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After first developing the concept of “soft power” in his 1990 book Bound to Lead, Joseph Nye returned with this book to reflect upon fraught international relations that arose before, during and after the Iraq War in 2003 and expound further the concept of soft power. The need was felt by him after realising how clueless people in the US policymaking circles were about this form of power and even those who understood it had a vague and abstract understanding of it. He emphasises the point that soft power is not “soft” or a form of weakness but is rather a very powerful form of power that should be factored in the national strategy pursued by countries, specifically the US as it wields both tremendous hard power as well as soft power. The author has used various examples, polling data and historical research to highlight both the significance and limitations of soft power.

The Changing Nature of Power

In the first chapter, Joseph Nye has focused on how power has changed its form. From the times of Machiavelli in Italy to the present times, power has undergone a tremendous transformation in how it is used for statecraft. Winning hearts and minds was always considered important, but in today’s global information age, it is more so than ever. There has been gross neglect on the part of the ruling elites in Nye’s opinion in appreciating and understanding the various dimensions of soft power and how it can be used effectively to pursue strategic goals.

What is power?

The author tries to explore various meanings of power and how it is changing. In his view, power is something that is felt but cannot be accurately measured. He gives an analogy of power being like love, easier to experience and feel it rather than measure it in concrete terms. Power, he further adds, is the ability to influence the behaviour of others to get the outcomes one wants. One way of wielding power is by command and coercion (hard power) to alter the behaviour of others. Nye points out that power is always context dependent; it doesn’t exist independently and produces consequences dynamically rather than static results. Because of simplicity, people too often turn to measure power based on capabilities. There is a paradox though that sometimes the ones endowed with the best resources are not able to get their way and have the desired outcomes. The distribution of power in the contemporary information age depends on different issues. Although, militarily the US is still the dominant power in the world, in other spheres such as economics and global challenges such as terrorism and climate change, power is more diffused among various states and non-state actors. That is to say, no one entity dominates or controls by itself.

Soft power

Soft power - getting others to want the outcomes that you want - co-opts people rather than coerces them. It rests on the ability to shape other's preferences. Nye explains it as being similar to the power of seduction and attraction. It is not merely the same as an influence and is more than simple persuasion. It is acquiescence through attraction and without threats or inducements being offered. Soft power is a kind of persuasive power as it shapes what others want in a very subtle manner by appealing to common and shared values and culture. Soft power can sometimes come from hard power as well. A countries military prowess and impressive economic growth can attract others towards it. It can very well come independent of hard power also. The relationship between the two is complex and depends on the policies used to deploy both smartly. Norway’s example of being a great soft power is illustrative. It doesn’t have hard power capabilities, but because of its values and what it stands for, it wields outsized soft power and shapes international issues. Being a neutral power, it has at various times exercised its soft power in offering mediation and conflict resolution (e.g. Oslo accords in the Palestine issue or mediation in Sri Lanka’s civil war). Institutions like WTO, UN, etc. also help in enhancing soft power if they are rules-based and are legitimate in the eyes of others.

Sources of soft power

According to Nye, there are three main sources of soft power: culture (when it seems attractive to others), political values (when it is not espoused hypocritically) and foreign policies (when it is seen as legitimate). A culture that has a universal appeal is more likely to attract others rather than the one based on narrow and parochial values. But soft power shouldn’t simply be equated with popular culture. The cultural symbols or values that are attractive to one set of people or country might have the opposite effect on another set of people or country. It depends on the receiving audience and not just the ones exporting those cultural values. People-to-people contact plays a huge role also in influencing thinking about other countries soft power. The fact the US attracts hundreds of thousands of students every year from all over the world to study at its universities and is still the preferred destination for thousands of migrants show its soft power in a way.  Government policies can strengthen or squander a country’s soft power greatly. Soft power is undermined when narrow, arrogant and hypocritical policies are pursued.  E.g. a government preaching human rights values to others while disregarding the same at home isn’t going to enhance the impact of soft power. It would rather seem hollow and hypocritical, thereby denting the soft power effect. Moreover, unlike hard power, soft power isn’t all state-centric; it is much more diffused and distributed.

