“Soft power” is nothing more than influence

In recent years no scholarly article about diplomacy or report on the subject in the toffs’ press has been complete without a knowing reference to “soft power” – the deployment of cultural and other peaceful assets as means of persuasion.  It is often contrasted with “hard power”, persuasion by use of bombs, drones, Special Forces, blackmail, threats, and the like.  Now the term soft power has been comprehensively discredited by the person best qualified to torpedo it, Emeritus Professor G R Berridge, the guru of diplomatic studies and author of their classic text, Diplomacy: Theory and Practice, among many other books and articles. In a few witty and pithy paragraphs on the home page of his website, Professor Berridge expertly deconstructs the definition of “soft power” rashly recorded by its inventor, the distinguished American scholar “Joseph S. Nye, Jnr., a Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor and former senior member of the US military-intelligence complex”.  Berridge castigates Nye’s definition as “cluttered with redundant words”, and for describing  “something for which we have long had a more elegant term: influence. Removing the clutter makes this obvious.”  He thereupon surgically excises the clutter, exposing what remains as nothing more than a perfectly satisfactory definition of “influence”.

Berridge offers three possible reasons for the virus-like spread of this “silly and inelegant synonym for influence”:  first, that it’s easy to grasp, whereas ‘influence’ is hard to define even though not hard to understand;  secondly, because of “the influence, sorry, soft power, of the leading American universities, the US International Relations establishment … and major American publishers, reinforced by the pull of the English language”; and thirdly because the enthusiasts for soft power (and for its originator) have yielded to the temptation to describe it as a concept, rather than simply a term, “thereby suggesting the discovery of something new”, even though Nye himself is on record as admitting that “the behaviour it denotes is as old as human history”.

Practising diplomats, especially typically pragmatic British practitioners, as distinct from academic teachers and students of the theory and history of diplomacy, are sometimes bewildered by theoretical expositions of what they are supposed to be up to and why they are up to it.  Here is a refreshing example of the reverse: a leading academic demonstrates that the soft power emperor is sartorially challenged, that calling influence “soft power” adds precisely nothing to our understanding of it, and that the exercise of non-coercive influence has been one of the principal  features of diplomacy, among several others, since the first human tried to persuade the second human to have a bite of the first apple.  Diplomats need no longer feel uneasy about their activities being defined as the deployment of soft power, when what they do is largely simple common sense.  Influence is the diplomat’s primary tool, almost always preferable to the use or threat of force as a means of getting others to behave in the way you want them to.  Calling it soft power is neither here nor there.

(Full disclosure:  Geoff Berridge is an old friend.  I was privileged to be invited to read an early draft of his short essay on soft power and to encourage him to publish it on his website.  If his piece succeeds in killing off this superfluous and pretentious term, I shall have to plead guilty as a minor but enthusiastic accessory to the assassination.)


7 Responses

  1. Alan Henrikson says:

    I would note that “influence” is a term well established in the practice and history of diplomacy.  See, for example, Lord William Strang’s Britain in World Affairs: A Survey of the Fluctuations in British Power and Influence from Henry VIII to Elizabeth II.  More recently, Sir Michael Palliser, also a former Permanent Under-Secretary, used the “power” versus “influence” distinction in his Paul-Henri Spaak Lecture at Harvard University’s Center for International Affairs in 1985.

    Brian writes: I am grateful to Professor Henrikson for this stimulating comment. Sir Michael Palliser’s lecture doesn’t seem to be available online but its thesis is usefully summarised towards the beginning of http://bit.ly/1bstgGC. It appears from this that a number of Sir Michael’s arguments that were entirely valid when he delivered his lecture in 1985 have become questionable over time — such as “the continued resiliency of the European Monetary System”, and perhaps also, more fundamentally, the extent of American dependence on European allies for military and other support, e.g. for bases. But the issues he raised are evidently highly relevant to the whole question of the relationship between power and influence.

