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The Nuances Of Soft Power In International Relations – Analysis


Soft power is a concept has become popular in recent years due to its frequent inclusion in the speeches and narratives of many leaders, scholars, and strategic thinkers worldwide. Joseph Nye, Harvard Professor and former adviser to the White House, defines soft power as “the ability to attract and co-opt rather than coerce, use force or give money as a means of persuasion.” By extension, we can also say that soft power may be likened to a “marketing strategy” that needs to promote a product’s “sellability.”


In the case of states, it is their very ‘national marketing strategy’ to promote themselves — in all aspects — to the world. In International Relations (IR), it is influence employed by states in order to make one’s image appealing or attractive before others. This means that such power flows through peaceful means. Essentially, what makes soft power likeable is its sense of “coolness” and “awesomeness.” And when that influence, arising from the coolness and awesomeness becomes so big, it becomes, consciously or unconsciously, a sphere of influence.

This, in fact, is also one of the keys that can make a country an investment, tourism, educational, and a retirement hub. It is plain common sense: Who would want to study, invest and tour or migrate in a country that is not attractive or popular? The answer is because people always want to be associated with something good or famous, so that, they too, would become good or famous. People take pride in it whenever they have a certain sense of exclusivity or inclusivity. The same is true in the case of states, alliances, and partnerships.

Soft Power of Major Powers

Notably, two of the world’s greatest powers, the United States (US) and China, have — on large scales — been successful in wielding and projecting their country’s soft power around the world. For the US, this has been seen, among others, through its economic prowess with the Dollar as the world’s reserve currency; its native-tongue (English) serving as the world’s lingua franca; its influential entertainment industries (Hollywood, National Basketball Association (NBA), Music Television (MTV)); its corporate industries (Ford, GM, Starbucks, Apple, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Nike); its traditional and social medias (CNN, Facebook, Twitter); its scientific and educational institutions (Harvard, Yale, MIT, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)); and its political values (democracy, freedom, rule of law, ‘culture of lawyering.’). This is the reason why many states or individuals want to be associated with the US or migrate to it — because of the element of prestige tied to it.

As for China, China’s soft power could be seen in four levels. First are its achievements arising from its merciless hard work and blitzing development at home: rapid urbanization; hosting of many major international events; expansive high-speed rail network; frequent space missions; superb and well-synchronized military parades; campus-cities; and the rise of homegrown companies like Xiaomi and Huawei. Second is by the greatness and icons of its culture and society: five-thousand year history; nation with the second-most number of registered World Heritage Sites; ancient and modern architectural wonders (Terra Cotta Warriors, Great Wall, The Bird’s Nest); its ancient self-defense and medicinal practices (Wushu and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)); and the proliferation of its Confucius Institutes abroad. Third is by its well-organized and well-funded sports system, because sports are also part of projecting a nation’s soft power most especially when it comes to big sporting events like the Olympics and the World Cup. Lastly, Chinese soft power has also been associated with its developmental projects and ‘infrastructure diplomacy’ to developing countries (e.g., Africa and Latin America).

Obviously, what can be seen and touched are what attracts, as these are what appeal to people’s senses. That is why China has earned so many adjectives from scholars and world leaders alike in describing its rise, including the pervading reputation to be the “next superpower,” because it has done so many things that are tangible and palpable. In fact, according to the Chinese Ministry of Education this year, China has already surpassed France as the world’s third most popular “study abroad” destination, next only to the US and the United Kingdom (UK).


Similarly, for Japan as a major power, it has drawn positive influences from its Anime (movies and TV series), Manga (cartoon and comic books), Cosplay (fans dressing in the costume of their favorite characters), corporate industries (Sony, Toyota, Honda), martial arts (Karate, Aikido, Kendo, Judo), and its world-renowned Japanese cuisine. While for Korea, a middle power, its Korean Wave or Hallyu [Korean popular music (KPOP), dramas, language, sports (Taekwondo), technology (Samsung, Hyundai, KIA), movies, and cuisine] was able to make tremendous waves throughout the world, with US President Obama even saying, “It’s no wonder so many people around the world have caught the Korean wave — hallyu.”

