One of the most outrageous illustrations of soft power, which is the ability to co-opt rather than coerce, was demonstrated on stage: the 2018 play aptly named “Soft Power” made its premiere in Los Angeles in May of that year.
I saw it pretty soon after its opening date, at The Curran Theater, San Francisco. I only bring up the play because the timing of its stage release seemed almost serendipitous to global changes and events which took place less than two years later. These events forever re-shaped the definition of democracy and power dynamics on a global scale.
Although military experts and political strategists may disagree with my simplified definition, it seems as though soft power is used by government to convince its own citizens to engage in behavior that is beneficial to the state whereas hard power is the use of coercive force and military might to impose one country’s will on another country altogether.
Yet, there are outcomes in soft power techniques that seem alarmingly similar to the outcomes of hard power. For instance the hard power tactic of waging economic sanctions on another country can result in food shortages, travel restrictions, rampant rise in inflation and an all around immiseration of that country’s citizens. The soft power technique of the state encouraging its own population to self isolate, restrict their movement or stop working can encourage an attitude of “we’re all in this together” but the outcome is the same: encouragement in soft power behavior radically disrupts habits or even needs and creates an immiseration in life that didn’t exist before.
China is often lifted up as the leader in soft power but according to the soft power global index indicators, that rank actually belongs to the USA
In 2019, Joseph Nye, former United States Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs and the man who introduced the concept of “soft power” in the late 1980s, speaks on the gains made through soft power. He mentions hoping to see a “restoration in American Soft Power” with the 46th President of the United States. He also mentions how improvements in technology are a useful tool since soft power is so dependent on civil society.
(Click here to view the 4 minute video https://youtu.be/q75uTqz5XS4)
Indeed, technology, especially through social media has been the most powerful tool in restoring soft power. It looks as though Mr. Nye got his wish. After all, the one industry that has benefited the most in the Biden Administration is, in fact technology: (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/30/technology/big-tech-pandemic.html) Over the last two plus years, it seems there has been an extraordinary rise in social media influencers as well. Influencers are instrumental in keeping civil society in check, using their influence to shape a behavior, change a person’s thought, exploit the idea of wanting to belong, and rearrange attitude. For example, in 2019 the Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute (MDPI), published an abstract, “Role of Social Media as a Soft Power Tool in Raising Public Awareness and Engagement in Addressing Climate Change”.
Even UK based SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) explains, when referencing their 2014 abstract “Strategic narrative: A new means to understand soft power“ “…that the concept of strategic narrative gives us intellectual purchase on the complexities of international politics today, especially in regard to how influence works in a new media environment. They believe that the study of media and war would benefit from more attention being paid to strategic narratives.” No longer is the calculated, militarized strategic narrative needed to influence nor is it needed to be followed in a by-the-book format. As long as influencers can nudge the narrative and keep the dialogue open about whatever shift is trending, it doesn’t matter if they’re bored house-wives, college students, researchers, casual passers-by on social media or statisticians. With soft power each influencer continues to push the shape shifting goal of the state.
In his 2015 Executive Order, “Using Behavioral Insights to Better Service The American People,” Obama engages in a new kind of soft power. Traditionally soft power’s defining feature is that it is non-coercive; the currency of soft power includes culture, political values, and foreign policies. But the 2015 EO went deeper than, say just using your local art event to market a state-backed narrative or idea. The whole point of this particular EO was to enlist behavioral and scientific experts to investigate the psychology of why people do what they do and why they make the decisions they make.
This EO also opened the doors for influence in work and school environments, and to infiltrate every aspect of life with no stone left unturned. Soft power had metastasized into something all encompassing, and the reshaping of will could come from all sectors of the population, through inter-office corporate memorandums, school curriculum, health notices, municipal policy and entertainment.
With this in mind, one of the best examples of successful soft power techniques comes out of the South Korean K-Pop industry, worth an export value of $756 billion. K-Pop is an example of a cultural export from a global media transnational corporation (TNC). Multiple K-Pop companies recruit children from all over the world. This is global cultural hegemony to influence for the sake of profit, and for the sake of influence itself.
One year after Obama’s EO was signed, Cambridge wrote an abstract on the importance of arguing for stronger social safety nets using behavioral insights (https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2015/09/15/executive-order-using-behavioral-science-insights-better-serve-american). Within its context, “nudging” was mentioned. One of the most effective tools of soft power is nudging and with the improvements in algorithmic feedback, the crystallization of this idea that users are incapable of making their own decisions for themselves or even comprehend when they’re being nudged has driven soft power into new territory and allowed the United States to hold that high rank.
