1. Introduction

The US’s hegemony as a superpower and its unilateralist reaction to international terrorism after 9/11 has reopened the debate on one of the key concepts of international relations: power. In this context, Joseph Nye’s theory of ‘soft power’ has become one of the most hotly debated in academic and political forums. Although this controversy dates back to before the war in Iraq, it has heated up considerably as a result of the damage the war has done to the image of the United States in the world. The question is: can soft power be as effective a resource as hard power to achieve foreign policy objectives?

This debate has also touched on the role of public diplomacy, that is, the communications strategies that states use to garner support for their foreign policies among the citizens of other countries. For Nye, public diplomacy is the way a country manages its soft power. As a result of the failure of US public diplomacy to compensate for its image problems, the question once again comes to forefront: can public diplomacy really neutralize the negative effects of foreign policy?[1]

In the first part of this paper,[2] a critique is offered of Nye’s dualistic theory of power. This is supported by a critique of another theoretician, Pierre Bourdieu, who falls into the same fallacy as Nye by considering the sources of social power not in terms of nations, but rather in terms of societies, that is, among and between individuals or groups of individuals. The conclusion we reach is that soft power is not a type of power at all; rather, any resource, including military capabilities, can be soft inasmuch as society approves its use for some purpose. This means that how it is perceived is the key factor.

Therefore, the following part of this paper investigates to what extent citizen perceptions are structured in the way Nye suggests. This analysis indicates that the dualistic vision is not universal. It has a clear social base and is backed only by certain sectors in each society: the post-materialist ones. Also, in relative terms, it reflects only the values of advanced, post-modern societies.

2. Nye’s dualistic theory

Soft power is the capacity to ‘make others want what you want’ (Nye, 2003, p. 30). Nye aptly draws support from the Marxist theoretician Antonio Gramsci and his analysis of ideology. It is the capacity to establish the agenda of other actors, to have other states desire what you desire. The author emphasises that ‘there is an indirect form of exercising power. A country can achieve the results it desires if other countries want to follow its lead, admire its values, emulate its example, or aspire to its level of prosperity and openness’ (Nye, 2003, p. 30).

Nye includes a number of intangible features of nations under the umbrella of soft power. The paradox is that the state has no control over most of them because they are generated in the market economy and civil society by the news media, companies and NGOs, among others, unlike military capacity, which constitutes the core of hard power.

Against this backdrop, there are several distinctions between hard and soft power:

Figure 1. Hard power and soft power

Hard powerSoft power
CoercionPersuasion, ideology
Tangible realityImage, symbols
Economic, militaryCultural, values
External controlSelf-control
InformationCredibility, prestige
Direct (controllable by the government)Indirect (not controllable)
IntentionalNot intentional (by-product)

In any case, Nye insists that both types of power are important. ‘It is as important (…) to attract third parties as to force change through threats or the use of military or economic weapons’ (Nye, 2003, p. 33). Nye’s hypothesis is that with globalisation and information, soft power becomes more important, as the cost of information and the need for credibility rises (Nye and Keohane, 1998).

But in fact, the concept of soft power includes two very distinct capacities:

(1)   The capacity to attract and seduce (persuasion): from outside the actor, projecting inward.

(2)   The capacity to establish preferences (ideology): from within, projecting outward.

Regarding the first of these capacities, US films and television constitute one of the key parts of the country’s soft power; democracy is a key part of the second capacity (Nye, 2003, p. 32-33). We could say that former is the soft concept of soft power, while the latter is the hard concept, since it has more implications.

Nye proposes several objective and subjective indicators to measure the soft aspects of ‘soft’ power.[3] Let us consider some of the subjective indicators he uses for the United States. Eighty percent of the world’s citizens admire US science and technology, 60% like its cinema, music and TV, and 50% have a favourable impression of American democracy and the US economy. In other specific terms, the US graduates the greatest number of foreign university students, is the greatest exporter of films and television programmes and attracts more immigrants than any other advanced country.

France is the second most important ‘soft power’, ranking higher than the United States is some aspects. For example, it has the greatest number of Nobel prize winners for literature. It is also the country most attractive to tourists.

