CAMBRIDGE – China and Russia have just provided the world with sharp contrasts in the use of power. As the French analyst Dominique Moisi recently put it, “whereas China intends to seduce and impress the world by the number of its Olympic medals, Russia wants to impress the world by demonstrating its military superiority – China’s soft power versus Russia’s hard power.” Some American analysts, such as Edward Luttwak, have concluded that Russia’s invasion of Georgia proves the “irrelevance” of soft power, and the dominance of hard military power. In reality, the story will turn out to be more complicated for both countries.
Soft power is the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payment. It is not the solution to all problems. North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il’s fondness for Hollywood movies is unlikely to affect his nuclear weapons program. And soft power got nowhere in dissuading Afghanistan’s Taliban government from supporting Al Qaeda in the 1990’s.
But other goals, such as the promotion of democracy and human rights, are better achieved by soft power, which can also create an enabling or disabling environment, as the United States discovered in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq.
Skeptics who belittle soft power because it does not solve all problems are like a boxer who fights without using his left hand because his right hand is stronger. Soft power is rarely sufficient, but it is often crucial to combine soft and hard power to have an effective “smart power” strategy. As the American Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last year, “I am here to make the case for strengthening our capacity to use soft power and for better integrating it with hard power.”