School of Media and Communication

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The Limits of Soft Power by K Ogoura

The Limits of Soft Power

By Kazuo Ogoura, President, Japan Foundation

The concept of soft power has been the subject of debate for quite some time now. The debate was ignited by Joseph Nye, and the soft power concept developed in the United States , where it has been used in connection with the notion of public diplomacy. The concept suits Japan 's status as a country that is constitutionally unable to carry out any international respon­sibilities involving military power but keen to carry out other, nonmilitary international cooperation, and so there has been much discussion of soft power in this country. The concept of soft power has also been used to represent the power of Japanese culture overseas, also known as "Japanese cool."

During this process, however, the concept has been distorted, misused, and - in extreme cases - abused. With confusion surrounding the concept of soft power and its original meaning still poorly understood, there is a risk that it will become nothing more than a hollow catchphrase. In order to clear up such misunderstandings, I would like to delve back to the origins of this concept and analyze some examples of its use. Through this analysis, I will show how soft power is in danger of being ensnared in a kind of hypocrisy.


Needless to say, the essence of the soft power concept lies in the word soft. Nye originally coined this term to describe a third type of power that was neither military nor economic in character (see the table). Since then, however, the idea has emerged that all nonmilitary power is soft, giving rise to confusion surrounding the meaning of "soft." "Hard power" for Nye means any method that is coercive, in other words, anything that involves compulsion or threats. Methods in which the other party is encouraged to accept something in some way of its own free will, he termed "soft power."

There is, however, an undeniable weak spot in Nye's argument. The problem is that if compulsion or threats are used in conjunction with soft power, much will depend on whether one is viewing the situation from the perspective of the party exercising the power or from that of the party coming under pressure. Regardless of whether or not the party exercising power actually has coercive or threatening designs, when seen from the viewpoint of the target of this power - the party under pressure - there is always going to be some perception of threat or coercion. For example, when forming a multinational force without a resolution from the United Nations, the United States has been known to apply political pressure as a form of "soft" persuasion to "help" other countries decide whether or not to participate in the force. Can it really be said that this is neither coercive nor threatening?

A further problem with the soft power concept concerns technology. Soft power is generally seen as referring to values and culture, but if soft power is to be ranked alongside military and economic power, shouldn't greater importance also be attached to technological power? It is possible to argue that technology comes under the umbrella of economic power, or that military technology is included in military power, but how should technology be positioned vis-à-vis the standard elements of soft power, like culture and ideas? This question requires closer consideration.

Another reason for the misunderstandings surrounding the concept of soft power is confusion over who or what actually exercises this power. Power is generally thought of as something wielded by states, governments, or public authorities, but the argument has developed in some quarters that soft power is instead suited to use by nongovernmental organizations or citizens' groups. However, NGOs differ from states in that they lack the economic or physical power to impose their positions on others; we therefore need to be rather cautious about using the concept of power in this context. What NGOs can do is play a part in shaping public opinion, which in turn has a bearing on how and to what extent governments (states) use power; in other words, the NGOs should be seen as indirect media rather than power-wielding actors in their own right.

All of these problems have arisen because there is confusion in the debate over where soft power is exercised. Soft power should be discussed in connection with the exercise of power in the international community rather than in the context of domestic politics. Domestically, the state wields economic and physical coercive power through such means as tax collection and law enforcement. The international community, however, has neither a single body for maintaining public order nor any means of economic coercion; in short, it has no united government. It makes no sense, therefore, to discuss the exercise of power in the international community in the same dimension as the exercise of power at domestic level. (It is not correct, for example, to view US domestic public opinion during the Vietnam War as a type of soft power.)

One blind spot in the soft power concept is the confusion over the source of this power. For Nye and many others, the power of soft power lies in "attraction." The problem with this idea, however, is that it views things from the perspective of the party exercising power. Seen from the viewpoint of the party being influenced by the power, the question of whether accepting the power accords with this party's own interests is likely to be a far more important consideration than the attraction of the power. Here we must keep in mind that sovereign nations in the international community act not on the basis of likes and dislikes but in accordance with their own interests. No matter how attractive a given country may be, other countries will not accept its attractive power if it obstructs their freedom of action or adversely affects their economic interests. Hollywood movies, for instance, are often cited as a source of American soft power, but in France they have been subject to partial restriction precisely because of their attractiveness.

The justness and legitimacy of the exercise of power is often an issue in relation to the source of soft power. However, legitimacy is bound to be an issue regardless of whether the power is hard or soft. The fact that hard power is sometimes exercised without legitimacy stems from a peculiar way of thinking about the use of hard power, and this is a great problem. It is important to note that within the international community the exercise of military and nonmilitary power is basically the same - or, rather, it is when the power is military in nature that there is a need for strict legitimacy in its use. (But whereas military power can exert a coercive influence however vague its legitimacy, when the justification for the use of soft power is tenuous this can prompt the party on the receiving end to resist or refuse the power, preventing the party exercising the power from achieving its aims.) The other side of this problem is the need to consider just what the international justification for military action might be. Leaving this issue to one side, though, it is certainly problematic to regard the legitimacy of soft power as the source of its clout.


