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Around the World, Across the Political Spectrum

The Concept of Soft Power: A Critical Analysis


By Abhinav Dutta



Power has been traditionally defined as hard power, where power would represent the military capability of a country. Power would also mean the ability to make the opposite party to do something, what one wants. Realist thinkers like E.H Carr emphasised on the ubiquity of power in the international system. Hans Morgenthau, one of the foremost realist thinkers, defined national interest in terms of power in his second principle of political realism. The concept of power as defined by realists, the struggle for power that culminates in war, and the realist explanation for the causes of war remain preeminent in the theoretical approaches to international relations. Neorealist thinkers like Kenneth Waltz and John Mearsheimer further propounded the idea regarding the omnipresence of power, where the role of hard power of being more effective in the international milieu, is debated.

Joseph Nye first used the term Soft Power in 1990. He proposes the idea that other than hard power, ‘soft’ power could be an essential means to attract other nations in order to meet interests. Nye advocates the design that the ideal way to attract a nation is by spreading of cultural values, making an ideological appeal, which would make the nation draw closer towards the other. Nye suggests the use of literature, films, cultural diplomacy and other means in order to create such attraction. He believes that soft power could be an important means for the success of the foreign policy initiatives of the United States.

In the recent past, the concept of ‘soft power’ has faced criticisms from a number of scholars and academicians. Niall Ferguson, in one of his critical examination of the concept, said that soft power is too ‘soft’ to achieve national interests. Takeshi Matsuda, a professor from Stanford University, said that the use of soft power should be based on bilateral cultural exchange and not just in unilateral cultural imperialism. Janice Bially Mattern, in her article published in Journal of International Studies, suggested that the notion of power being ‘soft’ is delusional.  She asserted on the fact that any piece of art for cultural attraction, be it literature, films, music and other forms of public and cultural diplomacy, has a ‘representational force’ behind it, which is responsible for the representation of the country. She has a realist perspective and has illustrated a number of other ideas where she questions the idea of soft power being really ‘soft’.

This paper will be an attempt to understand the ambiguity in the concept of soft power. The paper shall also focus on the limitations of the concept, and its wider applicability in the international scenario.

Defining ‘Power’:

The concept of power is central to international relations. Politics in the international system involves power. As wars can be dated back as old as the history of mankind, understanding power has become a major part of the academic discourse. Going back to the accounts of Thucydides’ “History of Peloponnesian War” as old as fourth century BC, to the proponents of the ubiquity of power in the international system in the modern times, defining power and its importance in understanding political interaction today is being contemplated and almost every time, revisited. Hans J Morgenthau, one of the leading twentieth-century figures known for contributions in understanding international politics, suggested that defining political power is a challenging task and a controversial problem of political science. Kenneth Waltz, a renowned American political scientist and founder of neorealism, said, “its proper definition remains a matter of controversy”. Likewise, newer generations of scholars like Robert Gilpin, Stefano Guzzini and others, stress on the fact that there is unsatisfactory knowledge about the topic, and one has to clearly understand the role of power in international interactions.[1]

In simple terms, power is the ability to make an actor do something that one wants, and that the actor would otherwise not do. However simple the definition may look like, it has undergone rigorous academic discussions and debates. A number of scholars have tried to reach to a common definition of power. The result seems to approve of the fact that power is a much bigger concept encompassing a wide array of subjects underneath it, which become important for consideration in understanding the application of power in the international system.

Power in international politics seems to have a disciplinary attachment to realism, where power would simply imply hard power. It essentially includes things like military capability, material resources, manpower, etc.[2] The idea of power found in the realist school of thought remained prevalent for most parts of the twentieth century. It faced criticisms from neo-liberals and other new generation of scholars, for having overemphasized on ‘power’ and its ubiquity in the international system.  Power and its universality was once again propounded by neorealists like Kenneth Waltz and John Mearsheimer, and ‘power’ remains vital today in order to understand world politics and interaction between states.

Joseph S Nye, Dean at John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, discussed about a new face of power, other than the usual approach to the concept of power, which essentially means hard power. He coined the term ‘Soft Power’ in 1990 and believed that this could be the means for attaining foreign policy objectives of the United States, not by force, rather by “attraction”. His idea of soft power has become popular and has gained worldwide acceptance.

