Soft power and it’s limits

Version révisée pour le séminaire anglophone de l’ENA

Soft power ? A systematic way to make the other party wish what you want ? Who wouldn’t be attracted by such a program ? It suggests to please to appease, to be seductive to shape the minds, to make other people share your values, to get international support… Or the contrary.

The success of the concept, in economics and geopolitics is symptomatic : the idea that you could gain power – i.e. increase the probability that the other will behave the way you wish – softly, without using violence or negotiating has everything to please the occidental elites. The soft power and the hope of expanding it to the rest of the world are appealing to those who already tasted some sweetness from their political and economic position and to those who are not too dissatisfied with the world as it is. When a single word serves so many purposes, it legitimately raises ideological suspicions.

Such ambiguities have a relationship with the evolution of the meaning of the word itself , but also with it’s semantic « ecology » (the other words it replaces or generates) and with its « mediology » – i.e. the material ways and means of such a « spiritual » process-.


The term appears for the first time in a book by an academic who served under the Carter and Clinton administrations, Joseph S. Nye in his1990 book, Bound to lead. Since then, hard, soft, or, a little bit later, smart power have become common categories in geopolitic debates, immediately understandable by power circles from Brazil to Japan.

Naturally, the idea of elaborating positive strategies to attract (exporting a model, presenting a favourable image of one’s country) or negative ones to demonise an opponent, to create havoc among it’s allies or supporters, to it.., are anything but new. Such strategies combine to a certain degree persuasive ideologies, lifestyles, economical models, cultural prestige, instrumentalising international organisations, networks, spreading a language, some intellectual, technical, juridical norms, religious proselytism…

Without even referring the Sun Zi, Alexander the Great who succeeded in spreading the greek aesthetic models or made himself recognised as the descent of local gods, could be considered as a genius of soft power with an advance of 24 centuries. But when J.S. Nye used the neologism it was at the right time, in the right country for a receptive audience. The program of shaping the word, mostly by seduction and attractiveness is typical from this period.

This syncretic notion refers to :

– a presumption of attractiveness based on the idea that any normal well informed individual should wish to share the American way of life, the American dream, the US liberty, system and icons

a component of prestige. The 2 H & 2 M principle is quite eloquent : Hollywood for the mainstream culture which pleases everybody, Harvard for the top of science, Microsoft for technology, and MacDonalds for American consumption worldwide. Who could resist ? To sum it up what the others seek to imitate.

a policy : showing ostensible good will, being friendly to other countries… : an open foreign policy, and a strategy of benevolence sufficient not to spoil the advantage of the leading nation

In Nye’s view, soft power appears as a sort of immaterial capital to be measured in terms of exemplarity and conformity. Exemplarity of national performances, prosperity and desirability of a social and political system. Conformity of the products and symbols which will satisfy everybody’s tastes and express a mainstream culture : it ranges from Spiderman to Faulkner or from hamburger to computer. Exerting soft power appears as a way of saving energy : less means of constraint or less force would be necessary to continue prevailing, but also less money, less subventions and less counterparts. During a first period, in the 90’s, soft power appeared as a way to replace hard power or, at least, make it least necessary. Such a capital should prosper if not spoiled by unnecessarily provocative or authoritarian attitudes. Should the private companies -like CNN who became the channel which provides images to the whole world- do the job instead of the state, it would be even more beneficial. « Let it be » sounds as a very simple program.

Some of the means sound as a modern reformulation of classical influence diplomacy : keep networks in allied countries, give one’s nation best image (branding)… Some appear as modernised ways of propagating ideology on the basis of principles dating back to the beginning of the XXth century : helping friendly political parties abroad, propagating messages intended for « wining their hearts and minds » and showing the excellence of one’s national model. Nye also recommends positive attitudes -favouring the Nation’s attractiveness, making subtly the international agenda and keeping a clear consciousness of one’s assets -values, culture, political practises-. He also advocates a positive governmental strategy which could favour communication with other peoples and a multilateral attitude to encourage allie’s cooperation.

To professor’s Nye credit, besides giving a sexy name to ancient practises, he clearly felt that civil society would play a bigger role and that increasing soft power is not something which can be monitored from the White House ; it requires a synergy with NGO, creators, media and cultural industries. Nye also has the merit of pointing the relationship between communication technologies and beliefs and the link between culture and ideology : the faculty which demonstrates US to export mass culture as well as elite or vanguard culture.

