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Whatever Happened to Soft Power?

With the news dominated by dramatic examples of countries using coercion, intimidation, and payoffs to advance their interests, the power of attraction would seem to be irrelevant in international relations. But it still matters, and governments ignore its potential at their peril.

CAMBRIDGE – As 2021 drew to a close, Russia had massed troops near its border with Ukraine; China had flown military jets near Taiwan; North Korea was still pursuing its nuclear-weapons program; and Taliban fighters were patrolling the streets of Kabul. Seeing all this, friends asked me: “Whatever happened to soft power?”

One answer is that it can be found in other recent events, such as President Joe Biden’s virtual Summit for Democracy, which was attended by representatives from more than 100 countries. Having been excluded, China took to the airwaves and social media to proclaim that it had a different and more stable type of democracy than the one being extolled by the United States. What we were seeing was a great-power competition over soft power, understood as the ability to influence others by attraction rather than by coercion or payment.

When I first wrote about soft power in 1990, I was seeking to overcome a deficiency in how analysts thought about power generally. But the concept gradually acquired more of a political resonance. In some respects, the underlying thought is not new; similar concepts can be traced back to ancient philosophers such as Lao Tse. Nor does soft power pertain only to international behavior or to the US. Many small countries and organizations also possess the power to attract; and in democracies, at least, soft power is an essential component of leadership.

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