Joseph Nye’s Concept of Soft Power:

Nye points out in his article published in 1990 titled “Soft Power” that the relevance of hard power in the international system is declining. He points out several factors like economic interdependence, transnational actors, nationalism in weak states and the spread of technology and changing political issues, which made hard power of a nation appear less significant. Moreover, the ability of hard power to influence other nations is questionable.[3]

Nye points out in the article “Public Diplomacy and Soft Power” (2008) that power can be exercised either by using “sticks”, i.e. threats of coercion, or by “carrots” i.e. by inducements and payments, in order to influence other nations. However, none of them are effective and a new face of power i.e. ‘soft power’ can be an essential means to influence other nations. Nye describes that ‘soft power’ is the ability to co-opt and attract, so as to make others do what one wants. Soft power believes in changing preferences of others and it is an attractive form of power.[4]

Nye writes that ‘soft power’ of a nation relies on three essential resources: culture, which are set of practices and values which can create attraction, either via high culture i.e. arts, literature, cultural exhibitions, etc., which appeals to elite and educated classes, or low culture i.e. movies, music, etc., which appeals to the masses; political values, the values of a nation’s political structure and tradition, and its acceptance in home and abroad; and foreign policy, which should be credible, legitimate and bear a high level of moral authority. Nye says that these resources can be an essential means in order to garner foreign public attention and create attraction.[5]

Nye coined the term in the year 1990 in his book, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power. He made a thorough assessment of the subject in his book published in the year 2004, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. ‘Soft power’ today, is being extensively used in government administrations across the world.

The concept of ‘soft power’ went through detailed and critical examination carried out by many experts and scholars. A number of works have been done in order to explore the ambiguity and limitations in the concept of soft power. As the term suggests an idea of power being ‘soft’ and as an essential means to success in world politics, soft power has undergone many academic debates and discussions. The ideas put forward by some of the scholars has been summarized in the following sections.


Ambiguity in the Concept of ‘Soft’ Power:

Janice Bially Mattern, from National University of Singapore, in her article “Why ‘Soft Power’ Isn’t So Soft: Representational Force and the Sociolinguistic Construction of Attraction in World Politics”, writes about whether attraction is natural or constructed, as well as some of the unacknowledged assumptions in the concept of “attraction”. She writes that behind a language, there is a “representational force.” Although representational force is non-physical, it is still a form of coercive power, which is responsible for a nation’s representation. She considers soft power as a continuation of hard power, but by different means. Janice B Mattern has a realist perspective, and believes that soft power is not that ‘soft’ after all.[6]

Janice Mattern is skeptical of the term “attraction” and considers it vague in terms of implying that whether ‘attraction’ naturally exists, what causes “attraction” and how does it even take place, in the first place. She writes with a sociolinguistic constructive approach, that in order to make an idea appealing to foreign states, a nation uses communicative exchange strategies, and the idea is projected as ‘reality’, i.e. the truth. The ‘reality’ can be evidence-based and can be won over with arguments. The spreading of ideas, i.e. the proposed ‘reality,’ is usually done by language, which carries a “representational force” behind it. ‘Representational force’, Mattern writes, is a form of power that operates through the structure of a speaker’s narrative representation of ‘reality’. In order to achieve positive results, one indulges in verbal fighting, i.e. arguments via representational force, for effective persuasion. This is common in today’s world politics in order to create the so-called ‘attraction’.  Therefore, she believes that soft power is ironically rooted in hard power. She says that the attraction created by this ‘force’ is sociolinguistic rather than physical, but has an element of coercion. Therefore, soft power is not ‘soft’.[7]

In short, Mattern rejects ‘natural’ attraction and assumes that ‘attraction’ is a socially produced ‘reality’, which Nye has not adequately explained that from where does this ‘attraction’ come from. Moreover, she emphasized on the fact that as soft power relies on communication exchange, it involves verbal fighting, i.e. arguments, in order to persuade people, which incorporates representational force. Be it culture, political values, or foreign policy, communication strategy is the key to spread one’s ideas and thoughts. The representational force it carries is a coercive form of power, and therefore, soft power becomes a continuation of hard power.

Limitations in the concept:

Scholars from various backgrounds have pointed out the limitations in the concept and its wider applicability in the international system in terms of achieving foreign policy objectives and national interests. Works of the following scholars have been used in order to understand the limitations of soft power: Takeshi Matsuda, Niall Fergusson, Todd Hall and Colin S Gray.