  2. Paul Sharp says:

    Soft power is an interesting term more for how it is used than for what it may mean. Its origins, according to Nye, lie in Gramsci’s reflections on why he and his fellow Communists were rotting in a fascist jail if they were so smart and had the best analysis of the situation in Italy and the Black Shirts were so stupid. He came up with a sophisticated notion of how dominant ideologies operate to keep people in line – sophisticated, but one which certainly violated Occam’s razor in its attempt to explain why the workers did not revolt once the light had been revealed to them.
    Two things are of note. First, even the author of the idea fails to maintain the core distinction between soft and hard power under the pressure of how it is used in mass circulation. Soft power is the power of attraction and having others internalize your values. Hard power involves sticks AND carrots . As my son used to say of Saturday morning detentions, he didn’t mind the deprivation of liberty and then walking free, the tariff settled. It was the letter of apology that drove him crazy. Dad, they want my effing soul. Now everyone, including Nye, uses hard power for sticks and soft power for making nice. A consequence of interest to us is that diplomacy is then routinely presented as an instrument of soft power exclusively. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.
    Second, perhaps we should not be too sniffy about the US use of soft power and its claims of attractiveness substituting for declining amounts of the old wherewithal. It performs much the same role as the idea of “British influence” did in the past, and just like “British influence” it involves much mirror-gazing to come up with fantastic claims about how attractive the rest of the world finds the US and Americans.
    The emergence of “smart power” exposes the vacuity of the original idea in fine Goldilocks style. Ask not what soft power may or may not mean. Ask why it has gained currency and circulates so extensively.
    Brian writes: I’m grateful to Professor Sharp for this comment, which throws additional light on the subject from a slightly different perspective. As a former diplomatic practitioner, I strongly endorse Professor Sharp’s point that diplomacy is not exclusively an instrument of ‘soft power’. Diplomacy routinely deploys threats, blackmail, and pressures of all kinds: even what seems to be purely an exercise of peaceful persuasion may be more likely to succeed if backed up by an implicit willingness to use superior military or economic force if persuasion fails, such threat often not needing to be made explicit at any point. “Great powers” are generally more persuasive than banana republics. Britain tends to become more boastful about its ‘soft power’ assets — Britain, or England, as the source of the world’s nearest thing to a global universal language; England as the “mother of parliaments” and the longest continuous practitioner of some kind of democracy; Britain as the inventor of many globally popular sports; and so on — in direct proportion as its military and economic power declines.

    But it’s not just because Britain’s military and economic power is declining that it’s right to insist that peaceful persuasion, negotiation and compromise represent a preferable form of diplomacy to the use or threat of force, whether military or economic. The much abused and much neglected Charter of the United Nations, the core instrument of international law and an extraordinary blend of idealism and practicality, explains why. Western experience in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya painfully rub it in. Syria was a lucky escape, in the nick of time.

    Professor Sharp makes the interesting point that ‘soft power’ originally embraced both stick and carrot, whereas now it’s generally interpreted as referring only to the carrot, and ‘hard power’ only to the stick. The Professor is clearly right to distinguish between the question (a) what ‘soft power’ in current usage means, which “exposes the vacuity of the original idea” but is otherwise of no enormous interest, and (b) the question “why it has gained currency and circulates so extensively”, which is subtler, more interesting, and ultimately probably more depressing.  

  3. Bryan Cartledge says:

    I’m sorry, Brian I don’t agree. ‘Influence’ can be exercised by the proximity of ‘hard power’ or by the threat, implicit or explicit, to use it. The concept of ‘soft power’ excludes that of ‘hard power’ altogether. I therefore believe that the distinction is useful.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Bryan. I read your comment only after I had read and responded to Professor Paul Sharp’s comment, below; his comment points out that ‘soft power’ originally embraced both hard and soft power, and my response anticipates almost word for word your own comment that diplomacy, or influence, is not confined to the deployment of ‘soft power’ in its contemporary usage (which now tends to exclude elements of hard power) but often employs various kinds of ‘hard power’, whether implicitly, explicitly, simultaneously or instead.