Figure 2. Indicators of soft power, according to Nye

United StatesSources: science, economy, popular cultureTrade marksPrestigious business schoolsImmigrantsExportation of TV programsForeign students and researchers in universitiesBooks publishedRecords soldWebsites1st in Nobel prize winners for science; 2nd in literatureScientific articles publishedTouristsJapanSources: Science, economyPatentsScience and technologyLife expectancyEuropeSources: Culture (language, art, literature, music, fashion and food) and European valuesPublic spending on cultural action abroadPublic spending on development aidPublic spending on public diplomacyLanguages (French and Spanish)Nobel prize winners for literatureTourismApplications for asylumQuality of lifeSoccer as world sport

Source: Nye (2004) and the author.

Nye’s approach has received numerous criticisms. For some, soft power is too soft be power at all (Ferguson, 2003 and 2005). Powers always try to legitimise their realpolitik with altruistic values, but do not hesitate to fall back on hard power to achieve their goals. Therefore, soft power is simply ‘the velvet glove that covers the iron fist’ (Ferguson, 2005, p. 75).

For others, it is not a different kind of power, but simply hard power interiorised and turned into ideology. That is, soft power is ‘a wolf in sheep’s clothing’ (Rosendorf, 2000).

Finally, other authors suggest that cultural contradictions can sometimes make soft power an extension of hard power, but that very often these contradictions make it counterproductive to its goals. Soft power can become ‘counter-power’ (Gitlin, 2003).

However, all these criticisms implicitly accept Nye’s dualistic supposition. They simply question the make-up or the consistency of the fabric of soft power. This is essentially because, above all, they apply the soft concept of soft power understood as persuasion.

Kennedy, by contrast, is absolutely correct when he criticises Nye’s distinction. He uses the example of US military aid aimed at rebuilding Asian societies affected by the tsunami. In this crisis, humanitarian ends largely legitimised the use of military force. In fact, as a recent Pew Global Attitudes Project study shows, the US has improved its image in the Muslim countries in the region. In this case, the differences between hard and soft power are blurred, since military action was justified by soft, humanitarian ends. Hard power, then, can have a soft side.

However, logic dictates that soft power also has a hard side.[4] As economic seduction exists (a desired brand or a given country’s respected ‘Made in…’ label), so does ‘cultural coercion’. Let us consider the quasi-monopoly of the English language as lingua franca –the result of the network economies produced by the demand for languages (De Swaan, 2001)–. In general, people do not study English because they are attracted to American literature, but because the language is essential for finding a job or travelling abroad. The propagation of English depends on pragmatic acceptance, not on regulatory enforcement.

Figure 3.

EconomyAttractiveness of brandCredibility of institutions
CultureNetwork externalities in languages

The problem with distinguishing between hard and soft power is similar to Pierre Bourdieu’s difficulties with his theory of social or ‘capital’ resources. The French sociologist distinguishes three kinds: economic (money), educational (academic qualifications) and social (relations and contacts). To these three, he adds ‘symbolic capital’, which is a resource or any kind of capital ‘inasmuch as it is represented, that is, understood symbolically, in a relationship of understanding, or more precisely, one of ignorance and recognition’ (Bourdieu, 2000, p. 17-18).

But finally, Bourdieu admits that all capital can function as symbolic capital ‘when it obtains explicit or practical recognition (…) In other words, symbolic capital (…) is not a particular kind of capital’. In fact, he himself admits that it is more appropriate to speak of the ‘symbolic effects of capital’ (Bourdieu, 2000, p. 17-18). In the end, symbolic capital is equivalent to recognition or legitimisation and is therefore not a kind of resource similar to the other three.[5]

Nye himself has even admitted this possibility by insinuating that soft power is any resource, either hard or soft, that is recognised as legitimate. It is present ‘when countries make their power legitimate in the eyes of others’ (Nye, 2004, p. 10).

Along the same lines, Keohane and Grant prefer the term ‘public reputation’ and emphasise the fact that this operates in all the spheres in which states act internationally. Although they are dealing with the question of control, that is, the flip side of power, they indicate that ‘the reputation (of a state) acts as a control mechanism in the absence of other mechanisms, but also in conjunction with them) (Keohane and Grant, 2005, p. 37).

Clearly, soft power can only be effective in its hard version: soft power as ideology. Or instead of soft power, we propose that it should be called ‘symbolic power’. This also means that this is a subjective question and highlights the fact that recognition is the key variable. Perception and legitimisation (or the lack thereof) are essential parts of power. A resource becomes power inasmuch as it is recognised as such and is considered legitimate.