In “Rebranding Soft Power: Assessing Obama’s Smart Power Strategies”, soft power is rebranded into “smart power” “With Hillary Clinton at the head of the Department of State (2008–2012) the first Obama administration advocated a more balanced use of hard and soft tools, and launched new strategies of “smart engagement” through connectivity and public-private partnerships. Hillary Clinton managed to define a “new public diplomacy” for the twenty-first century, and tried to promote the US as a more benign hegemon. Using civilian power as a privileged asset to promote American interests abroad, Secretary of State Clinton imposed her own unique brand of American soft power.”
Some types of soft power are: cultural, moral, political and economic. Varying effects are used to institute the soft power language in each and often times they intersect. Marvel Comics for instance, uses nearly all four types in one movie or tv show to influence, or nudge, the viewer.
Cultural — social movement organizations are used to shape culture and perception of individuals.
Moral — the Church and the entertainment industry use allegory and metaphor to weave stories of moral turpitude.
Political — the love of iconic figures and the ballot box can be used to ameliorate more systemic issues like poverty or lack of meritocracy. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pg4MWF-tLrg)
Economic — Over time economic aid from an outside country consistently erodes that country’s own traditions, replacing it with corporate culture.
In this era of narrative warfare ballooning out of soft power and now more likely, “smart power”, the “enemy within” is playing a major role. But who is the enemy within? Is this enemy exerting dangerous influence or redefining roles and strategies that naturally influence everything from codes of conduct to policy?
Programs like the Clinton Institute for American Studies at the University College Dublin build into soft power programming while aiming for smart power outcomes. Speaking of Ireland, ‘Ireland’s Soft Power: Potential & Limitations’, was held 10–11 June this year at University of Paris I, Panthéon-Sorbonne. What institutes and events, like the two just mentioned, are designed to do is incorporate a global education. A successful aspect of soft power is the number of foreign students enrolled in the U.S., for example.
With the rise of the borderless global workforce, particularly in the corporate sector, soft power and smart power seem necessary in order to keep an increasingly differentiated workforce working in harmony and allowing broader acceptance of those differences in general.
In the power struggle paradigm, our limited thought capacity assumes there must be a conflict of some sort. So, again, when it comes to soft power who is the enemy within? Hilary Clinton? Vladimir Putin? Because soft power uses neither threat nor reward but rather rests on the ability to reshape preferences, then perhaps the enemy is neither within nor without.
Harvard Business Review writes, “If I am persuaded to go along with your purposes without any explicit threat or exchange taking place — in short, if my behavior is determined by an observable but intangible attraction — soft power is at work. Soft power uses a different type of currency — not force, not money — to engender cooperation. It uses an attraction to shared values, and the justness and duty of contributing to the achievement of those values.” (https://hbswk.hbs.edu/archive/the-benefits-of-soft-power)
This attraction to shared values can easily be siloed through social media. Evidence of shared values is apparent through the various online groups that have gained in popularity and established influence over the last few years. Attraction to shared values and the pressure to succumb to those value systems can also be found among the corporate sector, influencing their workforce into corporate or even cultural shared values.
Of course, the transformation and globalization of information is (one of) the key drivers in soft power culture-shaping preferences. Credibility, then, is an important aspect when going for the soft sell. But because soft power resources are difficult to control and often operate outside of the state, the shift from soft power to hard power seems inevitable. For instance, the authoritarian nature of Section 2.13: State of New York’s Isolation and Quarantine Procedures, operate outside of the legislative process and of course outside of the voting public. New York’s Health Department procedure is an action comprised of unelected individuals who seem to wield more power in the soft power seamless transition into hard power. The soft sell approach to being disappeared by unelected health members seems widely accepted by New Yorkers in general. Does the transition to hard power also come with an acceptance of authoritarianism?
Mentioned earlier is how soft power co-opts choice and preference. Without belaboring the merits of mask-wearing, or not, airlines insisted their passengers wear one when traveling on a flight. Erasing the choice, preference or option to go mask-free is a law or rule that would have to have been taken up by a vote and passed through the government. This would have been example of hard power. But instead, all authority was handed to flight attendants, stewards, ticket takers, customer service, merchants and pilots to impose their policy on passengers. This was soft power in action as it eventually became a civic duty over time. Equally frustrating was the sudden reversal in airline policy that eased up on the original erasure of choice, but offering another choice: er, choice. Because soft power operates outside of the law, it seems its random civic pressure points open the door for chaos which is often the characteristic of authoritarians.
Ultimately what soft power is, is the power of attraction. Never underestimate this. Unlike other power dynamics where leadership is a necessary part of it, soft power has no leadership: only influence, attraction and civic pressure. There is no voting unelected individuals out of their powerful positions. What does it mean when you’re part time lunch lady at your child’s school has more power than your State Rep or even your local law enforcement? It means soft power has given the community the power to police and influence each other, change the way we think and opt out of preferences. Some people welcome this but it only matters when an individual’s life and choices thrive in this power play.