 The limits of soft power

Soft power depends on the power of attraction; it takes time to be felt and isn’t easily observable in the short term. Soft power generated by various elements in a society may sometimes work at cross-purposes than the governments stated policy or objectives and private sources of soft power are only increasing with the digital age. Soft power’s dependence on opinion polls to gauge success also has its limitations as opinions can change over time or rapidly depending on the scenario.

The changing role of military power

With the advent of cyber capabilities, the role of militaries has transformed. One doesn’t need big armies or tanks to wage war; a cyber attack can paralyse and destabilise the digital infrastructure and economy of a country. Information technology also aided the rise of nationalism with time. After years of tragic wars, the existence of peace by and large among democratic nations point to the shared values and increasing significance of soft power.

Terrorism and the privatisation of war

The “democratisation of technology” is making the instruments of mass destruction smaller, cheaper and readily available to a wider group of individuals than ever before. Once communication was restricted as a means used by governments and big corporations, but IT revolution has made it so inexpensive that is has become easier for terrorist groups to communicate and even reach out to wider audiences. In a way, terrorism depends on soft power to propagate its ideology and attract others. E.g. ISIS was able to use propaganda videos and social media to attract thousands of people to join in the caliphate.

The interplay of hard and soft power

There is a delicate interplay between both kinds of power. Sometimes they cancel out each other while at other times add onto each other. Hard power can sometimes have a softer or appealing side. Similarly, soft power can aid the hard power of a country when others want the same without having to expend too many resources to get them to do what you want. Sometimes hard power is used to pursue purported soft power goals. E.g., one justification for the use of force by the US in Iraq was to liberalise and democratise it. But the same unleashing of unchecked hard power also undercuts soft power. E.g. US image took a beating around the world after the Iraq invasion. Hence, soft power dent can impact hard power policies and vice versa.

Power in a global information age

In a diverse world where countries are at a different stage of growth and development, Nye argues that all sources of power remain relevant and countries can’t pick and choose one over the other. However, he points out, as the digital footprint expands, the value of soft power in that mix would increase further. There needs to be more of a consistency in what the US preaches and practices in the information age to retain and maximise its soft power. Due to the expansion of digital technologies and widespread diffusion of information throughout the world, it is much harder to say one thing and do the other. In other words, the veracity of something can easily be checked by anyone having access to digital tools these days. Governments no longer have a monopoly over information distribution, and hence, it is not so easy to sell narratives to other people that are not credible.

Sources of American Soft Power

In this chapter, the author looks at various sources that constitute America’s soft power. Various parameters such as economic prowess, successful multinational companies, global brands, attracting migrants and students are looked into. It is argued though that for these to be attractive, specific target audiences matter and policy should be shaped accordingly.

The rise and fall of Anti-Americanism

Joseph Nye has used poll data and statistics to show how American policies in the world have a direct correlation with its image and how the US government is perceived during different times. He, however, points out to a distinction between attitudes towards the US government policies and the US people/culture. Although policies create a negative image at times and erode soft power, the overall perception of American people, society and culture remain more or less the same. The structural factor underlying anti-Americanism is due to its disproportionate power which generates mixed feelings of awe, envy, and resentment. These factors can be softened through by pursuing benign policies as America did after the Second World War. Globalisation has often been confused with Americanization, and the backlash against globalisation as a result inevitably leads to anti-Americanism. US policies in Iraq and Palestine have eroded its soft power in the Muslim world greatly. This has consequences that reverberate in extreme ideologies that are further fanned. Soft power, hence, is not a constant but varies with time and place depending on the message and how it is perceived.

