Soft Power, National Branding, and the Process of Engineering Attraction (Part 2: National Branding is NOT Nationalistic Persuation)

Back in Part 1, I talked a little bit about the motivations for talking about soft power, how it relates to some of the things I’ve learned from watching (and studying!) anime, and what role it serves in the context of international relations (IR). In this second post, I’ll try and redefine what exactly soft power means (because the original definition leaves much to be desired), explore exactly what a more rigorous look at soft power implies. In the end, I feel this process shows is that it is not – and really has never been – enough to just “brand” things so that consumers make associations between different ideas, which is what much of the attempts at “promoting” soft power have been focusing on. Instead, the key relation is the nature of the relationship, and what exactly is being linked together.

Note: This is an entry in a series of more academic posts all about soft power, and relies somewhat on knowledge taken from earlier posts in the series. While it is technically related to anime (one of the main motivations for exploring the issue), the actual posts themselves are a little bit removed. Since I’m pulling from a lot of sources in these posts, I’m including citations in case anyone is interested in following up on some of them here.

Redefining What People Mean By Soft Power

The current imaginings of soft power discussed previously help shed light on debates surrounding the nature of IR because they simultaneously incorporate all three main IR theoretical assumptions (realism, liberalism, and constructivism) into a physically meaningful and increasingly relevant concept.

Putting soft power in context, however, is only the first step. The next step is to take the previous discussions on IR and, more importantly, the nature of power and use them to try and re-define soft power. So, in a long-running tradition (has it really been more than a year and a half or so since I started blogging?!) of trying to define things on this blog, I’m going to attempt to redefine soft power.

After a lot of thinking (the proto-definition of this can be seen in my Germanic Influence in Anime post), I’d say that the way people think about soft power is something like this:

A “successful use” of soft power occurs when “nation” [X] possesses some relation to “object” (x) that leads another actor [Y] to engage with [X] in a way that [X] deems beneficial to its own self-interest.  If [X] maintains control over either the object (x) or its relationship to it, then [X] can most broadly be seen as “expressing” its soft power effectively.

The part of the above definition in black is what I feel soft power (or, more aptly, positive cultural flows) should be defined as. Or at least limited to. The parts in red are the extra stipulations that I think many nations subsequently impose on top of these cultural flows. Indeed, it’s this addendum that gives soft power it’s, well, power: it grants a nation the ability to control, direct, and project soft “power”, rather than just possess soft “influence”. It’s also the stipulation which generates pretty much all of the problems with soft power, since (implicitly) imposing a requirement associated with controlling how other people view you (or react to things you do) usually ends badly. I’m actually surprised people haven’t been raising this objection all over the place, because once you reformulate soft power into its more fundamental assumptions and procedures this problem is pretty obvious.

For soft power to work, nation [X] must possess some relationship to object (x). The exact nature of this relationship is unimportant - what matters is that it exists within the mind of a third part and that it means something to them.

For soft power to work in the more traditional sense, nation [X] must possess some relationship to object (x). The exact nature of this relationship is ultimately unimportant – what matters is that it exists within the mind of a third part and that it means something to them.

Then, another actor [Y] must engage with object (x). Note that it can't be to [X] directly - that would be too easy, and wouldn't really satisfy the definition of soft power that makes it "special".

Then, another actor [Y] must engage with object (x). Note that it can’t be to [X] directly – that would be too easy, and wouldn’t really satisfy the definition of soft power that makes it “special”. Again, how exactly this happens is ultimately irrelevant.

Now comes the most crucial step: this engagement with (x) must go beyond just the object itself and extend to the nation [X] with which (x) is related to. If this fails, then you really haven't exercised any real "power".

Now comes the most crucial step: this engagement with (x) must go beyond just the object itself and extend to the nation [X] with which (x) is related to. If this fails, then you really haven’t exercised any real “power”. Most “standard” usages of soft power seem to imply that the nature of this engagement with [X] has to be positive (hence the thumbs-up).

Finally, and here's the real kicker, most formulations of soft power require, well, POWER. And, as I fleshed out last time, power is all about the ability to control.

Finally, and here’s the real kicker, most traditional usages of soft power require, well, POWER. Which means an implicit requirement that nation [X] is actually in control of the whole thing at some level – it can just “express” its soft power and people will react as they are supposed to!

