Soft power will continue to decline. In the increasingly polarized world, the United States will seek to preserve its power by all available means, while the rising powers will aim at improving their international position including by obstructing the power of hegemon.
The discussion on soft power in international relations rings increasingly hollow. While the world events demonstrate a limited utility of this instrument in defending national objectives, states continue to attribute an excessive weight to soft power underestimating other tools of statecraft.
When Joseph Nye first introduced the concept of soft power in the 1990s, he meant to highlight growing prominence of American values and the importance of sharing them for economic and political success in the increasingly global world. Soft power is the ability to influence others by example thereby encouraging cooperation, not competition, among states. At the time, the U.S. power was at its historic peak, and other nations were flocking to win its political and economic support.
Today, however, the world is in transition toward a post-West-centered order. Structurally, we still live in the familiar world of American primacy, yet dynamically the world is moving toward forming post-hegemonic international rules. In this brave new age of transition, competition and confrontation are at least as important as cooperation - not least in the area of values, media, and ideology. Many non-Western nations such as Russia, China, and Iran feel threatened by the U.S. strategy of regime changes in the Middle East, to which they respond by promoting their own values. They remain skeptical of the liberal cooperation recommendations in the inherently hierarchical world especially given Nye’s own argument that soft power “is not just a matter of ephemeral popularity; it is a means of obtaining outcomes the United States wants.”
At least three developments illustrate the decline of soft power.
First, we are witnessing new areas of violence and lawlessness from Ukraine to Syria, new arms races and proxy wars in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and new types of symmetrical and asymmetrical warfare employed by states. When nations’ basic survival is at stake, they are not likely to attribute too much weight to soft power and construction of positive image in protecting themselves.
Second, as a result of the highly uncertain post-hegemonic transition, new socio-economic divisions emerge and deepen in Asia, Europe, and Eurasia. The world is well into a regionalization with the U.S., Russia, China, Turkey, and other major nations struggling to influence their regional environment and build new spheres of geopolitical influence. Syria, Ukraine, and South China Sea are newly open areas for a military competition. In the area of trade and investments, the world is being reshaped into potentially competing trading blocs as the WTO is looking increasingly out of place. Although soft power continues to play its role, in this environment tough public bargaining and secret negotiations are no less important.
Finally, the world is experiencing new processes of cultural reformulations and ethnic nationalism. Instead of relying on protection and welfare of the U.S. hegemony, nations increasingly seek refuge in developing national and regional arrangements. It would be a mistake to think of Russia’s recent turn to patriotism and conservative values as the Kremlin’s exclusive invention. Many others states are looking to build protective “software” in order to rally masses behind their new national identity projects. These projects are largely inward looking, and soft power is a misleading concept for describing their nature.
Besides, the United States itself has long moved away from its initial preoccupation with soft power. Although following George W. Bush’s years in the White House Nye’s ideas became popular in the State Department, they were soon amended with special “digital” and financial tools for engaging foreign activists and monitoring foreign governments. Activities of the U.S. government exposed by Julian Assange and Edward Snowden can hardly qualify as soft power. The power of example is increasingly replaced with assertiveness, surveillance, and bribery in defeating the U.S. opponents.
Soft power will continue to decline. In the increasingly polarized world, the United States will seek to preserve its power by all available means, while the rising powers will aim at improving their international position including by obstructing the power of hegemon. A likely scenario for a foreseeable future is a prolonged uncertainly with a flexible alliance formation, a limited cooperation over some issues, and confrontation and competition over others. Great powers will continue to seek consolidation of their perceived spheres of influence, even as they try to avoid directly engaging each other. When there are few internationally recognized rules, there is a greater incentive to compete, rather than rely on the power of example. Until new rules are established, soft power projects will have a limited appeal.