Is soft power a descriptive or prescriptive notion ? On one side, it appears as an idealisation of American predominance considered as an universal principle. On the other side, it sounds as a program which could be duplicated by other, in the perspective of a global governance. Or to put it straight : a mixture of narcissism and wishful thinking reflecting a temporary historic trend or a new key to History ?

A partial answer was given by the success of the method in the rest of the world, various countries experimenting variations of the initial concept :

Winning new markets by promoting norms or economical and cultural behaviours, weighting on the decisions of international organisations, having allies. animating political or religious networks abroad, using professional services to promote one’s national branding, using NGO’s and moral or cultural authorities, not to mention financing international Tv informations channels or on line publications : there is probably no Nation who did not have a try. Israël has initiated « hasbarah » campaigns (meaning more or less « explanation ») through networks of sympathisers and campaigns online. Even Switzerland tried to correct it’s image by « Nation Branding ». Not to mention Qatar (soccer and al Jazeera) and Bahrain (contemporary art and architecture). It could be aesthetic styles and genres (like Japanese manga) or any element that creates familiarity with a countries way of thinking or its accomplishments is more efficient than explicit messages like « we are leading a just war » or « our economical policy is triumph » by official channels.

China, which explicitly uses the term « soft power », is obviously leading a great seduction operation which includes Confucius institutes, national cinematographic industry, information Tv in several languages, great events like the Olympic Games of 2008 (with it’s incredible opening ceremony directed by Zhan Yimou), constant references to Silk Roads and any stereotype that speaks to the western imagination. Is Russia’s soft power negligible ? The over reaction of the American military circle to the supposed incredible efficiency of Putin’s « disinformation » through media like Russia Today (a sort of reversed Voice of America half a century later), social networks and populist circles in Europe, proves the contrary.

And France ? Without going back to Louis the XIVth whose prestige policy was renowned, there is a tradition of cultural diplomacy (the « Alliance Française » was created in 1883 with the explicit purpose of making international elites more francophile, the same idea which inspired cultural attachés and international media like Radio France Internationale, TV5 or France 24 etc.). It goes with the idea of being the universal Nation of human rights but also with various public institutions and governmental agencies devoted to cinema, books, etc. Recently the notions of economic diplomacy and sport diplomacy confirmed this very french trend to rsearch influence .

Obviously there is an international competition of seduction as if every Nation wanted to convince every foreign citizen.


What happens when hard times come back and when the « universal Nation » realises that it has enemies again and not only competitors ? After 911, the US discovered the problem of « why do they hate us ? » ; is one had to integrate the notion that CNN and GAFA were not the best tools to wane a metaphysical hostility formulated by Al Qaeda : a defensive jihad to retaliate for the secular persecution led by Crusaders and Jews (bad news : ISIS has since shifted toward an « offensive » jihad).

Besides invading Afghanistan, one of the most US significative reactions was a semantic one : soft power became « smart » an public diplomacy became fashionable again.

For instance, J.S. Nye produced the mantra of smart power -immediately endorsed by her admirer Hillary Clinton-. The idea is to use (smartly) a combination of military strategies, political, economical, but also cultural ones and communication. Some might object that this phraseology refers to a millennial practise : sometimes you negotiate, sometimes you fight, sometimes seduce… Pericles and many other practised that policy, which could be labelled as realism. But the idea was successful. Formerly everything that was soft was more or less labelled as a democrat program, while Republicans tended to favour « public diplomacy ». Created during the Cold War, celebrated by Ronald Reagan as a great contribution to the fall of the Wall, public diplomacy has a clearly more aggressive tone : it’s a weapon in view of the ideological fight between the two blocks. This strange diplomacy, who addresses peoples abroad and not by diplomatic channels, was a reply to the the popularity of marxism among « brother » parties and intelligentsia. During several decades, the American taxpayer’s money served to finance broadcasting in various foreign languages and exporting cultural contents to counter the world’s view dominating on the other side of the Iron Curtain. This was mostly the work of the US Information Agency. Human networks were not neglected : many future leaders or opinion-leaders were invited to visit Usa and discover it’s « real image ».

