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Soft Power Without Hard Power Is No Power

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In the early 1990s, Joseph Nye’s book Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature Of American Power ignited a huge discussion among society of the need to transition from America’s traditional use of hard power to something more benign which he termed soft power. Before looking at the two branches of power, we first define power as the ability to do something or act in a certain way. As Nye had pointed out, nations can wield power in two forms, soft and hard power. Soft power, as coined by Nye (1990) is defined as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than through coercion.” In contrast, hard power is seen as the use of military might or economic sanctions to coerce others into doing your will.

Even as soft power gains traction among world leaders today, many still find the concept vague and hard to wield. While soft power may be beneficial in certain context, it does not work independently of hard power and requires the underlying use of hard power to back it up. This paper looks at the nature of soft power and its relationship with hard power.

As Nye stated (2004a), soft power is based on the concept of attraction. In other words, it’s the power of attraction. However, this concept is based on the premise that attraction equates the ability to influence (Fan 2007). Often, this is not the case. While a country may be positively perceived in the eyes others, this rarely translates into the ability to influence. According to Monocle magazine’s annual Soft Power survey in 2012, the UK overtook US as the nation with the ‘softest’ power. Looking at UK now, we see a declining superpower whose shine as long faded off. Its presence on the world stage has often been limited. Given its top ranking, this has not translated into a proportionate global influence. This can be contrasted with US whose reputation have taken a beating but yet hold much sway in the world.

A country like Norway may be respected for its culture and welfare system; however, it has no true influence on the world stage and has little power when it comes to decision-making. Even Nye, who so fervently espouses the use of soft power, admits to it that soft power functions to influence the ‘environment for policy’ and not the policy itself (2004a). To extend soft power beyond the realm of influence is dependent on some form of hard power to lend it credibility (Fan 2007). To exercise soft power, one must first be able have something the other party ones, be it the recipe to economic success or some form of military protection (Cooper 2004). To put it simply, soft power without hard power is ineffectual.

Given how Nye defines the two forms of power, it is hard to see the two as a continuation of the other. One lies in attracting others while the other uses coercion. The two approaches simply seem at odd with each other. However as Bially Mattern maintains that “soft power should be not be understood in juxtaposition to hard power but as a continuation of it by different means.” (2005, 583). In essence, she believes that soft power is nothing more than the softer face of hard power. Bially Mattern believes soft power uses something she terms ‘representational force’ (2005, 602). Representational force works by employing credible threats of harm to its victims, which unlike coercion, are directed at their subjectivity as compared to physically (Bially Mattern 2005).

This could have been clearly seen following the 9/11 terror attacks as the Bush administration issued a ‘war on terrorism’. Underlying the hard power approach of weeding the world of terrorism, it could have been seen as using soft power to attract others to the US’s cause. Yet, this soft power is merely hard power in disguise. Bush Jr publicly denounced the acts of terrorism and declared the war on it as righteous and claimed ‘you are either with us or against us’. This statement was structured such that it played on the representational force of attraction. No middle ground was to be taken. Either you are attracted to the US and by extension its policies on the war on terrorism or you completely reject it and associate yourself with the terrorists. While there were physical repercussions of harboring terrorists, there were no sanctions or punishments to be derived from having a differing view as that of the US. As Bially Mattern explained, representational force worked by creating disharmony within themselves as they are ‘relegated’ to the side of the terrorist (2005). Therefore, in an effort to minimize this mismatch of their belief and self, nations would be ‘forced’ agree with the way US demands of them. All in all, soft power is nothing more than a more benign way to frame hard power. It merely is a vessel for hard power to work its way in the diplomatic circles.

In conclusion, the relationship between soft and hard power is extremely convoluted. Soft power does not exist independently of hard power. As Fan (2007) mentioned, a country may have soft power sources but the ability to make full use of it is very much reliant on hard power or as she puts it ‘hard resources’. Given how soft power is embedded so much into hard power, one can see soft power as being nothing than a mere extension of hard power in its benign form. Being able to perceive the nature and its ambiguous relationship with hard power is crucial in this new changing age where a country’s respectability and image is transient. Knowing how it works and its true form would better inform governments how best to intertwine them into their country’s national strategies and better forecast the effects of its use. We will start to see the rise of soft power that in fact is more reflective of hard power.


Bially Mattern, Janice. 2005. “Why ‘Soft Power’ Isn’t So Soft: Representational Force and the Sociolinguistic Construction of Attraction in World Politics.” Millennium, vol. 33, no. 3 (June), pp. 583-612

Fan, Y. (2007) ‘Soft power: Power of attraction or confusion?’, Place Branding and Public Diplomacy Vol. 4, 2, 147–158, Palgrave Macmillan Ltd Nye, J. S. (1990) ‘Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power’, Basic Books, New York, NY. Nye, J. S. (2004a) ‘Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics’, Public Affairs, New York, NY, pp. 7–8. Nye, J. S. (2004b) ‘The benefit of soft power’, HBS Working Knowledge, available at http://hbswk.hbs.edu/archive/4290. html.

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