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Friday, 21 February 2014 10:06
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Theory on and approach to soft power

A nation's power includes not only its hard power (geographical - population, economic, military factors) but also its soft power (political institution, ideology and national strategies (state leaders), and the will of the people in implementing strategies, social values, international relations). Therefore, the study of a country’s soft power should be taken under overall consideration of its comprehensive power.

Soft power is an integral part of the comprehensive national power

J. Nye’s theory on soft power is based on three main basic grounds. First, the culture of a nation (its appeal to other countries). Second, the political ideology and domestic policy. Third, the foreign policy and the values that it is meant to convey. Diplomatic messages of a country should have the values consistent with its internal social values, rather than a diplomatic fool that conceals its intrinsic flaws. So, a country can only hold its appeal to the outside world if it is a transparent and open society.

In fact, soft power's advantages are not restricted to its growth or decline based on hard power, but has its own and independent values. Soft power is a kind of synergic strength. It is comprised of more than the three elements as pointed out by J. Nye. It may include: 1) Political institution (mostly political ideology and the quality of the structure of power), 2) Strategic thought about national development (vision, the comprehensiveness of domestic and foreign, defensive and offensive policies,); 3) National unity and the consensus between the leaders and the people; 4) national traditions (in economic, military, cultural and social fields).

In some cases, the national comprehensive power is mainly based on soft power. These apply mostly to countries with small territory and population, but have high levels of development in terms of democratic political institutions, human rights, economics, science and technology, education and training, and natural environment, thus earning them a strong appeal unrivaled by any other world powers. Examples include Switzerland in Europe, and Singapore in the Southeast Asia. These small countries have big voice on the world political arena. They represent the noble values​​ and ideals of all forward-looking societies and cause no geopolitical threat (territorial annexation). Therefore, we can refer to them as "super-soft powers".

The characteristics of soft power

According to J. Nye, soft power has three characteristics: 1) Soft power represents attractiveness and charm but not coercion or compulsion. A country can make another country learn from it and follow its will through the diffuseness of its culture, social ideology and institution and therefore can carry out its ​​national strategic objectives; 2) Soft power reflects a country's capability to set out and develop international institutions which represent the new form of power mentioned by neo-realism and neo-liberalism; 3) Soft power is internationally recognizable for its values or institution, or acceptable in its judging of the international system. Recognized power helps a nation achieve the legitimacy in the international arena.

 It should be stressed that soft power must be and always be the beauty and appeal from within the society (domestic policy). It is absolutely alien to any kind of polishing, concealing or distorting. In this regard, this power's fundamental attractiveness and beauty are its values ​​of freedom for humans, its guarantee for a spiritual and material life, and its respect for the dignity of the individual and the community.

Furthermore, the internal beauty and attractiveness of a country’s society should be of universal values​​, consistent with most of the aspirations of the nations and individuals in the modern world. If the system of attractive values ​​fits only some certain social stratum, especially the ruling class or the ruling party in a society, then it is absolutely not the genuine soft power.

Soft power is both particular and universal

In culture, people often emphasize the unique particularities of a nation or the nationality which shape its identity. But the problem is that, in the building of comprehensive national power, too much emphasis on the particularities will degrade the nation's ability to universalize or to win the hearts and minds of other peoples. This goes against the goal of implementing soft power. Thus, to build national soft power, a country should focus on developing its universal and ideal characteristics capable of meeting the aspirations of people on the planet. In today’s era, they are peace, freedom, democracy, the clean environment, a guaranteed material and spiritual life, regardless of what the society is named and by whom it is led.

The peculiarity and universality of soft power can create an intermediate form: the soft power of a region or a type of region. European (EU/Western) countries today are seen as ideals (despite their temporary difficulties). European countries boast their diverse cultures and institutions, but share similar characteristics and general advantages from their soft power (the harmony between economic development and social welfare, democratic politics and the Rule of law, the balance among politics and culture, society, environment protection and sustainable development). Meanwhile, the "Asian values” are still a topic of debate and doubt among the circles of world politicians and researchers.

Some rules in the use of power

A general rule in politics is that competitive forces often fear one another. This is true among countries, especially among big powers. They always fear and suspect one another. As for the principle of power, all powerful forces are suspicious because each is a potential enemy to the other; even when influential countries are enjoying their "honeymoon," they don't cease to probe and spy each other's behavior to know the real intention of their partners. Once caught off guard, a country will have to pay a dear price, because every of its political behavior is for its own sake. In 1948, British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston once stated that Britain had no permanent allies or sworn enemies but paramount national interests. According to J. Nye, this viewpoint is based on two things. First, the international political structure is an unorganized system of countries. Second, each country often puts its own interests in the top place.

Some peculiar rules can be found in the use of soft power, as follow:

(1) For a country to compete against or win over its opponent, its soft power often precedes hard power. This is because each country often wants to build a friendly and constructive profile beneficial to its partner, which can win the hearts of the leaders and later the people of its partner country. This is also the most cost-saving solution with long-term and sustainable effectiveness to international competition. For this sake, statesmen often talk about taking measures to strengthen trust in international relationships in which any country may avoid “misunderstanding” its partner's military or political behaviors in the region and the world. The concern here is about the limitations of such trust: Will it be turned into "gullibility" and thus lead to failure in the future?

(2) The use of soft power is often accompanied with economic incentives such as aid, facilitation of trade and customs tariffs reduction for partner countries, making them feel as being "favored".

(3) A powerful country often applies its soft power to its neighboring countries and those which have long been influenced from its culture, politics, especially those which share the same language, script, religion, political institution and ideology with it. The use of soft power will then become more effective if the country has a large community of immigrants from the conquering power.

(4) In the era of internet, soft power has the conditions to unleash its potentiality thanks to the global network, the digital TV technology, etc. The limitations of space and time become meaningless. Since hard power's factors are often constituted of spatially physical characteristics (quantity, distance, speed of the vehicles) and so, its tools cannot in a flash reach and conquer the target. Thus, the tools of soft power prove their supremacy over those of hard power.

Assoc. Prof., Dr. LUONG VAN KE           

Faculty of International Studies, Vietnam National University

of Social Sciences and Humanities, Hanoi



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