Friday, December 7, 2012

Hard, Soft, Smart Power: A Quick Review

In the 1780s a significant shift occurred in the way man thought about thinking. Immanuel Kant suggested that man alone possessed rational thought.[1] Thoughts were distillations of man’s own imaginations and therefore afforded man the self-determined power of reason. This led to a revolutionary change regarding who determined morality which further suggested political power could be determined not only on materially inherited strength (realism theory) but on the strength of man-made ideas (liberalism). In the 1990s a similar shift occurred. The notion of power had been fixed on tangible, outward measures of coercion, i.e. military might and the purchasing power of a state’s economy. Joseph Nye suggested instead that an alternative form of power existed in the form of attraction or soft power. His re-defining power led to entirely new ways of conceptualizing international political relations because it recognized the relevance of realism foundations of tangible strength, such as hard power, as well as liberalism foundations of ideas. Foreign policy practitioners today attempt to synthesize his two domains of hard and soft power in pragmatic “smart power” strategies.


            Nye is the former Dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and he currently remains on the faculty as a Distinguished Service Professor.[2] He studied at Princeton, was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and earned a PhD in political science from Harvard University. Nye is not only an academic; his is also a policy practitioner serving through two administrations in the Defense, Intelligence and State departments.[3] As an academic and a policy practitioner, he thought deeply about the way states possess and use power. His most notable contributions to foreign policy revolve around his alternative interpretations of power.
            He first introduced the concept of soft power in his 1990 book, Bound to Lead, which was an attempt to argue against debates about an impending American hegemonic decline. He followed his specific soft power concept in an article for Foreign Policy that same year.[4] The concept stirred debates about power in academia, government policy offices, and the military.[5] However, the term soft power as a singular concept began to morph into misinterpreted meanings. Nye determined to clarify the debate by capturing his conceptual definition in a 2004 book, aptly titled Soft Power.[6] In 2011, he published a follow-up to Soft Power titled The Future of Power in which he synthesized the use of hard and soft power as a combined policy strategy, which he referred to as smart power.[7] Consequently, smart power is the Obama administration’s stated foreign diplomatic and military policy.[8] These concepts are not recently new to Nye, though.
            He derived these ideas of power from earlier academic work. Much of his thinking about power is a byproduct of collaborative work he did developing interdependent concepts with the esteemed liberal theorist, Robert Keohane. Together they attempted to explain that relatively simplistic realism views failed to interpret the reality of complex and interdependent relationships between states.[9] Their central theme of complex interdependence argued that military force could actually be subjugated by the complexity of reciprocal relationships, effectively marginalizing states’ reliance on military power.[10] In fact, they argued that power could be thought of as not only the ability to influence but also it could be “conceived in terms of control over outcomes.”[11]

Big Idea

            So, what is power according to Nye? First, traditional thinking about power relates to coercive measures one applies to another to force influence. Nye discusses this as the “carrot” and “stick” approach.[12] Realism theory defines “carrots” and “sticks” as generally economic and military means.[13] Therefore, international relations, viewed from a realism lens, tends to relate state power to economic and military strength. Thucydides demonstrates the classical example of this through his retelling of Athens’ interactions with the Peloponnesian League, specifically Sparta.[14] Nye argues that hard forms of power, such as a state’s economy and military, represent only one dimension of state-to-state interactions, and that the hard power dimension insufficiently explains why states act and react the way they do.[15] They represent a dimension that pushes a state’s ideals. However, Nye thinks that power is not only expressed outward.
            Instead, he suggests that an alternative dimension exists in which states’ ideas pull rather than push influence.[16] Soft power is a form of attraction. More specifically, the ability to get “others to want the outcomes that you want” is Nye’s definition of soft power.[17] Nye’s concept of soft power is not merely a theoretical one constrained to academic debate. It is a policy prescription useful for shaping the strategic direction of states’ foreign policy. Most recently, China incorporated soft power as a fundamental element of strategic outlooks. The Chinese Communist Party refers to soft power as one of several key strategic dimensions including military, economic, and diplomatic positioning.[18]
            Whereas Kant’s introduction of secular ideology created an alternative to realism fundamentals, Nye’s introduction of soft power created an alternative to hard power strategies. Nye has since taken his power theory a step further by synthesizing the power dyadic into what he now proposes as “smart power” for an age of competing complexities. Smart power is the balanced yet deliberate application of hard power deterrence, be it retaliatory or denial-of-benefits, and soft power attraction.[19] Interestingly, Nye has not pushed his hard, soft, and smart power concepts to distinguish between the efficacy of realism and liberalism. Instead, he implies that the adaptation of hard and soft power strategies supersedes political theories such that an admixture of fundamentals from predominant international relations theories comprises the essence of smart power.[20] Unfortunately, like Kant, Nye’s ideas remain nuanced and difficult to conceptualize. For instance, a common misinterpretation of Nye’s soft and smart power is that they somehow replace hard power, specifically military force.[21] Smart power is not an alternative to the use of force. Hard and soft powers complement each other. Nye argues smart power “is the skillful combination of both.”[22]


            Given that prolific thinkers, such as Colin Gray, misinterpret Nye’s concepts of power indicates that Nye created a seismic shift in the way people think about political international relations. He opened the door to a new way of interpreting power that provoked debate and stimulated practical foreign policy. Although previous notions of power as a function of military and economic strength remain prevalent, states today compete for advantages in soft power and seek ways to attract the desirability of their own outcomes.