Takeshi Matsuda, from Stanford University, in his 2007 book Soft Power and its perils: US Cultural Policy in Early Postwar Japan and Permanent Dependency, tried to find soft power as a two-way exchange and not just simply as unilateral ‘cultural imperialism’. One of the main themes discussed in the book was the post-war Japan-United States cultural relations. He put forward his idea, supporting with a study, that the United States adopted a dominance-subordination relationship, where ‘dominance’ would mean one-way flow of influence and relations.[8]

Matsuda believed that though America was able to penetrate through Japan with their culture and ideas, it simply didn’t lead to Japan’s passive acceptance of that culture. In reality, both just interacted. Japanese, partly accepted some part of the culture, and American culture also faced  resistance by some. Matsuda believed that Japanese chose only that part of American culture that would have been suitable for them. At one point, he argued with a little hesitance, that post-war occupation of Japan by America, later followed by security arrangements between them, maybe was a United States-led global effort so that America could have exported its human, cultural and material capital abroad.  Matsuda cautioned against use of coercion by cultural means, which is the representation of a country.[9]

Niall Ferguson, a professor of history in Harvard University, in his article “Think Again: Power” in Foreign Policy, makes it clear that the United States is a superpower because of its military capabilities, i.e. a part of hard power, its huge defense budget, which are again a function of economic growth and political institutions. Regarding Nye’s notion that the United States can exert influence in world affairs with its soft power, Ferguson disagrees with it. Ferguson says that soft power is just too ‘soft’ to achieve national interests of the United States. He says that though most of the multinational companies are from the United States, they are not able to create ‘attractiveness’ towards the American culture. He cites an example that though children in Islamic world enjoy Coca-Cola, McDonalds and American music and films, strangely it doesn’t make them love the United States back.[10]

At the end of the article, Ferguson reaches to the conclusion that essential elements of power are material things like “guns, butter, people, money and oil”, as far as achieving interests of the United States are concerned. Ferguson also doesn’t disregard the importance of faith in power, as he believes that “faith cannot move mountains, but can move people”. Ideology and psychology play an important role in understanding the effectiveness of power, as these can largely magnify or diminish the ability to project power. As Ferguson later quotes that power is also about morale, therefore, it should bear credibility and legitimacy.[11]

Todd Hall, from University of Toronto, in his article “An Unclear Attraction: A Critical Examination of Soft Power as an Analytical Category”, proposes his views regarding the ambiguity and limitations in the concept. Hall says that as ‘soft power’ is being widely used by nations across the world, the concept has become a category of practice, and not a category of analysis. He says that in order to understand the mechanism of the application of soft power, it is important to consider certain points like whether the behaviour which one gets using soft power resources is ‘attraction’, and also whether this ‘attraction’ produces favourable policy outcomes. If ‘attraction’ does not become a viable mechanism to soft power assets, then there is a need check the concept again.[12]Hall suggests that preferences for American cultural goods, be it high or low, does not clearly indicate ‘attraction’ towards national-cultural elements. Secondly, the idea of attractiveness towards cultural values or products being a foreign policy asset is a simplistic model. Hall says that Nye’s idea of cultural attraction, which can spill over foreign policy realm, should not be taken for granted.[13]

Regarding Nye’s soft power asset of ‘political values’, Hall says that a nation adopts only specific versions of values to be projected to the world, which later becomes a part of the nation’s identity. These values then become the representative of a specific national political culture. The main reason behind this is because of strategic reasons and motives, and can be used for personal gains. Hall suggests that scholars should be cautious before accepting a ‘value’ as an identity of a nation, i.e. as a national-value. Also, if a nation emulates same political values, it doesn’t necessarily mean ‘attraction’. It is equally important to understand that even if there are commonalities, for example democracy, then how does it help in achieving foreign policy goals.[14]

As far as foreign policy goes, the ‘attraction’ for a state’s policy exists, only if there is any material gain in it. The support for a nation’s foreign policy cannot be generated with non-material motivations, like simply based on shared values. Interests of the states matter, and it is the primary motivator. Also, why nations should consider a state’s foreign policy as legitimate and is for the common good is unclear. The difficulty rises when one makes an attempt to understand what constitutes attraction, given its indicators and effects, are same. It can further lead to limiting of a state’s freedom, as a state can get entrapped into its own foreign policy obligations and can hamper its self-interests.[15]

