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.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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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).
- 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.
- By extension, the type of involvement for any given actor (i.e. passive vs. active) is left unspecified.
- 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.
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.