top of page

Soft Power

A series on the relationship between the arts and international affairs

by Alana Chloe Esposito

“Begin with art, because art tries to take us outside ourselves. It is a matter of trying to create an atmosphere and context so conversation can flow back and forth and we can be influenced by each other.” -W.E.B. DuBois, American Civil Rights Activist

How can you make someone else do what you want them to do? A school-yard bully might try physical force, but we all know that at the end of the day, the bully fails to run away with everyone’s lunch money (or whatever his desired outcome), enduring a visit to the principle’s office instead. A more effective approach might entail getting the other person to voluntarily do what you want them to do. For example, a clever mom might make chores into a fun game for her children, resulting in the dinner table being cleared in record time. The same tactic works on an international scale (applicable to governments and non-state actors) and has become increasingly popular, garnering tremendous attention over the past 20 years. Soft power, the term coined by Joseph Nye to to describe this phenomenon, “rests on the ability to set the political agenda in a way that shapes the preferences of others” (Nye, Paradox of American Power). Attraction, rather than coercion, becomes the lynchpin of persuading other nations to act in accordance to one’s own preference. The basic idea would be to convince Ayatollah Khamenei that acquiring nuclear weapons undermines Iran’s self-interest so that he voluntarily drops the nuclear program, rather than threatening him to do so with economic sanctions or military force. President Obama’s less-than-successful recent attempt at this task proves the difficulty of applying the art of persuasion to solving conundrums as grave as nuclear proliferation. Just as military might is powerless in the face of fighting the spread of infectious diseases or reversing environmental degradation, soft power too has its limits. Nonetheless, soft power is indeed a powerful tool of dominant states.

Soft power has much to do with the values a country expresses through its culture as well as the domestic policies it enacts. Generally speaking, American culture can be quite attractive, as evidenced by the international popularity of Coca-cola, blue jeans, American movies, and the number of foreign student applications to American universities, because it expresses democracy, personal freedom, upward mobility, and openness. Nye suggests that such attractive cultural output seduces foreigners to adopt those underlying American values. This in turn will lead them to imitate, or at least act compatibly with, American policies without the U.S. government resorting to coercion. Events unfolding since Nye first laid out his concept in the late 1980s have challenged this premise. Kim Jong Il is known to enjoy Hollywood movies despite prescribing antagonistic polices and insurgents in Iraq see no conflict of interest in sipping a Coke as they plan an attack on the US Embassy. Yet, positive examples also abound. On the governmental level, setting exemplary domestic policies and promoting peace and human rights around the world enhances soft power, as does working to strengthen and lead through international institutions (tending toward multilateral cooperation over unilateral action). The American military policy to reach out to the German population in the aftermath of WWII, interacting with people on the street and passing out candy to children and needed supplies to their parents, provides one concrete example. However, civil society and individuals are powerful engines of soft power, arguably even providing the most effective soft power sources.

The arts -- with their ability to be universally understood and therefore to serve as a vehicle for an exchange of ideas -- are a potent soft power resource. Artistic exchange, whether in the form of formal cultural diplomacy such as the Art in Embassies program run by the US State Department, or in the form of private initiatives, can ameliorate tensions between societies in conflict. For example, the New York Philharmonic’s historic trip to Pongyang in 2008 was heralded as a breakthrough in American efforts to engage North Korea. Yet, despite being the first to strategically assert its soft power, the United States does not have a monopoly on the use of this tool. Recently, there has been a great deal of buzz surrounding China’s soft power initiatives, which were arguably kickstarted by the Beijing Olympics. Likewise, as the information technology revolution continues at breakneck pace, it is empowering political and social activists throughout the Arab world and Iran. In light of this, stay tuned for upcoming articles on the role of the arts in Chinese and Arab/Iranian soft power initiatives.

About the author

Alana Chloe Esposito is a civil society leader with more than 12 years of combined experience in journalism, human rights advocacy, foreign policy, and the arts. She currently directs international policy and engagement for Common Ground, a Greek initiative to accelerate progress on social issues from greening the economy to reducing inequalities to safeguarding refugee rights -- through strategic cooperation.

In her previous capacity as a journalist, she wrote about art and cultural diplomacy for publications including The New York Times and served as UN correspondent for several media outlets, reporting through the lens of gender equality on topics including refugee experiences, sexual violence in conflict, and the UN's global development agenda.

She holds a B.S. in Foreign Service from Georgetown University and a M.A. in International Affairs from Sciences Po Paris and is a Senior Fellow of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute.


bottom of page