Power Plays: Global use of soft and hard power

Much has been in the news this month about global soft power versus hard power.  A phrase first coined by former Harvard Kennedy School of Government Dean Joseph Nye, soft power is the idea that attraction to culture, values and policies—among other things—can be wielded as a form of power to make others want the same things you do.  In terms of states, this strategy is in direct contrast to “harder,” more traditional notions of power, like military force. Soft power and hard power were prominent topics this month with the upcoming Expo 2010 in Shanghai and other Chinese efforts; the U.S. arms reduction treaty with Russia as well as the nuclear summit in Washington, D.C.; and the ongoing Iranian nuclear issue.

China‘s policy of expending resources to enhance its soft power is not new, however, the country is visibly ramping up efforts in the lead-up to the May 1 grand opening of Expo 2010 Shanghai: “Better City, Better Life.”  As with the Beijing Olympics in 2008, China is investing a great deal in the 6-month-long event, including a complete makeover of Shanghai‘s city streets and other infrastructure.  And it‘s not just China taking this event very seriously.  Many countries are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on their pavilions to engage the estimated 70 million visitors that will pass through, most of whom will be Chinese.  According to an NPR story from April 2, “it‘s a sign of China‘s political importance that the millions being spent are seen as a small price to pay,” especially when it comes to promoting your country‘s soft power to a growing superpower. 

In addition to using the Expo to boost its soft power, this month China‘s ruling Communist Party pledged to partner with business to finance further growth of the country‘s entertainment and media sectors.  An April 8 article from Business Report says the government announced “banks will be obliged to provide more loans to publishing houses, movie makers and online game developers” with the ultimate goal of promoting China‘s soft power around the world.  Similarly, China‘s publishing industry has been increasingly exporting its literature to the West—by supporting translations and participating in book fairs—as an exercise in soft power. 

The dismantling of nuclear weapons was another topic this month, with U.S. President Barack Obama moving a step closer towards preventing the proliferation of what could perhaps be considered the ultimate weapon in the hard power arsenal.  He began the month by signing a new arms reduction deal with Russia and continued by hosting 47 nations in D.C. to facilitate a commitment to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials around the world within four years.  Not rejecting hard power completely, President Obama stated, “we are taking specific and concrete steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons while preserving our military superiority…”

Summitry, though, does not always work with every nation, as the continuation of Iran‘s nuclear program has caused the U.S. to, as one Foreign Policy reporter put it, “turn to sticks” by threatening the regime with sanctions.  Soft power darling China has even committed to negotiating the use of sanctions against Iran, while Russia is still holding out for diplomacy to solve the dilemma.

While the use of hard power in contrast to soft power is prevalent in these articles, more increasingly the idea of “smart power” is permeating the vocabulary of governments, scholars and some media outlets worldwide.  According to Foreign Policy, the term is only about five years old, but the concept dates back much further—the idea that states can wield a combination of both hard and soft power to achieve success.


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