Understanding Soft Power in US Foreign Policy

disaster aid

Jim Holmes / Getty Images

"Soft power" is a term used to describe a nation's use of cooperative programs and monetary aide to persuade other nations to ascribe to its policies.

Origin of the Phrase

Dr. Joseph Nye, Jr., a noted foreign policy scholar, and practitioner coined the phrase "soft power" in 1990.

Nye has served as the dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, chairman of the National Intelligence Council, and assistant secretary of defense in President Bill Clinton's administration. He has written and lectured extensively on the idea and usage of soft power.

Nye describes soft power as "the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than through coercion." He sees strong relations with allies, economic assistance programs, and vital cultural exchanges as examples of soft power.

Obviously, soft power is the opposite of "hard power." Hard power includes the more noticeable and predictable power associated with military force, coercion, and intimidation.

One of the main objectives of foreign policy is to get other nations to adopt your policy goals as their own. Soft power programs can often influence that without the expense—in people, equipment, and munitions—and animosity that military power can create.


The classic example of American soft power is the Marshall Plan.

After World War II, the United States pumped billions of dollars into war-ravaged Western Europe to prevent it from falling to the influence of the Communist Soviet Union.

The Marshall Plan included humanitarian aid, such as food and medical care; expert advice for rebuilding destroyed infrastructures, such as transportation and communication networks and public utilities; and outright monetary grants.

Educational exchange programs, such as President Barack Obama's 100,000 Strong initiative with China, are also an element of soft power and so are all varieties of disaster assistance programs, such as flood control in Pakistan; earthquake relief in Japan and Haiti; tsunami relief in Japan and India; and famine relief in the Horn of Africa.

Nye also sees American cultural exports, such as movies, soft drinks, and fast-food chains, as an element of soft power. While those also include the decisions of many private American businesses, U.S. international trade and business policies enable those cultural exchanges to occur. Cultural exchanges repeatedly impress foreign nations with the freedom and openness of U.S. business and communication dynamics.

The internet, which reflects American freedom of expression, is also a soft power. Obama's administration reacted harshly to attempts of some nations to curb the internet to eliminate the influence of dissidents, and they readily pointed to the effectiveness of social media in encouraging the rebellions of the "Arab Spring."

Decline of Soft Power

Nye has seen a decline in the United States' use of soft power since 9/11. The wars of Afghanistan and Iraq and the Bush Doctrine's use of preventive warfare and unilateral decision making have all eclipsed the value of soft power in the minds of people at home and abroad.

Under the presidency of Donald Trump, the United States dropped from the top ranked in the world in soft power to fourth in 2018, according to Fortune, as the country shifts toward unilateralism as part of Trump's "America First" policy.

Paired With Hard Power

Venture capitalist and political scientist Eric X. Li argues that soft power can't exist without hard power. He says in Foreign Policy:

"In reality, soft power is and always will be an extension of hard power. Imagine if the United States had become poor, destitute, and weak like many of the new democracies around the world but had retained its liberal values and institutions. Few other countries would continue to want to be like it."

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's meetings with Trump as a perceived equal were not made possible by soft power, notes Li, but by hard power. Russia meanwhile, has been using soft power in an underhanded way to subvert politics in the West.

China, on the other hand, has turned to a new form of soft power to aid its economy as well as that of others while not embracing the values of its partners.

As Li describes it,

"This is, in many ways, the opposite of Nye’s formulation, with all the downfalls that approach entails: overreach, the illusion of universal appeals, and internal and external backlashes."
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Jones, Steve. "Understanding Soft Power in US Foreign Policy." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/soft-power-in-u-s-foreign-policy-3310359. Jones, Steve. (2020, August 27). Understanding Soft Power in US Foreign Policy. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/soft-power-in-u-s-foreign-policy-3310359 Jones, Steve. "Understanding Soft Power in US Foreign Policy." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/soft-power-in-u-s-foreign-policy-3310359 (accessed March 23, 2023).