• Thu
  • Dec 25, 2014
  • Updated: 1:41pm
My Take
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 May, 2013, 1:23am

Joseph Nye's soft power concept is lame

China and Russia, two of the world's pre-eminent authoritarian states, just don't get soft power. That, at least, is what Joseph Nye, the Harvard international relations guru who coined the term, claims in a new commentary in Foreign Policy.

He points to multiple failures in their attempts to exercise it, saying they have all "quickly turned stale". Their main misunderstanding is that whatever it is, soft power cannot be engineered, at least solely, by the state.

Hu Jintao himself has said China needs more soft power, but relied on the state as its sole projector. Nye believes it must spring largely "from individuals, the private sector, and civil society". So the billions spent on turning Xinhua and CCTV into the Chinese CNN and BBC, or building hundreds of Confucius academies around the world, have achieved much less than meets the eye.

So far, so good. But what is soft power anyway and why do we need this dubious notion to understand frequent Chinese state failures in exercising influence beyond the use of money and military hardware? Of course, China also has successes. What other state, I ask, has turned Asian authoritarianism and state-run capitalism into political brands that appeal to non-democratic states and rulers the world over? You can argue it undermines democratic governance, but you can't say they have not been effective - and kind of soft.

Power is about getting what you want from others. They may not want what you want, so you have to coerce them to give or do what you want. Or you can do it through example, co-option and persuasion, so they end up wanting what you want. Don't kids learn these in the playground? OK, at least you can't argue with Nye that seduction is better than rape.

Nye's model is no doubt the US, which has soft power aplenty. Hollywood has often been cited as an example. But its influence does not always benefit the US. It turns out some of the biggest fans of those Rambo and Die Hard movies have been jihadists. Nye or his publicist has managed to mass-market the concept and turn it into an academic cottage industry and prestigious consulting jobs. He has ridden on a woolly, fluffy but catchy phrase to a second career as political guru, not just a mere academic. That's Nye's soft power.


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What China doesn't get, and never will get, is that "soft power" isn't orchestrated by any Western government or organisation. Soft power is simply the free exchange of information. The Chinese official mentality cannot conceive of people daring to think for themselves and, more importantly, that the people cannot be trusted with the power to change their own government. Chinese culture traditionally assumes that being given authority entitles the holder to abuse that power to the hilt without restraint and that the reason for holding such power is only for self - advancement. Therein lies the heart of corruption which is endemic to the culture. The PRC government believes that all thinking must be dictated by what the population is told by a media controlled by an authoritarian tyranny. This is why the rulers of China and, probably most of its people, have for almost 600 years been incapable of any original thought and why most of the population don't dare stand up for fear of being beheaded. China will never have any real democracy and will never be a great nation, for greatness lies not in size, but in the soul and spirit of a people. Force, racial arrogance and corruption just won't cut it.
Apply schoolyard epithets to academic concepts all you want, Mr. Lo. Which country's officials are stashing their families and savings in which country? One system attracts, the other repels.
Only a couple of days ago, your column (to my great surprise, as noted then) brought readers' attention to the rights of the disabled in Hong Kong. And now you proceed to use the term 'lame' in a way perhaps a teenager could get away with, but not a grown man with a moustache.
Soft power comes from the unintended and only affects the perceiver. It has an immeasurable force that alters a view and life completely. It is not a dubious notion. Not in the US. The Hollywood movies and TV sitcoms in the 60s were a great influence unintended for the rise of blacks in the US. Middleclass life style that once excluded the blacks on view in films became a lightning rod for awareness of social injustice. What followed was culminated by Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a Dream’ speech. Blacks in the US were freed one more time no less significantly in scale and substance from what President Lincoln had done some centuries ago. While the final acts are of hard power of politic and military, both grew out of a notion substantial and not dubious by means of soft power
"Nye very specifically steers away from fluffy notions, and offers very precise definitions." Sorry, I don't buy it. Many definitions in political "science" are post-conclusion circular, self-referential rationalizations. Scientific method and empirics are often totally lacking in that kind of vaporware. So is logic.
Here is the problem. The richness of spoken languages allows wooly headed academics, and I don't mean Professor Nye being one, use definitions to rationalize and equivocate. If you want to convince me by symbolic logic, which is the ultimate arbiter of correctness, you must decompose large granularity words -- worst ones are democracy and human rights -- down to their elements, where the truth value for a statement about a relation between elements is allowed to take on either "True" or "False."
Failing to do that, everything is open to hand-waving.
Now a true confession: I was a physics teacher in the early part of my career.
Give you an example. The word simultaneity in space-time is defined by a host of thought experiments -- operational definitions -- that must not violate existing physical laws.
Soft power in the Democracy religion context seems to me more like the persuasive powers of the lowest common denominators with little or no durable cultural value. As such, it is rich in entertainment value for folks locked in ideological battles.
I don't speak for Mr. Lo. But I admit I enjoy reading his piece today.
caractacus I'm not ethnic Chinese (Full disclosure:But I am a sinophile) and I can tell that you come off as a bit of a bigot. It's hard to accuse a group of people of racial arrogance when you demonstrate your own racial arrogance by assuming that the west is best.
If you hate yellow people so much, why are you still living in Hong Kong? When are you going to get an AK15 or build your first ammonium nitrate bomb and use it on the abominable Hong Kong Chinese?
China is still poor. The West is rich. So what's new? Most people prefer to be rich. Your illogicality is common among people with low IQ.
As a counterpoint to Joseph Nye soft power theory, which is not likely to last beyond his coterie of graduate students of this generation, I actually admire Western soft power in a different sense.
Contrary to Professor Nye's theory, much of the most DURABLE soft power in the great Western civilization was sponsored, patronized and funded by monarchs, aristocrats and the Church. Bach and Mozart were typical, with Beethoven the free agent the notable exception. Wagner was generously supported by King Ludwig.
What would the world be like without the understanding of Newton's mechanics, Maxwell's electromagnetism, Darwin's natural selection, whose principles are all at work countless times every second of the day in bringing about the well being that we have taken for granted.
Just last week, an engineer friend asked me to explain the principles behind digital signatures and credit card security, which draws heavily from number theory. So you should imagine a country without institutions like Goettingen, which brings forth geniuses like Gauss, or Cambridge, which nurtures giants like Newton, Adam Smith, and Alfred Marshall. Sadly to say, China never had similar institutions like that in the West.
The RSA algorithm that we use to do financial transactions every instant is the real soft power. Interestingly, the world is unaware of China's past similar technological contributions.
Nye's quotes of soft power will be consigned to garbage heap within another generation.
China’s method of using soft-power to silence opposition to their so called ‘peaceful rise’: “The Chinese are putting immense pressure on corporates and Universities that the Chinese fund for their public relation to distance themselves from Tibet issue. Apple has removed Tibetan News app and also book apps on Tibet at the Chinese request. After a week of intense public pressure, the University of Sydney has been forced to reverse its decision and agreed to host Dalai Lama in June of this year.”




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