Duality of Hard and Soft Power
Most people have experienced soft power, but how many really understand what it is and what constitutes it? Coined by political scientist Joseph S. Nye, soft power refers to “the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes one wants through attraction rather than coercion or payment”. This is in contrast to hard power, where influence is usually gained through military prowess.
A state’s soft power can be projected in many ways – its hard power, culture and reputation. It is evident that soft power today is of considerable global importance.
But just how much do these components play into the influence of states in the modern world?
Is Soft Power Just an Extension of Hard Power?
Scandinavian countries such as Finland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway have excellent reputations for possessing large amounts of soft power by being perceived as neutral. Their military prowess, however, does not garner much attention as compared to their perceived neutrality in international relations. Unlike the Scandinavians, not many states could claim to be fair and impartial in international politics and global affairs, it is highly probable that high soft power would naturally come when states are perceived to be neutral.
For example, Sweden hosted the US-North Korea nuclear talks in 2019. Sweden is also a part of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC) established in 1953 by the Korean Armistice Agreement at the end of the Korean War. It is no wonder it was placed fourth in the 2019 Soft Power 30 index authored by Jonathan McClory when he was general manager of Asia for Portland, a strategic communications consultancy. McClory believes that military prowess is not a necessary prerequisite for soft power. He added that it was actually smaller states which did not have huge militaries or histories of using them that polled most favourably in the index.
McClory, at a panel discussion on “Public Diplomacy in a Post-COVID-19 World” as part of a virtual conference organised by the Singapore International Foundation, titled “Public Diplomacy in Asia 2021”, believes that military prowess is not a necessary prerequisite for soft power. He said “I don’t think that having military strength is necessarily the prerequisite [for soft power]”, he then referred to the Soft Power 30 Index and pointed out that “it was actually smaller countries that don’t necessarily have a huge military or the history of using their military that polled most favourably…”
The Swedish was not the exception, other Scandinavian countries were too part of the top 20 of the Soft Power 30 index with the Norwegians in 12th place, Danes in 14th and Finnish placing 15th. Of these four countries, only Norway is a full-fledged member of a military alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). With the probable exception of Norway, it does not seem to be the case for the soft power of Denmark, Sweden and Finland to be an extension of their hard power.
The Holy See is another example where the Pope has worldwide ecclesiastical authority over the adherents of the Catholic Church around the world. Although the Pope has enormous influence in the world, both politically and religiously, this influence neither stems from the military nor economic prowess of the Holy See, if any.
The authority of the Pope derives from him being the head of the Catholic Church as the Bishop of Rome and successor of Saint Peter, a disciple of Jesus Christ. Also, the Holy See is an internationally recognised sovereign entity, something that ironically cannot be said about other self-governing territories such as Somaliland and Taiwan.
There are more than 1.34 billion Catholics, this equates to about 17.7% of the world’s population. With such a huge amount of adherents to the religion, the Pope already wields enormous influence around the world. Also, there are many Catholic-affiliated education institutions all around the world too. Famous institutions of higher learning such as Fordham University in New York City and Georgetown University in Washington D.C. are all affiliated with the Catholic Church. The Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, also known as the De La Salle Brothers runs many educational institutions worldwide with “more than 1,100 educational works, in 80 countries more than 1 million pupils, including children, young people and adults.”
All these educational institutions could only seek to increase the soft power of the already influential Church. This could also be the reason why the Holy See became a neutral arbiter between bitter foes, the US and Cuba. The Holy See, together with Canada, brokered the deal between the US and Cuba which led to the restoration of bilateral relations between the two states that were severed more than 50 years ago.
This would not be possible if Pope Francis and the Holy See were not seen as a neutral arbiter between two former foes and it would be definitely impossible if the Holy See did not possess the political and religious influence it has today.
Other than being perceived as a neutral arbiter in international relations, the power of culture is another important factor that could lead to high levels of soft power for a state.