Of course during the 90’s the disappearance of a the main enemy (and the perspective of liquidating the last archaic autocrats who were obstructing to new World order) were not in favour of an offensive public diplomacy. Not was the apparent fact that CNN and mainstream cultural industries were doing the job of making US popular much better than would a bureaucratic State agency. The same was said about Internet (at that time the Web 1.0 version) who should unify the world by the virtues of technology.

After nine-eleven some old reflexes were automatically reactivated : the second reaction of G.W. Bush, just after bombing Afghanistan, was to recreate an Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy. Public Diplomacy was back again. It was supposed to have disappeared with the USSR, as his defunct function – encouraging dissent, leading a subversive action against an ideological system and making the occidental system more attractive to better infirmed Russians, Serbs, Germans, etc. -. The methods who were used against a centralised and territorial bureaucracy had to be reshaped to fight a borderless ideology of a clandestine voluntary network

But public diplomacy was appealing again to the West. Germany got it’s politische Öffentlichkeitsarbeit, Netherland it’s publieksdiplomatie and Nato had soon it’s own Public Diplomacy Division. The slogan of « new public diplomacy » appeared to designate a less centralised policy which would also e channeled by NGO and social networks, but the general idea remained the same.

Nowadays, it’s more difficult to distinguish a soft power policy (supposedly left wing) from a public diplomacy (presumed to be more conservative), as the flourishing concepts the leading circles love to produce like strategic influence, e-diplomacy, psyops, storytelling, don’t contribute to clarification…

Public diplomacy which implies the deconstruction of the adverse ideology and soft power which evokes a more inclusive or seductive approach appear as the two poles of a new current. Once abandoned the innocent belief that everybody wants to be like us, if only connected to the Net, and once reconsidered the idea that hostility and ideological competition were obsolete, the distinction becomes less sensitive.

Three main trends seem to emerge. Syncretism : public diplomacy is more and more conceived as a way to an end restoring a soft power which does not prevail so automatically. Privatisation : while States and their armies rediscover the alchemy of influence, private actors like the Soro’s Open Society or the Albert Einstein Foundation seek to exert a greater ideological influence, including by monitoring dissident national groups. Virtualisation : the all process tends to move from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0. While big companies tend to develop their influence online and rely so much on their community managers to protect them, no wonder that armies, governmental or non governmental organisations tend to do the same.


Beyond the old question of delivering the right « message » and channelling it to as much people as possible, unexpected problematics surged. Mc Luhan’s mantra « Message is medium » has to be reinterpreted.

First of all because occidental elites were prone to overestimate the intrinsic democratic power of Internet. The so called Arab Spring made popular the hypothesis that social media allowing anyone to get informed, to express himself and to cooperate with his peers would automatically guarantee the victory of democrats versus the old fashioned autocrats who used to spread their propaganda from top to bottom. Experience showed that things became different when cyber dissidents ha to go into a classical electoral process and that, due to their « learning curve », dictators or jihadists were not bad at using social media. Technologically modern tools do not guarantee the predominance of politically correct contents, nor does it filter archaic ideas.

The second factor is that technology besides opening the game of influence to new actors, also changes the rules of efficiency. It evolves from the logic of delivering an inherently persuasive rhetoric to wider possible audience, to catching attention and trust to make every target a potential cooperator.

On one side, conducting a national influence policy cannot be a short term activity : if it is deliberate, it has to rely on a coherent policy and a constant strategic scope. Influence does not come out of the blue, but it has to integrate historical memories and existing stereotypes on a people, it’s character, it’s food, it’s representative great men, its customs and culture, it’s political ambitions, etc.

But even taking into account those limits, influence policies can greatly vary by their forms and by their scopes. Obviously exacerbating the other block’s contradiction (promising to the people behind the Wall a prosperity and a freedom they dreamed of), celebrating the globalisation as an irresistible and glorious sense of History, or trying to convince jihadists that they should abandon « violent extremism » in favour of « moderate islam » are three different tasks.

They require specific messages and the last one – directed toward would be jihadists – is anything but clear in its present form. Counter-propaganda generally hesitates between :

– revealing to the focused audience « truths » what every newspaper or Tv on the world keeps repeating several times a day : if you go to Syria you will kill and die.The problem is that it is exactly what they wants to do : practise hijrah to live under the caliphate’s law, jihad to avenge the persecution endured by the true monotheists and martyrdom to win Paradise.

– reducing the attraction of jihad to a psychological or sociological problem, maybe to an historic resentment due to a bad interpretation : nothing that could be cured by a form of assistance and pedagogy.

