The Problem with Soft Power

The Problem with Soft Power

International relations is going soft, with countries from India to Qatar to Turkey opting for soft power persuasion over hard power pressure. Soft power collectively refers to the tools in a nation-state’s arsenal that do not punish, reward, or threaten other actors into preferred behavior. It stands in direct contrast to hard power, that is, the tools which do serve as sticks and carrots in international relations. Soft power, for example, includes cultural exchanges and public diplomacy initiatives to help shape behavior, while hard power might explicitly promise trade incentives, threaten economic sanctions, or military action. While the concept was first coined three decades ago by scholar Joseph Nye, soft power has been practiced by nation-states for centuries. Still, it has yet to gain the same credibility or accolades as its hard power counterpart in the national security space. In fact, U.S. soft power, by some measures, is in decline. The Soft Power 30 project ranked the United States fifth globally in 2019, its lowest position since the project began. Internally, this decline mirrors the differences in the budgetary allowances of the Department of Defense (hard power) and Department of State (soft power) for the last two decades. While some of this disparity could be attributed to the inherent cost differential of the two approaches—a PR campaign costs less than an air power campaign—the increasingly large difference between the two accounts is indicative of a U.S. overreliance on hard power.

Considering soft power’s relatively low-risk and low-cost nature, in combination with the castrated successes of military campaigns since 2000, we’re left asking the obvious question: Why hasn’t the United States shifted to a foreign policy approach that incorporates more soft power approaches in lieu of continued bloated hard power initiatives?

Developing Soft Power Approaches Is Complex

Soft power approaches are targeted toward human beings with all their individualistic complexity. With hard power approaches, planners are provided with straightforward intermediate targets, buildings, bomb depots, and bank accounts. Concrete in Iraq is more or less the same as it is on bombing ranges in the United States and thus reacts similarly to various firing solutions. On the contrary, preferences, beliefs, and societal norms are influenced by any number of factors, meaning the residents of a village outside of Nairobi are likely to react very differently to the same messaging as suburban-dwellers outside of Chicago. This dynamism necessitates a great deal of expertise, interagency coordination, and cross-disciplinary approaches.

Take the Shared Values Initiative (SVI), a soft power campaign designed to increase pro-American sentiments across the Muslim world in late 2002. Led by advertising executive Charlotte Beers, the idea was to show Muslims abroad that Islam and American culture were not mutually exclusive, but rather mutually supporting. In her development of a complex campaign aimed to “sell” the United States abroad, Undersecretary Beers failed to sell the concept to U.S. diplomats despite support from then-Secretary of State Colin Powell. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, policymakers and the public were seeking straightforward, swift solutions, not complex and time-consuming public opinion initiatives. Another part of this challenge stemmed from a culture throughout the Department of State that advertising work was both ineffective and less noble than the esteemed profession of diplomacy, often equating advertising to propaganda. “You can’t sell Uncle Sam like you sell Uncle Ben’s,” was a common critique—a critique that alludes to the complexity of soft power campaigns while also dismissing an interdisciplinary approach that this very complexity requires. 

SVI was cancelled after its initial run and largely considered a failure by its critics. Charlotte Beers departed shortly after the campaign was cancelled, citing health reasons. Champions of the policy argue it was never truly given a chance and was cancelled prematurely, in part because of the second flaw of soft power.

The Difficulties in Measuring Operational Successes

Soft power is hard to quantify, and thus it is hard to measure its success. Hard power, focused more on measurable resources (money, soldiers, bullets), is a straightforward counting game, and so are the results of its applications. Soft power aims to change attitudes, which is a hard “thing” to which to assign a number or level.

Using targeting as an example, the joint targeting process includes two evaluative concepts—measures of performance (MOP) and measures of effectiveness (MOE). The former, MOPs, measures how friendly forces are completing targeting tasks and asks planners “Are we doing things right?” The latter, MOEs, measures the impact of those actions and asks, “Are we doing the right things?” Using these concepts in an operational military environment, targeteers and intelligence analysis can track the progress of campaigns and ensure that friendly forces are striking the right targets with the right weaponry to have the pre-determined effects.

Still, the effects of soft power are tangible—and can be measured. The successes of the Cold War cultural exchanges serve as one example with the longstanding and respected Fulbright scholarship program as a second. Graduate student exchanges, as part of the U.S. Cold War policy, had two important effects. First, it grew a body of U.S. students with knowledge and understanding of the Soviet Union during a time when much of U.S. policy was based on conjecture and fear. Second, on the Soviet side, it grew a body of Russian scholars who understood how far behind their communist country was and allowed them to discern between truth and government-sponsored domestic propaganda. Likewise, Fulbright scholars studying in locations around the world routinely return to their home countries only to reinvest their knowledge and build on their experiences—further fostering global understanding and diplomacy.