Most commonly, this object (x) is an economic good that has been marketed abroad (e.g., anime; Nagata 2012) or an event or image that is given nationalistic associations (e.g., the Olympics; Nye 2008). In addition, (x)’s ability to “attract and co-opt” actor [Y] is frequently seen as one of projecting a positive, unified “national image” (i.e. “national branding”), and thus serves as a symbolic representation of a given nation (Iwabuchi 2010). Soft power then actually serves to reinforce the very realist (i.e. nation = unitary actor) ideas that liberalism (i.e. no, there are other institutions with power) and constructivism (i.e. look, half the shit people do makes no sense unless people are following symbolic ideals like the unitary state) attempt to dismantle…in a liberalist and constructivist manner! Oh the irony.

Note: In my opinion, this is a key point of these posts: it is important to be aware of this weird obsession with national branding and many of the assumptions that go into it, since it influences a lot of the ways we think, talk, and act around those with different backgrounds from us. At its core, it’s a very reductionist philosophy, grouping and homogenizing people into associations that frequently are only somewhat true at best and offensive at worst. Recognizing where things like this are happening – and being critical about how much this process is “real” vs. “imposed” – will make you a much better consumer of foreign media (in any form). You also wouldn’t believe how many assumptions like these go into debates about cultural appropriation, “check your privilege” style arguments, colonialism, feminism, etc., so being aware of these types of assumptions does wonders for engaging with these issues on a personal level by allowing you to better target the institutional power structures that enable/perpetuate these issues rather than the individuals directly involved. See, for instance, this type of thing.

Soft Power, Cultural Flows, and the “Feeling-Association-Pull” Dynamic

While soft power is frequently used in the media and by national governments in a wide range of contexts (see, e.g. Fallows 2013 and Panda 2013 <– what a name), it is often improperly defined. In fact, it is not only improperly defined: most of the time the definition is implied! To remedy this situation (one academic blog post at a time…), the term and associated concept(s) must first be rigorously analyzed. And who better to do it than me, right? Because what else would I do in my free time ;).

The putative definition of soft power given above is useful in the context of describing what nations wish to achieve using sources of soft power in specific contexts. However, it fails to describe the precise mechanisms by which soft power operates, nor can it gauge the effectiveness of its execution. In addition, unlike with hard power, which can be related to capacity (e.g. size of army, overall military budget, GDP), an abstract equivalent for soft power as a “resource” doesn’t really exist as far as I can tell. So you really don’t want to link those two terms together, since they seem to operate in fundamentally different ways.

So, in order to understand exactly how soft power operates in the context of consumption (because it’s usually through economic stuff/consumption of media), uneven cultural flows (because the US clearly influences nations as much as they influence the US), and national expression (because woo national pride! and possibly more power in IR), I propose an additional functional definition for “soft power” below. While different from how the term normally is used (as illustrated above), I think slight modifications to previous definition would be useful to showcase some of the problems that come with the way many people currently think about the issue.

Soft power, in the way I think people should be thinking about it, is actually based on a combination of three separate conditions, all of which should function simultaneously:

  1. Positive Feelings: the strength and prevalence of impressions, images, feelings, etc. associated with a certain “good” or “text”. For example, an avid anime viewer will likely harbor positive sentiments towards engaging with anime. There are two things to note here. First, while the term “positive” is used when referring to some of these conditions (and many of the implied associations are positive ones), they need not strictly be “positive” -negative feelings can accomplish the same result. Second, the usage of “good” or “text” is pretty general, and can refer to pretty much any unit, whether abstract or physical, that an actor can partake in (i.e. consume). For instance, while ping pong is a sport and anime is a classification of a certain class of goods, both function equivalently here.
  2. Positive Associations: the strength and/or belief these impressions are associated with/can be “mapped” to ideas concerning another actor. Using the same example as above, anime is associated with being a Japanese good (regardless of whether or not the good somehow “intrinsically” possesses such an association) and so enjoys a set of (strong) positive associations. One important thing to note (again) is that these are abstract, not nationalistic, associations (e.g., “China” as place of origin rather than political nation-state). This distinction is key to many of the problems that plague soft power.
  3. Pull: the consequential impact/influence that a good has on those who “consume” it related to the association. In the case of anime, this could be through inspiring the consumer to enroll in Japanese classes or inspiring tourism to the (perceived) country of origin.

This feeling-association-pull (FAP) dynamic (AW YEA), where feelings associated with a good are “mapped” onto those concerning another actor and inspire related activities, is at the core of what soft power actually is. And it enables the traditional definition of the way soft power is supposed to operate, as illustrated above.

A visual representation of the FAP dynamic in action. (I'm a horrible person, I know.)

A visual representation of the FAP dynamic in action. (I’m a horrible person for ruining this scene, I know.)

