Andrew Liaropoulos (PhD)
(RIEAS Senior Analyst)


Over the past two decades, the term ‘soft power’ is one of the most contested concepts in international relations. It is widely used in the international relations’ literature and lists as one of the most popular clichés for policymakers. Despite the growing body of literature on the topic and the numerous policies that assert some use of soft power elements, there is still no agreement on what exactly soft power is, how it works and how to measure its effectiveness.

To begin with, soft power was first coined by Joseph Nye, in his 1990 book Bound to Lead. According to Nye, soft power is ‘getting others to want the outcomes you want’. Therefore, soft power is the ability to achieve political ends through attraction. In sharp contrast to hard power, which involves the use of coercion and payment, soft power aims to attract and shape preferences. Whereas hard power rests on inducements (carrots) and threats (sticks), soft power rests on the ability to shape the agenda in world politics, based on your principles and ideas. The sources of soft power are culture, political values and institutions. Nye argues that the United States have been attractive to the rest of the world, due to their political values, democratic institutions and popular culture. As a result, Washington is able to achieve some of its foreign policy goals, without necessary resorting to coercion, threats and bribery.

Soft power has been highly criticized as being a rather ineffective and vague concept. Neorealist scholars place emphasis on hard power, meaning economic and military power and downgrade the role of culture and values in shaping events. Critics argue that soft power is just a reflection of hard power. States are able to exercise soft power, only through their hard power. Only states with a capable military, economic power and industrial strength can claim to exercise soft power effectively. Another point of criticism is that it is difficult to measure power in general and soft power in particular. By its very nature, soft power is a relative and intangible concept, that is inherently difficult to quantify. Quantitative metrics can be used to measure elements of hard power like population, defence expenditure, military assets, gross domestic products and the effects of economic sanctions, but it is tricky to meaure influence, reputation and cultural power.

The lack of a clear conceptual framework on soft power is evident when the latter is translated into public diplomacy and strategic communication. The way soft power campaigns are conducted depends on the nature of the state that exercises soft power, the type of message that is transmitted and the nature of the target. Recent cases of soft power operations highlight the fact that successful application of soft power is rather limited.

In Iraq, the United States were unable to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqis. The vast majority of the polulation was against the U.S military occupation and this had a profound effect in the duration and intensity of the counterinsurgency campaign. The Coalition Forces failed to communicate their message successfully. The reasons for this failure lay in the nature of both the messenger (U.S / Coalition Forces) and the target (Iraqis). The U.S in general lacked credibility in the Arab World and the Iraqis were very skeptical of Washington’s intention. The U.S lost the battle for the hearts and minds of the Iraqi populace and in certain cases even lost the trust of some of their allies. After years of totalitarianism Iraqis were ill-equipped to value the credibility of information and it was difficult for the Coalition Forces to counter misinformation in a society that  is not culturally receptive to such messages. In addition, the U.S information campaign had to compete with a rather sophisticated information campaign that took place both inside and outside Iraq. The insurgents were able to mobilize part of the population and provide a credible anti-American rhetoric. Furthermore, the Iraqi populace was for the first time exposed to alternative sources of information. In the post-invasion era, the Iraqis had access to satellite television and foreign news services and as a result, part of the population was alienated and hostile to U.S forces. The occupation clashed the interest of the Iraqi population that wanted to regain control of their country and viewed the U.S forces as an imperial power that invaded in order to exploit their natural resources.

The case of Iraq, vividly demonstrates the limitations of soft power. A serious constraint is that no state, no matter how powerful, can control the information sphere. The U.S did not have the monopoly on communication and therefore was unable to shape the battlefield of perception in a close society like Iraq. Responding to misinformation, refuting conspiracy theories, filling information vacuums and building credibility is not an easy task, even for a hegemon. 


Armistead, Leigh (ed.), Information Operations, Warfare and the Hard Reality of Soft Power (Washington DC: Brassey’s INC, 2004).
Kroenig, Matthew, McAdam, Melissa and Weber, Steven, ‘Taking Soft Power Seriously’, Comparative Strategy, 29, 5 (2010), pp.412-431.
Melissen, Jan (ed.), The New Public Diplomacy. Soft Power in International Relations (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).
Nye, Joseph S. Jr, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power (New York: Basic Books, 1990).
Nye, Joseph S. Jr, Soft Power. The Means to Success in World Politics (New York: Public Affairs, 2004).

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