    I think this illustrates the misleading character of the term. Its increasing use has tended to imply a sharp distinction between soft power (equated with influence and diplomacy) and hard power (meaning military intervention, economic or other sanctions, and other kinds of arm-twisting or the threat of them, by implication alternatives to persuasion/diplomacy and not functions of diplomacy at all), when in fact influence and diplomacy both typically employ a blend of both, explicitly or implicitly — precisely as you say, and as Professor Sharp says with considerable emphasis. Moreover, I suggest that the description of influence as soft power is actively misleading: both words, soft and power, have a pejorative undertone when applied to simple influence — soft = flabby; power = use or threat of coercion. It seems unnecessary and undesirable to use a term that can have such misleading implications when much simpler and clearer terms (influence, coercion, and so forth) are available.

    The distinction between peaceful persuasion and the threat or use of coercion is, as you say, useful, indeed essential. But describing one as soft power and the other as hard power, each by implication excluding the other and each practised by different agents, suggests a different and inaccurate kind of distinction, and does nothing, I suggest, to illuminate it. “Best avoided,” as Fowler says of other misleading words and phrases.

  4. Geoff Berridge says:

    I’m pleased that this subject has stimulated some debate and grateful for all of the comments. I shall need more time than I have now to digest them properly but for now here are a few quick observations: (1) Thanks to Alan, I have dipped quickly into Strang and find that he is a bit slippery on ‘influence’, using it at one moment to mean ‘the capacity to persuade’, in contrast to ‘power, which is ‘the capacity to coerce’ (p. 13); at another to mean the capacity of a government to make its will prevail (p. 151), which, of course, is the common definition of power. This lends support both to Scruton’s observation that it is extremely difficult to define influence and to Nye’s presumed claim that others (apart from ‘the dictionary’) use influence and power as synonyms. (2) In regard to Paul’s last sentence, I don’t think there is any great mystery as to why the term soft power has gained currency and have speculated on this in the final para of my website piece. The important line to pursue instead, I suggest, is the extent to which this terminology is ‘actively harmful’, to borrow a phrase from one of Brian’s emails – in the way that Sherard Cowper-Coles, in Ever the Diplomat, has claimed that ‘re-branding’ the Overseas and Defence Policy Committee of the cabinet the ‘National Security Council’ has been harmful because it places too much emphasis on (ugh!) hard power.

    Brian writes: Thank you very much for this, Geoff. I think your comment, along with the others posted so far here, shows that there’s quite a lot more to be said on this subject, perhaps rather surprisingly! So please accept a vote of thanks for raising it in the first place.

  5. Robert Wargas says:

    Thanks for this, Mr. Barder. “Soft power” was (well, is) part of the never-ending trend in international relations to muddy the waters with vague pseudoscientific terms. The more people fight about worthless theoretical constructs and terminology, the less time they spend actually thinking about realistic solutions in diplomacy. I encountered such vague terms as a graduate student and was amazed so many people spent their seminars debating “soft power” and “neo-realism” and neo-neo-this-or-that without actually studying, for instance, how and why there wasn’t a nuclear exchange during the Cuban missile crisis.

    Brian writes: Thank you very much for this. It’s encouraging for a former pragmatic practitioner to read this common-sense view from an academic stand-point.

  6. Robert Wargas says:

    My pleasure. The whole issue reminds me of an old witty quote. I don’t remember the source, but it was something like, “Well, this all works in practice, but how do we get it to work in theory??”
    Brian writes: Thank you very much for this. It’s encouraging for a former pragmatic practitioner to read this common-sense view from an academic stand-point. – See more at: https://barder.com/4112#sthash.ColSN1gS.dpuf
    Brian writes: Thank you very much for this. It’s encouraging for a former pragmatic practitioner to read this common-sense view from an academic stand-point. – See more at: https://barder.com/4112#sthash.ColSN1gS.dpuf

  7. Charlie says:

    Surely soft power is nothing more than the power of attraction? Another country, race or group wants to be like us? All those E Europeans wanting to buy pop musics and wear jeans during the communist rule? Only the USA and Britain has a  track record of producing decent pop music.  Perhaps the greatest weapon in the EU’s armoury is threatening to inflict Euro Pop on other nations. Perhaps France can regain it’s influence by threatening to send Jonny Hallyday to a country with which it is displeased?