Soft power, strategy and policymaking
9 Aug 2013|

Coca-cola: a global brand

Soft power is back in vogue. The Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop, stressed in the debate with Bob Carr at the Lowy Institute on Tuesday night that Australia needs to focus more on soft power—a point she’s made consistently. Closer to ASPI, Benjamin Reilly recently applied the concept of soft power to Australia’s Southern Hemisphere relationships. And the canny Fulbright Commission and AIIA, sensing a chance, have a conference on it in Canberra soon.

While a useful concept, soft power is rarely discussed at the strategic level as a policy instrument. Instead the focus is generally on the means of soft power (examples here and here), not how it works, its limitations or how policymakers could use it. It’s worth thinking in terms of what soft power is, how it works and, most importantly, what it can do for us.

Joseph Nye initially coined the expression soft power simply as the opposite of hard power—ie military forces and economic might. In his model, Soft Power works through attraction while hard power works through coercion. The currently fashionable term ‘smart’ power simply describes using both hard and soft power to address a problem—which is, of course, what grand strategies do. In broad terms, soft power involves influencing others’ background perceptions of a country’s international image.

A nation’s strategy operates within an international environment made up of both hard, physical stuff and intangible ideas and mindsets. We interpret what’s happening around us through our established ideas and mindset, which give us an understanding—albeit often an imperfect one—of other people’s actions, behaviours and strategies. Reversing this, ideas can then be conceived of as the environment that our strategies operate within—a notion the newly chic term ‘strategic narrative’ hints at. But rather than a formless ‘environment’, it’s more useful to think of this enveloping swirl of ideas as having a structure we can shape and bend through our actions. This structure involves a community’s consensus ideas, not an individual’s, and so is better termed a ‘social’ structure. Soft power then simply involves shaping social structures—easy eh?

Building soft power involves shaping social structures in ways that influence the target of a strategy in ways helpful to us. The aim is to make the country wielding the strategy appear attractive and desirable to others. The ultimate intent is, in Graham Murdock’s evocative phase, to annex others’ imaginations, so they can only conceive of the state employing the soft power in certain, desirable ways .

Strategies are more effectively and efficiently implemented when compatible and well matched with the social structure they operate within. Other actors will then be innately sympathetic to the strategy. Conversely, a strategy that acts in contradiction to the social structure can create friction with other actors and is more likely to encounter difficulties in implementation.

The social structure can be actively shaped through culture, public diplomacy and place branding. Culture is the main arena of soft power, as it permeates all relationships, institutions and the media and, most importantly, generally operates unobtrusively. Culture shapes the way we see the world and defines what we hold important. Popular culture is particularly effective in communicating to others what constitutes success and the good life, but can be two-edged in being able to be misunderstood or recast by others for their own purposes. For example, the world remains deeply troubled because of the poor impressions Sayyid Qutb, a leading Muslim Brotherhood Political philosopher, gained while studying in America during the 1950s.

Public diplomacy involves governments engaging foreign publics and their leaders by explaining the context of domestic and foreign policy decisions, undertaking strategic communications, and developing lasting relationships with key foreign elites through education, training and conference programs. But public diplomacy extends beyond simply telling people the news. It’s more about creating a wider foreign community that considers certain issues in a particular way. Again such efforts can cut both ways; Malaysia’s ex-Prime Minster Mathathir Mohamad held a famously jaundiced view of Australia that supposedly arose from his impressions of some poorly executed public diplomacy.

Place branding seeks to shape the image and perception others hold of the state employing it. States can use place branding to manipulate their reputation as seen by others using techniques similar to that used by commercial brands. And not only states can do this. Sacha Baron Cohen infamously place branded Kazakhstan in the movie Borat, though, some see value in building place recognition even if in a poor light.

The means of soft power sound appealing but it’s not as easily or as readily wielded as military or economic power. Unlike these forms of material power, the building of soft power relies to some extent on the target group. People have to be persuaded and so soft power hinges on whether others are receptive to the ideas being sold. As Nye observed, ‘soft power is a dance that requires partners‘.

Building of soft power moreover is time-consuming and demanding (PDF), and not fully under the control of the governments doing the selling. Russian and Chinese efforts have been extensive and expensive but of little value. This bad experience is matched across East Asia it seems. The successful building of soft power might instead involve mainly commercial companies, non-governmental organisations, private groups and civil society. All may be reticent and resistant to state direction, and are also able to damage existing soft power reserves—intentionally or unintentionally—relatively easily and quickly.

Soft power has the potential to be an important instrument of national power, but the difficulties of wielding it means it’s best considered as supportive of a strategy rather than being an end in itself. Soft power’s main purpose might then be simply to tilt the strategic terrain in our favour. And so we return to the notion at the start of this post: soft power works best when applied with hard power towards well-defined ends. The notion of building Australian soft power needs context—what ends are we trying to achieve?

Peter Layton is undertaking a research PhD in grand strategy at UNSW, and has been an associate professor of national security strategy at the US National Defense University. Image courtesy of Flickr user George.