Because soft power is not confined to the domain of the U.S. government, with public and private industries contributing to U.S. influence abroad, the effects of soft power can be seen in other ways. Take the role of the English language in the Netherlands as an illustration. Upwards of 93% of residents in the Netherlands speak English; much of this trend can be attributed to the dominance of American film and textbooks coupled with the relatively small size of the Dutch population.

Quantifying the successes of soft power can work, but the process becomes much more of a qualitative over quantitative exercise. It is much easier to calculate the destruction of a training compound or to count enemy dead than it is to track pro-U.S. sentiments in a key village. Part of this problem is a sense of time—feedback from a bombing or freezing of a key group’s assets (hard power approaches) is near real time. Calculating anti-U.S. sentiment (soft power metric) throughout a region is not. This soft power feedback is hamstrung by time in two non-concurrent ways. First, analysts need time to allow preferences to change, and second, they need time to collect new data. The shift in language in the Netherlands, for example, took years to manifest fully. The effects of the cultural exchanges were not apparent or public until after the Iron Curtain had fallen.

One of the most comprehensive reviews of soft power, developed and conducted by Portland and USC Center on Public Diplomacy, was first released five years ago and is compiled once a year. Battle damage assessments, on the other hand, are often released to the public in near real time, as evidenced in President Donald Trump’s order to attack Shayrat Air Base in Syria in April 2017. The strike was immediately followed by an announcement to the American public. President George W. Bush’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech also stands as an example of the simplicity of success when it comes to hard power, regardless of its premature nature. It was relatively easy to convince the American public that U.S. efforts in Iraq were not only complete, but also successful based on the results of military action. The lessons of psychology and marketing tell us that simplicity sells, and selling is the most difficult challenge to soft power.

Selling Soft Power Success Is Hard

It is not that soft power has more complex strategic aims; changing human behavior should always be the goal of a foreign policy. The strategic aims of soft power are more transparent and more directly translated in the operational phases of execution. It is much more difficult to obfuscate strategic aims during a soft power initiative because the operational “targets” are often human behavior and attitudes and are not easily quantifiable.

U.S. foreign policy can be characterized, generally, as traditional and slow to change. This traditional approach has been long-centered on realist principles with the prioritization of hard power. Even the department charged with “soft power” programs like diplomacy and cultural exchanges face their own internal organizational culture barriers. In the SVI, for example, State Department officials were very reluctant to accept an interdisciplinary approach from an advertising executive, disparaging Undersecretary Beers with comments on her dress and demeanor.

Moreover, this history of traditional approaches has been punctuated over the past three decades with periods of increased “toughness” abroad, most notably in the Middle East. In short, the United States prioritizes toughness and traditional measures. Soft power is doubly handicapped in this regard because, as mentioned above, it is new. It’s also not considered to be “tough.” Years ago, when explaining soft power to a young Corporal in the Marine Corps, I presented two different types of leadership. The first included threats and rewards to push subordinates to perform required tasks: “Take out the trash every day or get written up.” The second encouraged the same behavior by appealing to the subordinate, by setting the example and earning his/her respect resulting in the Marine taking the trash out because he/she wants to be seen as a team player and as a good Marine without explicit threats or rewards. When asked which form was more effective and generally preferable, the Corporal immediately favored the latter. “That’s soft power,” I replied. “No, I still don’t like it. It’s soft, and leaders aren’t soft,” he retorted. While this could be dismissed as a singular incident not indicative of a larger trend, a glance at any political campaign will show you that policymakers don’t win elections on being “soft.”

While critics rightly point out the limitations of soft power, many critiques fall flat. Eric Li, a Shanghai-based venture capitalist and social scientist, argues that countries overestimated their soft power capabilities since the end of the Cold War. That’s not a criticism of soft power itself, but rather an indictment of an over- or mis-reliance on it. The crux of Li’s argument isn’t against the utility of soft power, but rather its overall presence, or lack thereof. Other scholars beholden to the realist school of international relations are resistant to even considering the potential effectiveness of soft power because much of soft power is reliant on non-state actors, actors deemed irrelevant by the tenets of realism. Ultimately, most critics simply believe soft power doesn’t work in international relations, but offer little concrete evidence to support these assertions.

Soft power has real limitations, and there are real challenges to its effective use in international politics. However, these challenges are not so much a reflection of soft power’s utility, but rather its political desirability, none of which challengse its validity or effectiveness. All policy is politics, and if the United States seeks to redefine and reshape foreign policy in a post-pandemic world, policymakers must first recognize and be willing to take the political risk in order to avoid the unnecessary risks associated with a one-dimensional hard power dominant foreign policy.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.