Soft Power

The term soft power is relatively new and was first coined by Joseph Nye(1), Harvard University, in 1990.

Soft Power Soft Power

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Table of contents

    Soft power refers to the ability to achieve goals by attraction through political, moral or cultural influence; and, at times, by subtle economic means.

    There is no physical enforcement on other nations, but as a consequence of an increasingly globalised world, we trade and enjoy goods and services from other countries.

    Power is the measure of influence exerted by nations over other nations. Power falls on the spectrum from hard to soft power.

    Joseph Nye used the term soft power in the context of his international relations (diplomacy) theory: power results in a change of behaviour in others which can be achieved without competition or conflict (hard power) but by persuasion and attraction (soft power).

    Where does the term soft power originate?

    Nye may have coined the term, but the idea of soft power is not new. As long ago as 1857, Hotta Masayoshi suggested that Japan should conduct trade with foreigners foster strength and gradually subject foreigners to our influence until our hegemony is acknowledged throughout the globe.(2)

    Soft power has the advantage that it does not require as many resources and has more containable consequences in the event of failure. Cultural soft power is the most common form in the Western world.

    Where does the term soft power originate?

    Type of Soft PowerCase Study Summary
    CulturalA growing source of soft power is the South Korean K-Pop industry, worth an export value of $756 billion (3). K-Pop is an example of a cultural export from a global media transnational corporation (TNC).
    MoralAnother global media TNC is Marvel Studios from the United States – 69% of major characters from the film series are white Caucasians (4). What is the effect on those from ethnic backgrounds to see only white English speaking superheroes?
    PoliticalChina’s New Africa Policy: China is attempting to move from hard to soft power by funding and building new hi-tech infrastructure in Africa.
    EconomicNegative economic effects are mainly one-sided. The National University of Singapore collaborated with Yale University in the United States to design its first arts university. When Yale withdrew their participation, local staff and enrolled students lost their school.

    Soft power, Cultural exports, K pop, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Cultural exports in Korea since 1997. The increase is likely due to K-pop!

    What is the Soft Power Index?

    The Soft Power Index is a ranking formed from market research on the perception of a nation’s brands. Changes to rankings could be related to a nation’s response to COVID-19 for 2020-21 (5). Germany has overtaken the United States as the world’s leading soft power superpower in 2021. It leads on 5 of the 11 metrics in international relations, governance, business and trade pillars. Japan is ranked second. In comparison, the United States has seen the fastest drop in ranking. This is thought to be due to the turbulent presidential election campaign in 2020 and public health concerns.

    Is the Soft Power Index a good indicator of a country’s influence?

    Vietnam is ranked 47th in the overall index for 2021 due to perceptions of poor governance and a relatively low reputation despite having one of the world’s lowest COVID-19 infection and death rates. It has also experienced one of the highest economic growth rates in 2021 due to being China’s neighbour.

    On the other hand, New Zealand is the fastest improving nation, attributed to the swift COVID-19 response that the media widely praised. These examples show that soft power is influenced by recent events as recorded by news outlets. These can be biased. The Soft Power Index measures of dominance data do not necessarily correlate with country perceptions.

    Why does Japan have a high Soft Power Index?

    Strong brands

    • Culturally recognisable brands such as Nintendo and Pokemon.

    • Consistently performing brands such as Suzuki and Nikon.

    Solid consumer spend

    High levels of business investment: top ranking in business and trade metric

    • Host to high-profile events: 2019 Rugby World Cup and G20 Summit and the delayed 2020 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games

    Top ranking in Education and Science

    Japan’s dominance in the Soft Power Index is in spite of soft power problems recognised in the #Kutoo movement, including the petition to remove governmental rules that women must wear heels in the office, and the continuation of commercial whaling.

    Soft Power, Japanese branding, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Japan has a distinctive brand image

    How successful is the use of Soft Power?

    Soft power can be considered top-down or bottom-up.

    • Top-down soft power – the use of institutions to promote ideals. The United States drives the global expression of liberalism and capitalism through the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation in sanctions and foreign policies. The boundaries between modern-day hard power and soft power are blurry.

    • Bottom-up soft power – pushed through multimedia TNCs from the cultural sphere of influence. An example is the American streaming company Netflix. It includes a popular show called 13 Reasons Why, which has brought up controversial issues such as immigration, abortion, sexual assault and suicide.

    If a country can shape international rules that are consistent with its interests and values, its actions will more likely appear legitimate in the eyes of others (6)

    What is the future of hard vs soft power?

    The future world faces many issues that could result in high tensions, including global warming, outer space and cyberspace. Soft power seems more likely to solve future geopolitical problems, whereas military force would be inefficient or insufficient. Nye (2005) describes the future under smart power.

    Soft power, smart power, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Smart power is the balance between soft power and hard power

    Smart Power is the balance of hard and soft power.

    Soft Power - Key takeaways

    • Soft power is the ability of a nation to exert control by political, moral, cultural, or subtle economic means.

    • Hard and soft power exists along the same spectrum of competition and conflict to persuasion and attraction.

    • Diplomacy or international relations are a key strategy described by Joseph Nye in the original description of the increasing influence of soft power.

    • This is thought to be due to increasing globalisation and economic interdependence. State leaders are less willing to commit to war, and more inclined to foster international institutions that promote economic alliances.


    (1) Nye, Foreign Policy (No. 80), pp. 153-171

    (2) Foo, Sustainable Cities in the 21st Century, pp. 118

    (3) Stastica,

    (4) Karim,

    (5) BrandFinance,

    (6) Gomichon,

    Frequently Asked Questions about Soft Power

    What is soft power?

    Soft power is the ability of a nation to exert control by economic, political, moral or cultural means.

    What is meant by soft power?

    The term soft power comes from Joseph Nye’s international relations theory. It defines the ability of a nation to achieve goals by attraction through the means of economic, political, moral or cultural influence.

    Is diplomacy a soft power?

    Diplomacy or international relations are a key strategy described by Joseph Nye in the original description of the increasing influence of soft power.

    What is soft power in geography?

    Soft power is the ability of a nation to exert control by economic, political, moral or cultural means. Soft power is at the other end of the spectrum to hard power.

    How do you measure soft power?

    The Soft Power Index is a ranking formed from market research on the perception of a nation’s brands, and is formed by many metrics.

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