The slipperiness of ‘soft power’
22 Sep 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user Shena Tschofen.

The spate of recent decisions on Chinese investment in Australia and the revelations associated with Senator Sam Dastyari stepping down from his shadow ministerial position have been accompanied by a sharp rise in the media’s use of the term ‘soft power’. The term seems to be intended to encompass things like making discreet donations to political parties, picking up the odd bill that a politician has incurred and arranging comfortable overseas trips that can reasonably be called ‘study visits’ in addition to at least some of the familiar investments in real estate, infrastructure, manufacturing and the like.

The use of that term, however, seems to be quite misleading. It’s true, of course, that hard power carries the threat of violence and none of the activities in question do that. And if it’s not hard power, then it must be soft. But ‘soft power’ also has positive connotations: it’s an attribute or a skill. Soft power is also a quality that a state exhibits inadvertently. It may stem from the attractiveness of a society’s popular culture or the loftiness of its political aspirations and how honestly it aspires to achieve them. But it’s intangible and doesn’t derive directly from real or latent threats of economic, political or military pain. The US has long had a pronounced edge over other states in the generation of soft power. It also hemorrhaged that quality most alarmingly during the George W. Bush administration which provides further insights into the nature of the phenomena.

None of the activities preoccupying the Australian media have this quality. The instigators—individuals of Chinese origin—may aspire to no more than subtly improve the probability of a decision or judgement favourable to their interests. But the bottom line is that their activities seek to ingratiate, to compromise and, in the extreme, to bribe.

In a number of Asian cultures that’s normal or expected behavior, even though more overt versions of the same behaviour are acknowledged as bribery and corruption. In western democracies, which give more prominence to transparency and accountability, the sense of bribery and corruption kicks in much earlier, making it at least a predictable irritant in international relationships: Asians offend when they use these practices in western countries, and westerners offend by not doing so in Asian countries.

There’s another reason to prefer not to see activities that are at least borderline bribery and corruption characterised as ‘soft power’. In the business of international relations, the notion of ‘soft power’ is an identified analytical tool, even though its precise meaning and, especially, its measurement is the subject of much debate.

Soft power is a dimension of persuasive capacity first identified by the American analyst Joseph S. Nye, Jr. Nye characterised soft power as the capacity to persuade other states to share or to follow a course that they wouldn’t necessarily take of their own volition. In other words, it’s a measure of how compelling a state can be as an international leader. The core ingredients of soft power are the quality of the idea or the objective being proposed, and  the attractiveness and perceived integrity of the political and the social processes within the state seeking to lead. Soft power multiplies or enhances  the comprehensive power that the presumptive leader can bring to bear to achieve the objective. This is another way of saying that soft power needs hard power in order to work its magic.

Soft power is powerful but fragile. Rather obviously, if you have a great idea but there are reservations about the integrity of governance in your state, or there are doubts as to whether you have the overall brawn to pull it off, your aspirations to leadership will probably founder. Equally, there comes a point where sheer muscle will overshadow both ideas and integrity—although people would spoil the party by calling that ‘winning ugly’.