My Take

Joseph Nye's soft power concept is lame

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 May, 2013, 1:23am

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.