« demonstrating » one’s benevolence -we don’t hate Islam and it has nothing to due with authentic religion.

for the most audacious naming the enemy – Salafi jihadist doctrine – instead of referring to mysterious entities like « violent extremism » or « radicalism ».

We are not very efficient at formulating the right « counter » message – the one who would concurrence the promise of heaven, plus the perspective of conquering the world after a last eschatological battle, plus the opportunity to retaliate for any humiliation ever suffered by moslems.

Worst, influence does not rely only on the good message and sufficient public funds. Getting the right media is also a necessity : it appears crucial once you realise that national mass media, even with the support international satellite Tv did convince a good part of the planet’s minds. Therefore, the problem of controlling social media and prohibiting « their » message to be accessible becomes a priority (a paradox five years after everybody celebrated the uncontrolled Google or Twitter revolutions in Arab countries). The chosen answer often combines censorship with more sophisticated methods, like Jigsaw from Google whose’s algorithms are suppose to monitor suspicious requests and to send those who could be searching for jihadist contents to good deradicalisation contents. But the specificity of social media and on line communities is a part of the problem : it creates semi-private spaces which are ideal for a group who wishes to reject the rest of the world and to confirm itself into his faith.

The limit of soft power’s attractiveness is also the mental ecology of those who have already adopted a different code : for instance, advocating democracy to those who ate already convince that any form of man’s law is an offence to God’s law has a limited effect. Mediation is also a decisive factor : human beings are influenced by human beings and the Isis doctrine is spread by corespondents, members of the same community, not only the sudden contact of young minds with shocking images.

Social networks are the field of a new competition to catch attention (visitors, followers, « likers », new members, links, recommendations, quotations…), what certain would call gaining e-influence. A game where the strong and the affluent is not necessarily the winner when it comes to attracting more than distributing. For instance the effective visibility of messages can be altered by the simple enthusiasm of militant communities or by simple cheating. Recently the existence of « Kremlin trolls » was revealed : employees are paid to intervene systematically on the discussions on line to express a view favourable to Russia or to literally sabotage the debate. But recently and at a very modest scale, UE also financed a brigade of « e-influencers ». And the process known as « astroturfing » and which consists into creating a false movement of the opinion by creating false on line supporters (in reality simple algorithms) concerns hundred of


In 2016 “post-truth” was awarded “word of the year” by the Oxford dictionaries. The success of this vocabulary (or the obsession of fake news) reflects a sort of panic of the elites and media. First they fear that a foreign power like Russia, resorting to the influence of it’s international media (like Rossia Today tv and radio) but using also ideologically favourable human and digital networks, paying hackers to steal sensible information and leak political scandals, providing disinformation and fake news, etc. could exert a form of subversion.

Secondly, those elites were panicked after Trump’s election and tended to put the blame on “alternative facts” who became so popular on certain social networks or on a sort of scepticism of the lower or less educated classes : they would not trust news provided by professional

media, but they would accept any fake, any conspiracy theory, or anything which would flatter their emotions and prejudices.

Clearly, the experts, the intellectuals, the journalists, the politicians, etc. who were supposed to produce soft power and ideological consensus feel challenged by the new foreign influential power (Russia, China) and by the skepticism of their own peoples, especially when they feel attracted to populism

Message, Media, Mental world, Mediations : each step can be an obstacle. But bigger « M » problem could be the Problem of « meta » : meta-beliefs or meta-values, the principle that are beyond. And obviously, in the opposition with the jihadi fascination for instance, our main handicap is our incapacity to understand choices who are commanded by such a different logic. After all, our soft power is revealing more on what we are and we think erroneously to be universal than on what are the others and how they might change.

– Soft power. ENA


Attracting and convincing : a long story


– Persuasion

– Rhetorics

– Propaganda

– Advertising

– Ideology

– Public Diplomacy

Soft Power as a global strategy

Power of the name

– Selling war

– Nation Branding

– Smart Power

– Utopia 2.0

– Counter speech

– Cyberpower


Human networks and organizations

Mainstream Culture

– Spin doctors

– Elites

– Lobbying


– Think tanks

– Federal agencies


Mass Media

– International TV

– Networks

– Gafam

– Confronting other sot powers

– Fakes, hack, leaks

– Post-truth era ?


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