In addition, the term “soft” now serves two purposes. Instead of only being used as contrast with typical uses of “hard” power, it now also indicates the lack of physicality where most of this power is expressed. The entire discourse actually takes place in the realm of feelings, associations, and impressions conveyed through physical goods rather than the physical goods themselves. This fundamental shift in how exactly these different types of power are expressed (one more physical, the other more abstract) is better captured through this more functional definition of soft power.

It is important to note what connotations and other pre-conditions are missing from this definition, by the way, which at first glance seems more relevant to analyzing uneven inter-national (national branding makes it increasingly nationalistic, hence the emphasis) cultural flows rather than the expression of soft power.

  1. There are no indications here of any questions of actor intent. Instead, much like cultural scholar Henry Jenkins notes, the consumer can make associations regardless of what the initial source of the good is or the context surrounding its consumption (Jenkins 1992).
  2. Directionality, both from the source of a good or outwards from the consumer, is ambiguous here: consumer associations may be constructed by any actor involved.
  3. By extension, the type of involvement for any given actor (i.e. passive vs. active) is left unspecified.
  4. So too is the actual type of association (positive or negative).

While many of these missing elements are unnecessary when viewing soft power as a measure of the power of inter-national cultural flows, they are in fact the very things that nations envision when they conceive of soft power.

National Branding and Nationalistic Persuasion

I now modify my definition above to develop a concept of what I term political soft power. Unlike cultural soft power, this new political soft power (which I’ll just refer to with “soft power”, since all the connotations are pretty much there) is characterized by several stipulations in addition to the previous definition. Most crucially, it introduces a new element to the FAP dynamic, Politicization: the strength with which ideas about a nation can be associated with their physical counterpart. If we use the previous example, it is now not enough just to brand anime as a Japanese product – it often must become associated with the relevant nation-state (Japan) to further national agendas. Thus political soft power relies on the interdependence between 1. positive feelings, 2. positive associations, 3. politicization, and 4. pull (FAPP), with special emphasis placed on the latter two where most of the real “power” is expressed. Examples of this include things like attempting to increase international “prestige” and improving IR, encouraging larger foreign economic investment, and attracting foreign talent.

In addition, actor intent and directionality – two terms I explicitly left out of the earlier definition – are now seen as important: soft power becomes a force exerted by one actor to influence another for the purpose of achieving certain goals. As such, it must be cultivated through active involvement by the respective nation (and actors within said nation, of course) and often is meant to engender positive associations in other actors. While none of these conditions are technically requirements for the “successful use” of soft power described in the first part of this post, they often arise in the context of soft power debates (such as those discussed in Kingston 2009 and mentioned earlier in the essay; see also this).

Seen in this context, political soft power is tied up in two separate processes. The first, national branding, involves the process of mapping positive associations onto ideas related to a nation. The second, nationalistic persuasion, involves politicizing these associations and engendering the desired responses.

As mentioned before, these two processes extend everywhere from goods a nation produces to the actual “image” a nation tries to project through different media channels. Unfortunately, when most nations discuss soft power, this distinction isn’t really made: national branding and nationalistic persuasion are seen as naturally following one another, with positive feelings towards the nationally branded product translating naturally into positive feelings towards the state and subsequent actions in accordance with national interests.

Anime is clearly serious business, and gets many fans in touch with "Japan". I doubt many would say that anime really improves their image of "Japan, the country that makes anime and also was involved with WWII and does politics and stuff"

Anime is clearly SERIOUS BUSINESS, and gets many fans in touch with “Japan” (especially those most actively involved, like myself!). However, I doubt many would say that anime really improves their image of “Japan, the country that makes anime and also was involved with WWII and does politics and stuff”. Instead, it sorta just is a link to some abstract, fuzzy “Japan” – which means there isn’t too much “carryover” from the anime realm to the physical one. Or, at least, not in the ways the Japanese government necessarily wants.

Note: This logic actually becomes much stronger once when examining corporate brands. As corporations frequently control both the brand and the product (and many things in-between, like advertising, marketing, cash flow, etc.), they can coordinate these two elements much more effectively to express their (political) soft power. However, there is still some level of disconnect present. For instance, when consumers  drink a bottle of Coke, it is likely that they naturally associate positive feelings connected with the beverage to ideas about Coca-Cola the company. That said though, it is unlikely that they automatically link this feeling to Coca-Cola, the corporate conglomerate that owns Minute Maid and other wide swaths of the beverage industry, or to its actual practices and policies as a multinational corporation.