 ‘Soft Power’ has gained worldwide attention and countries plan to utilize their soft power resources in order to achieve their desired foreign policy goals. But question remains, can soft power substitute for hard power? Also, where does this come from and who controls it? It is equally important to know the quantity and quality of its potential influence. A research paper submitted by an expert strategic thinker Colin S Gray, from Strategic Studies Institute, a part of US Army War College, concludes that hard power, i.e. military force, is more effective in terms of being considered as an instrument of foreign policy, as compared to soft power.[16]

Colin Gray says that soft power is imprecise in concept and is potentially a dangerous idea as it undermines the might of military power and the economic muscle. Moreover, hard power, i.e. military force and economic pressure, can be employed at one’s own discretion keeping in mind its quality and quantity, whereas soft power cannot be utilized the same way. Also, soft power to be considered as an essential instrument of foreign policy is something that strategic thinkers will find hard to deal with.[17] 

Gray writes that power of all kinds depends on its value, i.e. of soft variety, and the actor that has to be influenced has a decisive vote of either going with it or against it. But in contemporary warfare, the actor is coerced rather than given the luxury of choice. Also, American soft power, if strong, can create negative results as it can create resentment, hostility and a potent ‘blowback’. So even if America has a strong soft power, it will work counterproductively. Therefore, soft power as an instrument of policy becomes unreliable.[18]

Gray says that there are conflicts that cannot be settled by non-military means like diplomacy. This makes warfare necessary, which is the bitter past of human experience. In the present context, though the use of hard power has seen some decline, it still remains one of the essential instruments for achieving foreign policy objectives.[19]

Moreover, Gray points out that use of military power is not obsolete because of smart ‘soft power’ alternatives. It is just that there are laws that people have designed for themselves and one has to adhere to ‘just war’ principles. This does not undermine the unique importance of hard power, as it can be instrumental in achieving national interests and ensuring national security.[20]

It is interesting to note that hard power is essentially a tamed force, i.e. disciplined use of power, whereas soft power is untamed. A central authority governs the use of military force and economic measures, whereas some of the soft power resources are not grown, owned or controlled by policymakers. Soft power, Gray argues, cannot be domesticated and therefore, it becomes a dangerous concept and it sounds far from usable than it is.[21]

Gray believes that ‘soft power’ should work in areas where it is capable of co-opting and leave other areas that are more of demanding missions to the might of hard power.[22] His realist perspective from the point of view of the United States gives an idea that though soft power has gained widespread acceptance, it is still naïve in terms of being a holistic concept, and ‘soft power’ as an essential instrument of foreign policy, is difficult to accept. His ideas are enlightening.

Challenges to the application of ‘Soft Power’:

Today, soft power is being extensively used worldwide by a number of government administrations. Countries all around the world have been working on improving their soft power and its outreach. Soft power today encompasses wider areas other than culture, political values and foreign policy, like economic engagement, i.e. investments in small and large-scale projects for infrastructure building, which can help in creating a positive view towards the nation who initiates these actions and can help in garnering goodwill.

One essential point to be considered here is that though soft power is the means to co-opt and attract, it is widely being used for strategic interests and motives. For example, the Indian side is rather apprehensive with regards to China’s soft power approach in India’s periphery. China’s ‘soft’ approach is causing India to have grave concerns about it. To counter that, India has been extensively utilizing its soft power resources in the countries in its immediate neighbourhood and in the region, be it Myanmar, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Seychelles, etc., to balance China’s influence there. This is rather turning out to be a strategic contest in order to maintain influence, though the two countries have been relying on using their soft power resources. Soft power is definitely not turning out to be ‘soft’ anymore.

China has been relying on its soft power resources so as to improve its image around the world because of the ongoing debate on China’s ‘unpeaceful rise’. China already has around 480 Confucius institutes all around the world, where millions of people learn Mandarin and about the Chinese culture. China also aims at taking up the number of Confucius institutes to 1,000 by 2020.[23] China has been relying on public diplomacy, which is essentially being perceived as Chinese propaganda by the western nations, where China wants to project its economic rise as a peaceful rise. China wants other nations not to perceive it as a threat, but as a nation that promotes harmony and aims for a peaceful world. The question is: are these soft power resources helping in changing the perceptions of the western nations and countries in the region? The answer turns out to be negative. China is being considered as an authoritarian regime, where freedom of press is being questioned. Issues like human rights, and other state regulations make other nations see China as of having anything other than a benign image. Though China boasts of democratic centrality in national politics, because of its one-party structure and the communist government, western nations and countries in the region find it hard to trust Chinese diplomats, who are a product of the bureaucratic complexity within the state.[24] China’s soft power resources are not necessarily creating favourable outcomes or that of the image that it wants it to be perceived by others. China’s ‘soft’ approach seems to be far from convincing. 