The capital of Italy is Rome but so was the capital of the Roman Empire. Italy has a rich culture and is home to many historical buildings and artefacts. Buildings such as the Colosseum, the Pantheon and the Leaning Tower of Pisa are the epitome of Italy’s history and heritage. The ancient Roman city of Pompeii, a UNESCO World Heritage Site is another case in point. The world-renowned canal city of Venice shows the richness of Italy’s history too. Italian cuisine has spread to every corner of the Earth and can be found everywhere today, from pizza in New York City to pasta in Seoul.
When we think of Italy, it is likely we would not think of its state-of-the-art fighter jets in its air force nor as the eighth largest economy in the world by nominal GDP as estimated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Most likely, when we think of Italy, images of pasta, pizza and Pompeii are more likely to pop up than visions of murderous Mussolini or its past association with the Axis powers.
On the other side of the world, Japanese cultural exports have been a great contributor to its soft power. After its devastating defeat during WW2, Japan has managed to rebuild and rehabilitate its international image, projecting a much more friendly and kinder one, a stark contrast from its imperial era.
Japanese imperial expansionism was marked by brutal and violent crimes against civilians. In her famous book on the egregious Rape of Nanking published in 1997, Iris Chang wrote that it was estimated more than 260,000 civilians were massacred between late 1937 to early 1938 with some experts placing the figure well over 350,000. There was also the monstrous actions of Unit 731, a covert biological and chemical warfare research and development unit in which the Imperial Japanese Army conducted lethal human experimentation during WW2.
Japanese cultural exports such as anime and traditional martial arts like kendo, judo and karate are known worldwide. Many tourists travel to Japan to experience Japanese traditions such as taking baths in its renowned onsens or tea ceremonies. Its popular culture such as anime or its traditional way of life usually comes to mind instead of it being the world’s third-largest economy as estimated by the IMF or having the world’s ninth-largest defence budget as compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Building a Reputation
Last but not least, a good reputation may contribute to a state’s soft power. When talking about one’s reputation, factors such as effective governance and a good education system contribute much to the impression of being fair and impartial to the global audience.
Germany, which was ranked second in the Soft Power Index (SPI) 2020, is a great example of being recognised as a well-governed state – with Chancellor Angela Merkel as proof. With a long and solid tenure of 16 years, she has led Germany through multiple economic crises, a migration crisis, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic. All these have contributed to a strong international reputation, giving the global audience the impression of a country with not just a stable economy but one that is more than willing to help other countries in need.
In a Southeast Asia context, Singapore is also high on the SPI for its education, ranking 12th in the world and 4th in Asia. It has also gained popularity as a tourist destination through Singapore Airlines and Changi Airport, which has made the country more accessible and appealing to people around the world.
Additionally, Singapore has been a neutral ground to host meetings that affirm its regard in global affairs. In 2015, China’s President Xi Jinping and Taiwan’s then-President Ma Ying-jeou met for a landmark summit in the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore, a historic moment where the leaders of the two territories met for the first time in 66 years.
In 2018, the Trump-Kim summit was also successfully held here, where US ex-president Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met and signed a document on a joint commitment effort to denuclearise the Korean Peninsula.
Ultimately, is Soft the New Hard?
There are many ways soft power could be projected. Although having high hard power such as military prowess is advantageous, a state’s soft power is not necessarily a direct extension of its hard power, as seen from Scandinavian countries and the Holy See. A strong culture is another way to grow soft power, where heritage and traditions can create more memorable impressions to the general public – like Italy’s Leaning Tower of Pisa and Japanese media and traditional martial arts. The reputation of a state may also influence soft power by the image they create for themselves, such as being well-governed or having a positive image in aspects like education.
In the contemporary world where soft power is taking precedence, it then raises the question: is soft power more or equally as important as hard power? Perhaps. However, its significance is dependent on the situation at hand. Some states may prioritise one over the other, but solely focusing on only soft or hard power may prove to be inadequate in the modern world.
A good combination of persuasion and coercion could critically affect the international standings of a state. After all, only with a healthy balance of both soft and hard power would a state be able to maximise its international diplomatic machinery in this dynamic and ever-changing world.