Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Evolution of 'Soft Power'

We've got to discussing 'soft' and 'hard' power in our A2 Global politics lessons, and I must confess that the concept of 'soft power' having much traction seemed to be away with the fairies.  Challenged to name a successful instance of where soft power had a significant impact, I fell back upon the example of western culture having influenced - in some degree - the people power which brought down the Berlin Wall 25 years ago.  There are others I know, but they are undoubtedly disparate and similarly highly contentious.

Just to be clear, soft power is that power which is essentially persuasive; it stands in contrast to the exercise of hard power via military or economic means.  Now, if I were to look at how the use of hard power might be graduating from military to economic dimensions in a more successful way, as for instance with regards to Russia and the Ukraine, I might be getting somewhere.  But soft power?  Come on.  Is American culture or western materialism really what is going to win the current war of ideologies raging in the Middle East?  Even worse, for the West at any rate, its own soft power alternatives are being turned very effectively against it.  Look at how Russia has expanded its global news organisation, Russia Today (for a searing indictment of Russia Today as a news organisation read this article by Nick Cohen for the Observer).  Look at how IS are using twitter and other social media outlets to advertise their brutality and their cause, and attract similarly minded westerners in the process.

The term 'soft power' was coined by Professor Joseph Nye, and the BBC have just published an interesting assessment of its use by their reporter Ritula Shah on the BBC News site.  A2 Global Politics students should certainly read it, note from it and use its lessons as they seek to assess the importance of soft power in relation to its more quantifiable cousin, hard power.  Ms Shah looks at both the vaunted 'successes' of soft power use by the West (and notably America), and how it is now changing to favour other nations and organisations.  She examines Chinese use of soft power in particular, and notes that the term's originator, Joseph Nye, now prefers to talk of 'smart power', as an evolutionary concept.  For now, concludes Shah, America remains pre-eminent in soft power use.  Others may argue that soft power does little more than reflect the international contours put in place by hard power.




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