Culture as a source of soft power

Both high culture and mass culture have a deep impact on the soft power of a country.  American mass or popular culture is perhaps the most powerful in the world in attracting others. It implicitly produces a good image and impression in the minds of those who visit, study and enjoy American culture. This affects policy outcomes in a very subtle way. Popular culture in the US portrays American values that are open, mobile, individualistic, anti-establishment, pluralistic, voluntarist, populist, and free. Simple cultural symbols and images can have a meaningful and deep impact and can shape perceptions about a country which can aid the foreign policy goals. Nye attributes popular culture as one of the reasons for US win over Soviets in the Cold War. It doesn’t, however, produce a uniform effect and can have contradictory effects within a country. E.g. some values that appeal to the younger generation of a country might be abhorrent to the older ones. No uniform effect is felt across society.

 Domestic values and policies

Domestic political values like democracy and human rights can be powerful sources of attraction, but it is not enough just to proclaim them. These values should not just remain limited to mere rhetoric. In other words, how the domestic values are practised is directly linked with how they are preached to others. The soft power diminishes if values remain as mere rhetorical tools. Perceived hypocrisy can dent the soft power easily. Some values can be appealing to some people while at the same time be repulsive to others. Power of attraction, Nye cautions, doesn’t mean other countries want to imitate or clone American values.

Foreign policy substance and style

As soft power is all about mobilising cooperation from others without threats or payments, the style and conduct of foreign policy play a major role in shaping the options adapted to further interests. Naturally, inclusive policies are much more attractive than narrow interest based policies. In a post-cold war world, where the US has to deal with countries having values completely different than it, much more nuance and depth is required in formulating foreign policy to make it attractive. Style matters greatly in projecting foreign policy abroad. Humility and listening to others are essential to add to soft power. Unilateralism and hubris undercut soft power.

Other’s Soft Power

Joseph Nye has explored other countries or regions soft power to understand how those can help or hinder the US achievement of its desired outcomes.

The Soviet Union

The Soviet Union was America’s primary competitor in the cold war not only in terms of hard power but also for soft power influence. In the early decades, a promise of utopian communism, the high growth rate of the Soviet planned economy, advances in space technology, etc. all contributed to boosting Soviet soft power. These gains were, however, undercut because of neglect of popular culture in the closed Soviet system. Even government-sponsored cultural push couldn’t compete with American popular culture. The meltdown of the planned economy, Soviet propaganda and heavy-handed foreign policies further diminished Soviet soft power.


Joseph Nye considers Europe to be the closest to the US in terms of wielding soft power. The EU as a symbol of uniting Europe is itself seen as carrying considerable soft power. This can be seen from the fact that former Soviet Union countries in Eastern Europe are today eager to join the EU. Apart from cultural and societal values, the economic policies pursued in Europe where social safety nets are provided and the overall emphasis is on well-being and welfare generate a lot of goodwill than the crude capitalist model of the US. In terms of foreign policy also, Europe provides four times more development assistance than the US and champion’s causes like climate change plus are more comfortable with multilateral institutions. European soft power can be used to help or hurt the United States, depending on how America behaves.


Despite having rich civilisations and prosperous and exotic histories, according to Nye, the Asian countries somehow lost their ways and lost out to the West in terms of economic growth and technological innovation. Japan, in his view, is the first country to bounce back and is also the strongest soft power contender with its impressive work-ethics, unique culture, economic dynamism and efficient society that leapfrogged into becoming a developed country even after being destroyed in World War 2. Although China and India are doing great economically, and have rich cultures of their own, their soft power is limited by the closed system in China’s case and corruption and inefficiency in India’s case. Other Asian countries like South Korea and Thailand have also caught up with K-pop, economic vibrancy, Thai food and tourism driving soft power positively.

Non-state actors

The information revolution has greatly enhanced NGO’s soft power. NGOs mobilise public opinion which influences government policies and hence governments have to share the soft power sphere with non-state actors. A fascinating example that Nye presents is of diasporas using the power of the internet to further their agendas and change host countries policies towards their native places. NGOs vary also, and some are seen as credible, and others are just seen as pushing an agenda. The negative side is that non-state actors like terrorist organisations also wield their soft power and attract audiences to their message.