Armitage, Richard L., and Joseph S. Jr. Nye. CSIS Commission on Smart Power. Commission Report, Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), 2007.
Congressional Research Service. China's Foreign Policy and "Soft Power" In South America, Asia, and Africa. A Study Prepared for the Committee on Foreign Relations United States Senate, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2008.
Gray, Colin S. Hard Power and Soft Power: The Utility of Military Force as an Instrument of Policy in the 21st Century. SSI Monograph, Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2011.
Kant, Immanuel. Toward Perpetual Peace and Other Writings on Politics, Peace, and History. Edited by Pauline Kleingeld. Translated by David L. Colclasure. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.
Kaufman, Daniel J., Parker Jay M., Patrick V. Howell, and Grant R. Doty. Understanding international relations. The McGraw Hill Companies, 2004.
Kroenig, Matthew, and Barry Pavel. "How to Deter Terrorism." The Washington Quarterly, Spring 2012: 21-36.
Lijun, Sheng. "China and the United States: Asymmetrical Strategic Partners." The Washington Quarterly, Summer 1999: 147-164.
McGiffert, Carola. Chinese Soft Power and Its Implications for the United States. A Report of the CSIS Smart Power Initiative, Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), 2009.
Morgenthau, Hans J. Politics Among Nations. 7th Edition. Edited by Kenneth W. Thompson, & W. David Clinton. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2006.
Nye, Joseph. "Soft power." Foreign Policy, Autumn 1990: 153-171.
Nye, Joseph S. Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. New York: Public Affairs, 2004.
Thucydides. The Landmark Thucydides. Edited by Robert B. Strassler. Translated by Richard Crawley. New York: Free Press, 1996.

[1] Kant, Ak 8:41, p. 22. This is what Kant refers to as enlightenment, which is actually man’s intellectual separation from the cognitive bondage of religion.
[2] For biographical information, see Nye’s faculty page at Additionally, several versions of his CV are available through the Harvard Kennedy School website.
[3] Nye served as the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs and the Chair of the National Intelligence Council during the Clinton administration, and the Deputy Under Secretary of State for Security Assistance, Science and Technology during the Carter administration.
[4] Nye published an article titled Soft Power that year in which he attempted to explain his alternative power concept.
[5] An example of these debates is seen in Sheng Lijun’s Washington Quarterly article in which he discusses how China needs to improve soft power by improving its political, social, and intellectual power. See p. 155.
[6] Nye argues that analysts such as Lijun mistake soft power for seemingly “soft” things. See Nye, Soft Power p. 12.
[7] He introduced the term smart power as a concluding thought in his 2004 book. To hear more about how and why Nye merged hard and soft power concepts into smart power listen to his interview with Harry Kreisler available at
[8] For the Department of States policy on the use of smart power see fact sheet American “Smart Power” at This fact sheet from 2009 has since been updated in April 2011, available at
[9] In 1977 Keohane and Nye published Power and Interdependence: World Politics in Transition, which argued that the world was transitioning to a greater state of dependency between political states.
[10] Keohane and Nye, as cited in Kaufman et al., p. 512.
[11] Keohane and Nye, as cited in Kaufman et al., p. 506.
[12] Nye, Soft Power, p. 5.
[13] Morgenthau, p. 133. Hans Morgenthau defines political realism as a basic struggle for power. He argues that what characterizes superpowers is their self-sufficiency, a function of industrial capacity, which is realized through military preparedness.
[14] Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War is a classical text that is generally accepted as the foundation of realism theory in international political relations. It emphasizes power as the basis for political motivations.
[15]Nye, Soft Power (1990), p. 167.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Nye, Soft Power, p. 5. Note the similarity between Nye’s definition of soft power and that of his 1977 concept of power in general.
[18] CRS China Foreign Policy, p. 9. Additionally see CSIS report, p. 2. The CSIS report is a collection of essays discussing China’s pursuit of soft power. The CRS study is one of two studies conducted in 2008 examining China’s soft power diplomatic and economic strategies and their implications for U.S. foreign policies.
[19] Kroenig and Pavel, p. 23. They discuss a broader theme of power, deterrence and suggest that deterrence generally occurs as retaliatory or to deny benefits. Both kinds of deterrence are representative of hard power “carrot” and “stick” approaches.
[20] Armitage and Nye, p. 68. Specifically Nye (and Armitage) notes, “It is simply false to say that come presidents are realists while others are idealists. Every decision in Washington always has elements of both.”
[21] Gray, p. 48. Colin Gray for instance mistakes the premise of smart and soft power arguing that “Military force is not under threat of obsolescence because of the availability of ‘smart’ soft power alternatives.”
[22] Armitage and Nye, p. 7.


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Thank you for commenting. I appreciate your interest in the topic. It adds a little more to how we understand our world.