• Thu
  • Dec 18, 2014
  • Updated: 4:32pm
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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USA soft-power: sports, Disneyland, movie industry, music industry, Apple, technology, space industry, McDonalds, the ‘American dream’…
Japan’s soft-power: anime industry, Hello Kitty, technology, cool-Japan, manga, j-pop, design and innovation industry, robots, Sony, Honda, ‘Made in Japan’, balance of beauty of nature, traditions and modernity, MUJI, sushi…
Britain: Football, movie industry, music industry, James Bond, Harry Potter, Mini Metro and auto-mobile industry, design industry, the Queen, Marks & Spencers, BBC, British flag…
China’s soft-power: ‘Made in China’ and the ‘Chinese dream with socialist characteristics’ (while its citizens are, ironically, actually captialists at heart hungry for European and American brands); Confucius schools overseas (while, ironically, if Confucius was alive in China today he would be arrested and locked-up in prison as a dissident). CCTV: add a token ‘African’ as their newscaster to show to the world that China ‘really’ is a very tolerant, cultured and open country (and great friends of Africa… and their wonderful natural resources).
soft or hard power really depend on the circumstances and how to take advantage of both.
Confucius teaching is like an encyclopedia that encompasses of thoughts by a collection of Chinese thinkers in China’s very early history. It is almost all encyclopedic except there is no thought on democracy. In fact it is all about authoritarian power. It stratifies a society to establish law and order to avoid instability from family to state. It is really a wrong sell to the West in the hope of acceptance of such Chinese culture. The counter result is more likely despite what effort and money is being invested abroad. Confucianism is just too foreign and too encompassing for the West and even the modern China to bear.
Nothing I have read by J Nye interested me enough to move me to any of his books
After “soft power”, some overworked platitude running around in a short circuit,
I give him a wide berth
JN is an intellectual lightweight, despite his impressive credentials
In reply to my query, a real scholar ventured:
“N’s wife is from a powerful family”
What a joke
Allow me repeat my comment on Mr Lok's letter today:
Compare Cheng Ho and Columbus
for the difference between East and West
What soft power is, and whether, when and how it is effective was extensively discussed and debated by scholars, diplomats and politicians alike when Mr Nye first published his seminal work on this topic: 'Soft Power.' That was in 2004. So you are a decade late to this debate, and if you want to know what soft power is (Nye very specifically steers away from fluffy notions, and offers very precise definitions), maybe you should take a trip to your local library and read the book.

And if you want to see Asian soft power in action, then go talk to a certain minister-mentor in Singapore about his Asian Values. And then I haven't even started on the most obvious current day example: hally. Compare and contrast that with Japan's inability to do just about anything right in the eyes of their Asian neighbours.




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