As I’m sure you can say based on personal experience, this is definitely not the case. In fact, for the reasons I mentioned above, this assumption is actually quite dangerous, and political soft power most often fails because nations focus too much on national branding without actually considering its relationship to nationalistic persuasion.


So, all in all, actually thinking about what soft power means (or is supposed to mean), trying to define it in terms of in terms of the more relevant “power” rather than more relative “hard power”, and then trying to figure out how exactly it works leads to a place where we can pinpoint exactly how and why soft power often fails today. So all this (re)defining things is actually useful!

So that’s it for Part 2. In Part 3, I’ll explore some of these ideas more thoroughly using two actual case studies involving K-pop and anime fans. I KNOW, REAL EXAMPLES, NOT COMPLETE ACADEMIC BULLSHIT. GET HYPED.

14 responses to “Soft Power, National Branding, and the Process of Engineering Attraction (Part 2: National Branding is NOT Nationalistic Persuation)

  1. Pingback: Soft Power, National Branding, and the Process of Engineering Attraction (Part 1: Power in International Relations) | Chromatic Aberration Everywhere·

  2. So, what you’re talking about is “positive” feeling, right? What about “negative” ones? Could somehow a nation imposed (consciously) a “bad” branding to its culture, or most of these negative emotions are from foreign (and dissident part of its own) propaganda?

    • As I mention in the post, my personal feelings are that any type of strong feelings (positive or negative) should work. I just use the term positive because most of the time when people talk about soft power it’s with the implicit idea that these are all “positive” things.

      As for whether a nation could consciously impose such feelings…sure! It actually happens all the time, and examples can be seen whenever a PR stunt or political move related to giving off some type of impression backfires. I don’t think many governments would do such things intentionally though.

  3. And how easy would it be for people to go from “positive intention” (of the creator) to “negative opinions”?

    (E.G OreImo and its incestous could be quite offense to a lot of people, right?)

    Would this not happen if you don’t judge the source material from a pre-established prejuce (a.k.a as a foreign)?

    (Sorry for double post. I’m writing this on a phone.)

    • So this is a great point, and is a good example of I’m arguing is at the heart of the soft power problem. You cannot control how people will react to things, and so naively assuming that certain things just engender “positive feelings” or “positive opinions” is a flawed way of looking at things. Also, since you can’t really control (most of the time) the very goods that are “promoting” said image (because man anime can be pretty weird sometimes), the possibility for backlash is always a risk you have to be aware of.

      As for judging source material without some pre-established viewpoint, that’s a possibility. On a personal level, such habits are good to get into as a global consumer (recognizing those biases without falling blindly into them). On a practical level for anyone hoping to exercise “soft power” though, this type of thing comes with the territory and has to be taken into account.

  4. Also, the relation between Soft/Hard power. For example, in the heigh of Red Scare and War in Vietnam, the American brought much of its consumer/contemporary culture to us: It extravagante how powerful the economy and military power of America and South Vietnam. Or for now, the anti-Japanese culture wave in China. How could one man could truly see through and distinguish what is good, and what is not?

    • Oh man, triple comment. :)

      The definition of “good” or what is not is pretty important, and a whole philosophical can of worms I think is a bit beyond this post! That said, it is exactly this type of question – or, at least, how it relates to international relations, politics, and the like – which become more accessible the better aware you are of these types of biases (national branding, consumer agency, nature of media, relations to politics). The more you can see how all these influences play out in your daily life, the better you can try and disentangle your thinking from the power structures they might help to enable.

  5. Ha! Look like all three above comments of mine is just to put a simple point: Culture has many faces, and for each of the translation, one multiplies to many.

    It’s quite nice, isn’t it? To have tons of material in order to craft an image of a culture, acknowledge it, and maybe even to intergrate a part of it to our live.

    Oh, and if you plan to touch K-Pop, might as well tackle Consumerism. You know all these “Boot Camps” and “Management Companies”? When export culture is more than influence, but money itself.

    • Culture has many faces, and for each of the translation, one multiplies to many

      Pretty much :).

      might as well tackle Consumerism

      Not this time around. That’s actually part of a much larger project I’ve been working on that’ll hopefully be up within the next month or so, so stay tuned!

  6. Pingback: Soft Power, National Branding, and the Process of Engineering Attraction (Part 3: Soft Power, K-Pop, and Anime) | Chromatic Aberration Everywhere·

  7. Pingback: Soft Power, National Branding, and the Process of Engineering Attraction (Part 4: Soft Power, Looking Forward) | Chromatic Aberration Everywhere·

  8. Pingback: re: Your Taste is Bad and So Are You | Fantastic Memes·

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