What are the constituent elements that make up soft power, and are there any precise indices for quantifying it? Movies, anime (animated films), ideas, ideology, and language are often cited as concrete examples of soft power; many regard the English language as a particularly compelling example. Yet viewed from the perspective of people learning English, it is clear that a great many of them study the language not because it is in some way attractive or because it is indispensable for taking part in the decision-making process of international politics but because it serves their commercial interests. And if that is the case, then perhaps language is best viewed as nothing more than a commercial asset, and perhaps linking language with the concept of power is tantamount to confusing language as a means of communicating ideas with the ideas that are communicated.

Some regard the number of foreign students that come to study at a country's universities as an indicator of that country's soft power, but this is not convincing. The weakness of this argument becomes quite apparent when we consider the large number of people educated at US universities who are nonetheless anti-American and the fact that many of the terrorists who have carried out attacks in recent years were educated in the United States .

Regarding scholarship and culture as one of the sources of soft power implies approval of the commercialization of culture and of linking culture with the power structure. Yet scholarship and culture are by rights independent of political power. Very often, in fact, they are a means of resisting authority, and the idea that this is their rightful role is well established. Even if the arts or scholarship have the potential to serve as one face of power, therefore, there remain serious doubts as to whether it is acceptable for governments to actually use them.


If all of the above points are considered together, it is clear that soft power as an actual political theory is loaded with ideology and riddled with contradictions and hypocrisy. Religion and ideology, for example, are seen by some as potent examples of soft power. Looking back through history, however, one cannot fail to notice that whenever religion and ideology have spread around the world, they have invariably been accompanied by military might. History teaches us that soft power needs to be backed by hard power, and this is something that many soft power theorists are now recognizing.

It is possible, therefore, to see soft power as no more than a means of rationalizing the exercise of hard power. Describing the use of military force as a "war on terror" is a deft use of soft power. Labeling the use of force with the ideology of a righteous struggle against terrorism is a means of legitimizing military action undertaken without the consent of the international community. To put it another way, we need to be aware that soft power can be a subtle way of rationalizing military action that lacks international legitimacy by bringing into play the concept of good and evil. In this light, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the concept of soft power is a kind of hypocrisy.

Taking the above into consideration, it is clear that considerable caution is called for if Japan is to use the concept of soft power as a means of exercising its national might in the international community. Japan currently possesses almost no hard power of the sort used in the international arena, and only an extremely small part of the country's economic power comes under the control of the state. Even the use of official development assistance as power is subject to severe constraints. Japan extends its ODA on a by-request basis in accordance with recipients' wishes; furthermore, as a result of criticism that the aid was being used simply to bolster Japan 's image, there is now far more emphasis on reaching consensus with donor countries and coordinating aid with international organizations. The use of economic force in the form of sanctions is also highly problematic, because Japan is far too dependent on other countries both as providers of natural resources and as export markets for its products.

Insofar as Japan has little or no leeway to exert coercive force through the use of hard or economic power, which is a precondition for the exercise of soft power, it is doubtful whether using soft power in tandem with public diplomacy can be truly effective. There is the popular argument, based on the "Japanese cool" concept, that Japanese culture should be thought of as a form of national power, but to remove from the equation the issue of who will use this power and to what ends renders this argument meaningless.

It may well be desirable for the sort of cultural content embodied in "Japanese cool" to spread naturally around the world through market forces or people's efforts, but this will not necessarily lead to an increase in understanding of Japan . Those on the receiving end of contemporary cultural activities either from or related to Japan, such as anime or fashion, are not necessarily aware of any Japanese connection. Indeed, we should bear in mind that linking culture to the state carries a high risk of impeding, rather than promoting, the spread of cultural activities around the world.

The view that culture is a form of power is connected to the belief that there is a self-evident link between culture and the state, but this belief is itself fatally flawed. The worldwide spread of Japanese culture is a manifestation not of Japanese power but of how the notion of state-based power is gradually losing its meaning in an increasingly globalized world. If the concept of soft power has any benefit, therefore, this benefit comes not from its use by the state but from the power of people engaged in cultural, religious, or educational activities to cultivate a common global awareness, increase creativity, and enrich the international community as a whole. The term "soft power" should be used only in this sense.

This article was translated from "Sofuto pawa ron no shikaku," Wochi Kochi (a quarterly journal by the Japan Foundation,) June/July 2006, pp. 60-65 by Japan Echo Inc. and reproduced from Japan Echo, Vol. 33, No.5 (October, 2006).

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