sale
Apr 28, 2009
Page Count
208 pages

Joseph S. Nye

About the Author

Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, was Chairman of the National Intelligence Council and Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration. He is the author of several books, including The Paradox of American Power: Why the World’s Only Superpower Can’t Go It Alone and Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power. PublicAffairs also published his political thriller, The Power Game.

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