Another example could be found in India-United States relations. Both have a lot of values in common, for example democracy and religious tolerance. Both the countries share common concerns in the global security environment. India is open to the flow of American cultural goods, be it American music and films, food chains like McDonalds and KFC, and various other multinational corporations from different sectors. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean that India shall support every foreign policy endeavour of the United States. There have been times when India had been vocal over America’s foreign policy initiatives in West Asia and has not extended political support to America’s intended efforts in the region, be it the Iraq War, and the intervention in Libya and Syria. India made it clear that it shall extend support to the United States, only when it is in its interests. India wants to maintain its strategic autonomy in terms of decision-making, and does not want to be a part of any United States-led effort that goes against its interests. Besides shared values, the political support relies more on shared ‘interests’; These interests then become prime motivators in creating ‘attraction. Utilizing soft power resources on some nation does not necessarily create ‘attraction’ and result in favourable policy outcomes. ‘Interests’ matter.


The purpose of this paper is not to undermine the application of soft power in the present international system. The purpose is to find the utility of soft power, which turns out to be having strategic motive and agenda behind it. Also, this paper aims at discussing ambiguities and limitations in the concept as put forward by various experts and scholars, who were critical of soft power. As Nye pointed out that soft power could be the means to success in world politics, the aim of the research was to be critical of it and analyse the concept from different angles and perspectives. The idea is to understand about the soft power applicability in the international scenario, and its viability of being a substitute to the traditional use of hard power, for attaining national interests and foreign policy objectives. The idea is to address the inconclusiveness of the term in a logical way, and also suggesting that there is a need for further rational assessment with a reasonable approach, so as to define soft power in a more comprehensive manner, for a better theoretical understanding.

Abhinav Dutta is currently working on his MA in Geopolitics and International Relations at Manipal University, Karnataka, India.  He holds a B Sc in Geology (Honors) from the University of Delhi, Delhi, India. His research interests are International Relations Theory, International and Strategic Negotiations, Political Thought and Theory, and US Foreign Policy.



[1] David A. Baldwin, “Power and International Relations”, in Handbook of International Relations (US, Sage Publications: 2013) p. 273.

[2] Michael Barnett and Raymond Duvall, “Power in International Politics” in International Organization (US, IO Foundation: 2005) p. 39.

[3] Joseph Nye, “Soft Power”, Foreign Policy, n. 80, Twentieth Anniversary, Autumn 1990, p. 160.

[4] Joseph Nye, “Public Diplomacy and Soft Power”, in Annals of American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 616, “Public Diplomacy in a Changing World”, 2008, pp. 94-95.

[5] Ibid., pp. 96-97.

[6] Janice Bially Mattern, “Why ‘Soft Power’ Isn’t So Soft: Representational Force and the Sociolinguistic Construction of Attraction in World Politics”, in Millenium – Journal of International Studies, 2005, v. 33, n. 583.

[7] Ibid., pp. 585-587.

[8] Takeshi Matsuda, Soft Power and its perils: US Cultural Policy in Early Postwar Japan and Permanent Dependency (US, Stanford University Press: 2007) pp. 4-6.

[9] Ibid., pp. 6-7.

[10] Niall Ferguson, “Think Again: Power”, Foreign Policy, Nov. 2009, available at: http://foreignpolicy.com/2009/11/03/think-again-power/, accessed on 15 March 2015.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Todd Hall, “An Unclear Attraction: A Critical Examination of Soft Power as an Analytical Category”, in The Chinese Journal of International Politics, Vol. 3, 2010, p. 197.

[13] Ibid., p. 201.

[14] Ibid., pp. 202-204.

[15] Ibid., pp. 204-206.

[16] Colin S. Gray, “Hard Power and Soft Power: The Utility of Military Force as an Instrument of Policy in the 21st Century” (US, Strategic Studies Institute: 2011), p. 31.

[17] Ibid., pp. 29-30.

[18] Ibid., pp. 31-32.

[19] Ibid., pp. 47-48.

[20] Ibid., pp. 48-49.


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