• Archive

The Benefits of Soft Power

"Leaders have to make crucial choices about the types of power that they use," says Joseph S. Nye Jr., until recently the dean of Harvard's Kennedy School. Here's how to choose.

It is a central paradox of American power: The sheer might of the United States is unquestioned: U.S. troops are stationed in some 130 countries around the globe, and no opposing army would dare to challenge it on a level playing field. But as America's military superiority has increased, its ability to persuade is at low ebb in many parts of the world, even among its oldest allies. In the following remarks, drawn from an address given on March 11 at the Center for Public Leadership's conference on "Misuses of Power: Causes and Corrections," Joseph S. Nye Jr., Dean [until June 30, 2004] of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, distinguishes between hard power—the power to coerce—and soft—the power to attract.

The dictionary says that leadership means going ahead or showing the way. To lead is to help a group define and achieve a common purpose. There are various types and levels of leadership, but all have in common a relationship with followers. Thus leadership and power are inextricably intertwined. I will argue below that many leadership skills such as creating a vision, communicating it, attracting and choosing able people, delegating, and forming coalitions depend upon what I call soft power. But first we should ask, what is power?

What is power?
At the most general level, power is the ability to influence the behavior of others to get the outcomes one wants. There are several ways to affect the behavior of others.

  • You can coerce them with threats.
  • You can induce them with payments.
  • Or you can attract or co-opt them.

Sometimes I can affect your behavior without commanding it. If you believe that my objectives are legitimate, I may be able to persuade you without using threats or inducements. For example, loyal Catholics may follow the Pope's teaching on capital punishment not because of a threat of excommunication, but out of respect for his moral authority. Or some radical Muslims may be attracted to support Osama bin Laden's actions not because of payments or threats, but because they believe in the legitimacy of his objectives.

Practical politicians and ordinary people often simply define power as the possession of capabilities or resources that can influence outcomes. Someone who has authority, wealth, or an attractive personality is called powerful. In international politics, by this second definition, we consider a country powerful if it has a relatively large population, territory, natural resources, economic strength, military force, and social stability.

The virtue of this second definition is that it makes power appear more concrete, measurable, and predictable. Power in this sense is like holding the high cards in a card game. But when people define power as synonymous with the resources that produce it, they sometimes encounter the paradox that those most endowed with power do not always get the outcomes they want. For example, in terms of resources, the United States was the world's only superpower in 2001, but it failed to prevent September 11. Converting resources into realized power in the sense of obtaining desired outcomes requires well-designed strategies and skillful leadership. Yet strategies are often inadequate and leaders frequently misjudge—witness Hitler in 1941 or Saddam Hussein in 1990.

Soft power rests on the ability to shape the preferences of others.

Measuring power in terms of resources is an imperfect but useful shorthand. It is equally important to understand which resources provide the best basis for power behavior in a particular context. Oil was not an impressive power resource before the industrial age, nor was uranium significant before the nuclear age. Power resources cannot be judged without knowing the context. In some situations those who hold high office, command force, or possess wealth are not the most powerful. That is what revolutions are about.

Soft power
Everyone is familiar with hard power. We know that military and economic might often get others to change their position. Hard power can rest on inducements ("carrots") or threats ("sticks"). But sometimes you can get the outcomes you want without tangible threats or payoffs. The indirect way to get what you want has sometimes been called "the second face of power." A country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries admire its values, emulate its example, aspire to its level of prosperity and openness. This soft power—getting others to want the outcomes that you want—co-opts people rather than coerces them.

Soft power rests on the ability to shape the preferences of others. In the business world, smart executives know that leadership is not just a matter of issuing commands, but also involves leading by example and attracting others to do what you want. Similarly, contemporary practices of community-based policing rely on making the police sufficiently friendly and attractive that a community wants to help them achieve shared objectives.

Political leaders have long understood the power that comes from attraction. If I can get you to want to do what I want, then I do not have to use carrots or sticks to make you do it. Soft power is a staple of daily democratic politics. The ability to establish preferences tends to be associated with intangible assets such as an attractive personality, culture, political values and institutions, and policies that are seen as legitimate or having moral authority. If a leader represents values that others want to follow, it will cost less to lead.

Soft power is not merely the same as influence. After all, influence can also rest on the hard power of threats or payments. And soft power is more than just persuasion or the ability to move people by argument, though that is an important part of it. It is also the ability to attract, and attraction often leads to acquiescence. Simply put, in behavioral terms, soft power is attractive power. Soft power resources are the assets that produce such attraction.

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.

The interplay between hard and soft power
Hard and soft power are related because they are both aspects of the ability to achieve one's purpose by affecting the behavior of others. The distinction between them is one of degree, both in the nature of the behavior and in the tangibility of the resources. Command power—the ability to change what others do—can rest on coercion or inducement. Co-optive power—the ability to shape what others want—can rest on the attractiveness of one's culture and values or the ability to manipulate the agenda of political choices in a manner that makes others fail to express some preferences because they seem to be too unrealistic.

The types of behavior between command and co-option range along a spectrum from coercion to economic inducement to agenda-setting to pure attraction. Soft power resources tend to be associated with the co-optive end of the spectrum of behavior, whereas hard power resources are usually associated with command behavior. Hard and soft power sometimes reinforce and sometimes interfere with each other. A leader who courts popularity may be loath to exercise hard power when he should, but a leader who throws his weight around without regard to the effects on his soft power may find others placing obstacles in the way of his hard power.

The limits of soft power
Some skeptics object to the idea of soft power because they think of power narrowly in terms of commands or active control. In their view, imitation or attraction do not add up to power. Some imitation or attraction does not produce much power over policy outcomes, and neither does imitation always produce desirable outcomes. For example, armies frequently imitate and therefore nullify the successful tactics of their opponents and make it more difficult for them to achieve the outcomes they want. But attraction often does allow you to get what you want. The skeptics who want to define power only as deliberate acts of command and control are ignoring the second or "structural" face of power—the ability to get the outcomes you want without having to force people to change their behavior through threats or payments.

