What is Soft Power ?

John is a 8 years old boy. Being a single child, he is the centre of attention of his parents. His mother Sally is concerned about the multiple demands John makes everyday. She knows that directly telling him about his wrong demands won’t work. So she devises a strategy. She buys a pack of CDs of movies which convey how bad or unacceptable is the habit of constantly seeking new things for self gratification.  The movies show what is the right way to live and how to value people and material things in life. Sally actually watched the movies together with John. After some days, she started seeing change in John’s behaviour. He has become less demanding and asks only for what is really required. So what did Sally do ? She used soft power. Instead of being strict and forcing John to change his behaviour, she actually influenced his way of thinking through enjoyable movies. This worked well both for John and Sally. Sally in a relaxed way managed to change John’s behaviour while John too had a smooth and conflict-free transition of his mindset.

So what do you think if any country instead of waging a war against other country, wins it by changing the mindset of that country ? Yes, this is a nice way of winning a nation without any warfare, killing, violence or destruction.  This is using “Soft Power” to win the country instead of the “Hard Power”. In politics, soft power is the ability to attract and co-opt, rather than coerce. It involves shaping the preferences of others through appeal and attraction.

It was in 1990 that Joseph Nye first introduced and explained this concept in his book. Soft power  works on the principle that “the best propaganda is not propaganda”. In today’s world of social media, one can easily build up a narrative and bias minds of masses to incline in the desired direction. Soft power can be wielded not just by countries but also by actors, NGOs or international institutions. With dish TV, internet, OTT and social media, there are so many narratives being propagated through movies, web series, documentaries,  Facebook, Whatsapp, Twitter.

A politician now doesn’t directly tell people to vote for him. He rather uses narratives on social media to influence their minds such that they automatically start identifying him as the best leader for whom they should vote. One will often find Christian missionaries using soft power to convert people to Christianity. The missionaries go on expounding the virtues of Jesus as the ultimate saviour of humanity and also dole out many goodies to the poor masses.  Eventually they manage to bring many people to the fold of Christianity. An increase in Christian population directly means more control over them by the European nations through the institution of Church.

America successfully raised its brand value by selling the ” The Great American Dream” to the world. It resulted in large influx of talented people from all over the world to America. Such a pool of talented people contributed exponentially towards the progress of America. Do you think America could have forcefully brought these people to America and made to work for them ? Never. The United States can dominate others, but it has also excelled in projecting soft power, with the help of its companies, foundations, universities, churches, and other institutions of civil society; U.S. culture, ideals, and values have been extraordinarily important in helping Washington attract partners and supporters.

The three pillars of soft power are: political values, culture, and foreign policy. Influencing nations through these areas will surely have a transforming effect on the nation’s basic thought and ideals. This doesn’t mean that hard power is not important at all. Hard power has  its own role too. But it is a costly affair. It is much easier and economical to use soft  power.  In fact a combination of hard and soft power should be used as “smart power”. 

Soft power is based on the ability to alter the preferences of others. In the business world, leaders 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 when policy is being made for community, it should be made sufficiently friendly and attractive that a community wants to help the policy formulators to achieve shared objectives.

Political leaders are beginning to understand that the hard power is not much effective every time. They are relying more  on their own ability to develop 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.

All said and done, soft power too has its own limitations. For example, it is impossible to change the mindsets of vast population in the Islamic world who believe in the supremacy of their own faith. Terrorist outfits are the result of such extremist thought process. In this scenario, exercising hard power is the better option.

Soft power has always been a key element of leadership.  Great leaders have always understood that attractiveness springs from credibility and legitimacy. Power is not exercised through arms and ammunition. The most evil dictators have relied on attraction equally as fear. Leadership and power are inseparable. Leaders have to make crucial choices about the types of power that they use. Leaders simply cannot ignore or devalue the significance of soft power.

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