In other words, the hosting of major international events, pop culture, brands, fashions, lifestyle, food, technology, media, educational institutions, language, scholars, infrastructural magnificence, inventions, ancient history, national wonders, geographical landmass, and population, all contribute — or are instrumental — to a country’s soft power.

Strategic Ways of Utilizing Soft Power

Generally, soft power could come into effect in two ways. First is the state-led (nationalized) approach; and second is the publics-led (individualized) approach. The first one is when a state, in advancing its foreign policy agenda or national interest, undertakes measures, including cultural and public diplomacy, to impress upon others its own sense of attractiveness or positive image so as to get more accommodation from other countries.

Examples of these are government scholarships, tourism expos, student and academic exchanges, space programs, checkbook diplomacy, and Official Development Assistance (ODA), among others. In fact, when a group of states that has a successful soft power band together, they form an even highly integrated level of a soft power, such as the European Union (EU). Since many things about them are perceived as nice and noble, the mere names of their countries and their continent, including their cities’ names will be associated to whatever their status is — also nice and noble. It should not come as a surprise therefore why five of the top 10 tourism destinations in the world (2013) were EU members.

Secondly, the publics-led are those done by non-state actors such as Multi-National Companies (MNCs) or Transnational Companies (TNCs), Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), or even just plain private individuals. Oft-times, this approach happens without the collaboration of the state-led approach. But it, however, still inadvertently adds up to a country’s soft power because it helps promote a country’s appeal. In fact, these two ways can be coordinated jointly, and could even lead to some sort of a ‘consolidated national soft power.’

Examples of the publics-led are when individuals have served as icons to remember such as Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Michael Jordan, and Jackie Chan. Sometimes, this is even further reinforced by media publicities like the Time Magazine’s Person of the Year and the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize. This is the reason why the achievements of individual persons or entities also add-up to a country’s soft power. Their success will be traced all the way to what their citizenship is. And so in effect, whatever they say would be influential, and their country – remembered or saluted. Naturally therefore, showbiz personalities or famous corporate industries become untitled ‘soft power agents’ of the state.

Importance of Soft Power

What’s so good about soft power is that it is without the use of force or the brute imposition of it. Although sometimes, soft power is misconstrued as a form of propaganda, but in truth and in fact, it really just depends on who looks at it and how it is looked at. In short, the reason why many states want to promote their own soft power is so that other states would be able to understand, view them positively, accommodate, or even imitate them.

Take language as an example. Language is an important part of soft power because it now equates to social status, which is a powerful symbolism. This is especially true for the younger generations and the reason why parents (of non-native English speakers) train their kids to speak English — because of the prestige of intellectual elitism attached to it given that as it was popularized, through movies and media, by English speaking countries (or the West) which are mostly developed.

This is also why people copy from the movies the way Westerners speak, their jokes, and their idiomatic expressions, believing that it is an elite language used by people from industrialized states, and in so doing, would make them have some ‘positive association’ or raise their social value. Unconsciously or unwittingly, such already is a form of ‘social emulation.’ Soft power is a success if many wants to emulate it or succumbs to it.

In reading, we can say that the more you read of something, the more you become of it. The same applies to soft power. The more you are exposed to it, the more you are into it. This is very powerful because it can shape the mind of the young and create a strong image of an object and a subject which will greatly affect the way they think or behave in the future, such as when newborns will have a default acceptance of the kind of environment that they grew up in. So people, in a large sense, get framed with what they know, with what they are taught, and how they are taught.

Once deeply entrenched in a country, it could create a political culture, consumerist culture, job culture, social culture, a bureaucratic culture, and a sporting culture similar to the country of where the soft power came from. And when this happens, it will affect a state’s public opinion, its social constructions, and eventually its overall political psychology as well.

To put it realistically, what is else there to fight for or fight about if both states (or the peoples of both states) already think and act alike?

Aaron Jed B. Rabena is a Doctoral Candidate in International Relations at the School of Political Science and Administration (SPSPA), Shandong University, Jinan. He can be reached at [email protected]

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