Wielding Soft Power

Unlike hard power, soft power is difficult to wield as it is not exclusively under government control and its effect depends heavily on the receiving audiences. Moreover, soft power is much more diffused, slower and cumbersome to wield. Nonetheless, countries have never shied away from trying to influence others by shaping perceptions, be it the French with their language and cultural promotion or the British or German propagandising in the US before the Great War. In the I930s, Communists in the Soviet Union and Fascists in Germany and Italy competed to promote favourable images of their countries and ideologies to foreign publics.

Public diplomacy in the information age

Shaping public opinion has become far more important in the present age where traditional diplomacy has taken a backseat, and public diplomacy is taking preference. Large parts of the world today have access to information readily and cheaply. Due to this, publics have become much more sensitive and wary of propaganda. Credibility is an important source of soft power. The three dimensions of public diplomacy highlighted by Joseph Nye are daily communications (explaining the context of domestic and foreign policies), strategic communication (involves developing certain themes and advertising those), development of long term relationships with key individuals (done through scholarships, exchanges, training, conferences, etc.). Public diplomacy that appears to be mere window dressing for the projection of hard power is unlikely to succeed. It requires both listenings as well as talking. Many times words and images that sell well domestically may be perceived negatively outside. It is hence more relevant than ever before to understand other cultures and their values. Besides government, NGOs, multinational brands, universities, media and even military to military exchanges help in gaining soft power and can aid government objectives. Nye believes that the Middle East presents a special challenge of public diplomacy to the US. The policies adopted by George Bush of regime change and push democratic values in a top-down, heavy-handed manner damaged US soft power in the region catastrophically. Moreover, due to cultural differences, the Middle East isn’t as susceptible to US soft power as, say, Europe was in the Cold War period.

Soft Power and American Foreign Policy

Nye believes and points out in the book that American foreign policy manifesting itself in unilateralism has done more damage than good to increase its soft power. The policies create resentment and have a negative effect even among friendly countries. Unpopular foreign policies undercut even those aspects which potentially generate a positive image like popular culture.

In Joseph Nye’s views, the American establishment takes soft power too lightly and has ignored it on its peril. It is essential for the US to cooperate with others with new threats emerging in the 21st century and that requires enhancement of soft power and not inattention to it. The US in the author’s views better needs to combine both hard and soft power to meet the new challenges.


The powerful and compelling book by Joseph Nye is a reflection post-Iraq War on soft power and also a useful guide for future leaders to learn from. From explaining the term in detail to highlighting various forms of powers and how they differ, Nye effortlessly goes through sources of soft power, US and others’ soft power, how to wield soft power and US foreign policies effects on its soft power. He has extensively used examples and poll and survey data to back and substantiate his claims. It is not to be confounded that Nye only wants to promote soft power; he rather wants a subtle combination of hard and soft power; that is, smart power. He also concludes that with increasing digitisation and democratisation of information technology, it is much more important than before to understand and deploy soft power.


[1]. Nye, Joseph, “Soft Power: The means to success in world politics”, Public Affairs Books, published in 2004

[2]. “Joseph Nye on global power shifts”, TED, published on 27 October 2010, URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=796LfXwzIUk/

[3]. “Joseph Nye on soft power”, Harvard Kennedy School, published on 12 March 2009, URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F8udhM8QKxg/

[4]. “Joseph Nye - On soft power”, Foreign Policy Association, published on 22 February 2016, URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_58v19OtIIg/

[5]. “Joseph S. Nye, Jr.: What Is Power?”, Center for Strategic & International Studies, published on 19 April 2016, URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ehgHglSw1Io/

[6]. “Conversations with History: Power with Joseph Nye”, University of California Television (UCTV), published on 10 June 2011, URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=keO8yJAbfhg/

Image credits: International Center for Defence and Security, Estonia

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Written By Amandeep Hanspal

Software engineer turned geopolitical enthusiast.

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