At the same time, it is important to specify the conditions under which attraction is more likely to lead to desired outcomes, and those when it will not. All power depends on context—who relates to whom under what circumstances—but soft power depends more than hard power upon the existence of willing interpreters and receivers. Moreover, attraction often has a diffuse effect of creating general influence, rather than producing an easily observable specific action. Just as money can be invested, politicians speak of storing up political capital to be drawn upon in future circumstances.

Of course, such goodwill may not ultimately be honored, and diffuse reciprocity is less tangible than an immediate exchange. Nonetheless, the indirect effects of attraction and a diffuse influence can make a significant difference in obtaining favorable outcomes in bargaining situations. Otherwise leaders would insist only on immediate payoffs and specific reciprocity, and we know that is not always the way they behave.

Soft power is also likely to be more important when power is dispersed. A dictator cannot be totally indifferent to the views of the people under his rule, but he can often ignore popularity when he calculates his interests. In settings where opinions matter, leaders have less leeway to adopt tactics and strike deals. Thus it was impossible for the Turkish government to permit the transport of American troops across the country in 2003, because American policies had greatly reduced our popularity there. In contrast, it was far easier for the United States to obtain the use of bases in authoritarian Uzbekistan for operations in Afghanistan.

The information revolution
The conditions for projecting soft power have transformed dramatically in recent years. The information revolution and globalization are transforming and shrinking the world. At the beginning of the 21st century, those two forces have enhanced American power. But with time, technology will spread to other countries and peoples, and America's relative preeminence will diminish.

Not all hard power actions promptly produce desired outcomes.

Even more important, the information revolution is creating virtual communities and networks that cut across national borders. Transnational corporations and nongovernmental actors will play larger roles. Many of those organizations will have soft power of their own as they attract citizens into coalitions that cut across national boundaries. Political leadership becomes in part a competition for attractiveness, legitimacy, and credibility. The ability to share information—and to be believed—becomes an important source of attraction and power.

This political game in a global information age suggests that the relative role of soft power to hard power will likely increase. The most likely gainers in an information age will have:

  • multiple channels of communication that help to frame issues,
  • cultural customs and ideas that are close to prevailing global norms,
  • and credibility that is enhanced by values and policies.

Soft power resources are difficult to control. Many of its crucial resources are outside the control of governments, and their effects depend heavily on acceptance by the receiving audiences. Moreover, soft power resources often work indirectly by shaping the environment for policy, and sometimes take years to produce the desired outcomes.

Of course, these differences are matters of degree. Not all hard power actions promptly produce desired outcomes—witness the length and ultimate failure of the Vietnam War, or the fact that economic sanctions have historically failed to produce their intended outcomes in more than half the cases where they were tried. But generally, soft power resources are slower, more diffuse, and more cumbersome to wield than hard power resources.

Information is power, and today a much larger part of the world's population has access to that power. Technological advances have led to dramatic reduction in the cost of processing and transmitting information. The result is an explosion of information, and that has produced a "paradox of plenty." When people are overwhelmed with the volume of information confronting them, it is hard to know what to focus on. Attention rather than information becomes the scarce resource, and those who can distinguish valuable information from background clutter gain power. Editors and cue-givers become more in demand.

Among editors and cue-givers, credibility is an important source of soft power. Politics has become a contest of competitive credibility. The world of traditional power politics is typically about whose military or economy wins. Politics in an information age may ultimately be about whose story wins.

Reputation has always mattered in political leadership, but the role of credibility becomes an even more important power resource because of the paradox of plenty. Information that appears to be propaganda may not only be scorned; it may also turn out to be counterproductive if it undermines a reputation for credibility. Under the new conditions more than ever, the soft sell may prove more effective than a hard sell.

Finally, power in an information age will come not just from strong hard power, but from strong sharing. In an information age, such sharing not only enhances the ability of others to cooperate with us but also increases their inclination to do so. As we share with others, we develop common outlooks and approaches that improve our ability to deal with the new challenges. Power flows from that attraction. Dismissing the importance of attraction as merely ephemeral popularity ignores key insights from new theories of leadership as well as the new realities of the information age.

Soft power has always been a key element of leadership. The power to attract—to get others to want what you want, to frame the issues, to set the agenda—has its roots in thousands of years of human experience. Skillful leaders have always understood that attractiveness stems from credibility and legitimacy. Power has never flowed solely from the barrel of a gun; even the most brutal dictators have relied on attraction as well as fear.

When the United States paid insufficient attention to issues of legitimacy and credibility in the way it went about its policy on Iraq, polls showed a dramatic drop in American soft power. That did not prevent the United States from entering Iraq, but it meant that it had to pay higher costs in the blood and treasure than would otherwise have been the case. Similarly, if Yasser Arafat had chosen the soft power model of Gandhi or Martin Luther King rather than the hard power of terrorism, he could have attracted moderate Israelis and would have a Palestinian state by now. I said at the start that leadership is inextricably intertwined with power. Leaders have to make crucial choices about the types of power that they use. Woe be to followers of those leaders who ignore or devalue the significance of soft power.

Reproduced with permission from "Soft Power and Leadership," Compass: A Journal of Leadership, Spring 2004. Compass is published by the Center for Public Leadership, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

For more information on Compass, write to cpl@ksg.harvard.edu.

See the latest issue of Compass

Joseph S. Nye Jr. is the Sultan of Oman Professor of International Relations at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. From December of 1995 through June of 2004 he was Dean of the Kennedy School.