Hard Decisions on Soft Power
Broadly defined, power is the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes one wants. One can affect other individuals’ behavior in three main ways: by threatening coercion (“sticks”), by offering inducements or payments (“carrots”), and by by making others want what one wants. A country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries want to follow it. They may display this desire by admiring the country’s values, emulating its example, or aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness. In this sense, it is not only important in world politics to force other countries to change by the threat or use of military or economic weapons, but also to set the agenda and attract others. This “soft power”—getting other countries to want the outcomes that a particular country wants—co-opts people rather than coerces them. In the debate about the rise of Chinese power and how it will affect the United States and global stability, one question that has received increasing attention in both countries is precisely that of China’s soft power. After more fully exploring soft power itself, this article explores the various aspects of this kind of power when applied to the Chinese context. To conclude, it considers how China can best use its soft power to be beneficial to the international community.
Soft power rests on the ability to shape the preferences of others. This type of power does not belong to any one country. Nor does soft power belong solely to countries. At the personal level, individuals know the power of attraction and seduction. Political leaders have long understood the power that comes from setting the agenda and determining the framework of a debate.
While not the same as influence, soft power serves as a source of influence. Influence can also rest on the hard power of threats or payments. And soft power represents more than just persuasion or the ability to move people by argument, though this constitutes a crucial part of this kind of power. Soft power also includes the ability to entice and attract. In behavioral terms, it means attractive power. In terms of resources, soft power resources are the assets that produce such attraction. Some resources can produce both hard and soft power. For example, a strong economy can produce important carrots for paying others, as well as a model of success that attracts others. Whether a particular asset is a soft power resource that produces attraction can be measured by asking people through polls or focus groups whether they like a country. That attraction may in turn produce desired policy outcomes. But the gap between power measured as resources and power judged as the outcomes of behavior is not unique to soft power. A similar disparity occurs with all forms of power. Before the fall of France in 1940, for example, Britain and France had more tanks than Germany, but that advantage in military power resources did not accurately predict the outcome of the battle.
In international politics, the resources that produce soft power arise in large part from the values an organization or country expresses in its culture, in the examples it sets by its internal practices and policies, and in the way it handles its relations with others. Governments sometime find it difficult to control and employ soft power, but that does not diminish its importance. The soft power of a country rests primarily on three resources: its culture (in places where it is attractive to others), its political values (when the country lives up to these values at home and abroad), and its foreign policies (when other nations see the country as a legitimate and moral authority).
China’s Soft Power
The dynamics of China’s soft power have changed significantly in the recent past, both in composition and in magnitude. China has always had an attractive traditional culture, but now it is entering the realm of global popular culture as well. Chinese novelist Gao Xingjian recently won China’s first Nobel prize for literature, and the Chinese film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” became the highest grossing non-English film. Yao Ming, the Chinese star of the National Basketball Association’s Houston Rockets, could become another Michael Jordan, and China hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics. The enrollment of foreign students in China has tripled from 36,000 to 110,000 over the past decade, and the number of foreign tourists has increased dramatically to 17 million last year. China has created some 200 Confucius Institutes around the world to teach its language and culture, and while the Voice of America was cutting its Chinese broadcasts from 19 to 14 hours a day, China Radio International was increasing its broadcasts in English to 24 hours a day.