3. The sources of international power as perceived by citizens

Precisely because it is a question of perception, the current debates on the role of soft power and of image-enhancing policies must take into account citizens’ real perceptions of a given country. For example, what is the (absolute and relative) weight of military power or culture in people’s assessments of the power of nations?

We can begin to answer this question by referring to data from the Barometer of the Elcano Royal Institute (BRIE), a public opinion poll on foreign policy carried out among the general public in Spain. The third wave of the Barometer, completed in May 2003, asked respondents how important they felt the following factors were in determining the power of a country internationally, that is, whether or not a given country could be considered a ‘power’: military power, economic development, scientific and technological development, participation in international aid and cooperation, geographic size, population (number of inhabitants), level of democracy, language (number of speakers of the language) and, finally, culture (the prestige of the country’s literature, art, etc). Two measurements were taken:

  • A weak one, in which respondents were asked to evaluate each factor separately.
  • A strong one, in which respondents were asked which factor was most important.

The weak measurement resulted in the following ranking: economic development (88%), scientific development (83%), military power (80%), international development (64%), democracy (51%), population (42%), culture (42%), size (38%), and language (29%). The strong measurement reduced the importance of the scientific-technological factor and raised economic development to first place (44%), with military capacity in second place (31%) and science and technology in third place (7%). We can conclude that the average citizen makes a ‘realistic’ assessment and understands that power means hard power.

Using the weak measurement to study how attitudes are structured, factorial analysis (a data reduction technique) gives us a glimpse of how these vectors come together in people’s minds. The resulting three-dimensional space is empty. We find groupings in three very different categories of power:[6]

  • In the first, culture and democracy are most important, followed at some distance by language and humanitarian aid.
  • In the second, economy and technology are very close together, followed by military power.
  • In the third, geography and demography are also very close together.

Figure 1.

  • D62: military power
  • D63: economic development
  • D64: scientific and technological development
  • D65: participation in international aid and cooperation
  • D66: geographic size
  • D67: population (number of inhabitants)
  • D68: level of democracy
  • D69: language (number of speakers of the language)
  • D70: culture (the prestige of its literature, art, etc.)

Significantly, military power sits at practically an equal distance between the last two factors, having considerable weight in the third.

We should also note that in the ethnotheory of soft power, that is, in the view of the average citizen who we are studying, despite the fact that science and technology score high on the post-modern or soft scale, both form part of hard or modern power.

Therefore, the former is soft power (the ‘Nye factor’), while the latter is hard power (what we could call the ‘Kagan factor’). And to these we could add geo-demographic power. Forcing Robert Cooper’s equation a bit, we could also call them post-modern, modern and pre-modern, respectively.

As for the relationship between these factors:

  • Modern power and post-modern power have a low but positive correlation (0.06).
  • Modern and pre-modern power are closely related, with a high, positive correlation (0.26).
  • Post-modern and pre-modern power have a high but negative correlation (-0.28).

Clearly, the average citizen does not perceive antithesis, but rather continuity between hard and soft power.

By including this relationship between the three factors, we have now deciphered the complete ‘DNA’ of the power of nations, as perceived by citizens:

Figure 2.

4. Perception of the power of nations

How does this perceptual structure affect our assessment of the power of nations? To what extent does the importance given to the different factors determine our perception of the global power of different nations?

Continuing with data from the third wave of the Barometer of the Elcano Royal Institute, respondents were asked to rate (on a scale of 0 to 10) the power or global influence of several nations (the United States, China, the UK, France, Sweden, Spain and Italy). The US was ranked the highest and near the top of the scale, at 8.9 –a long way ahead of the next most powerful nations: the UK (6.4), and France and China (both at 6.1). Spaniards think that Spain has the same power as Sweden and Italy, giving the country about five points.

Figure 3. Power or global influence

By analysing the correlations between the criteria (the ranking of the importance of the factors) and the perceptions (the ranking of the power of specific countries), we can analyse the former in relation to the latter.

The value and significance of the correlations is always higher in the top rows of the table; that is, respondents evaluate the power of the country in terms of the modern factor, especially the economy and military power, and to a lesser degree, science and technology.

The ranking of US power has an especially close correlation with economic and military factors and less with technology. The UK has a similar profile, though with the comparative advantage that its ranking benefits from its image as a democratic country (correlation 0.06).

Therefore, although to a lesser degree, the other non-modern variables also explain the profile of some countries. For example, in addition to military capacities, the perception of Russia’s power is related to its size and population. It is the country with the highest ranking for this factor, therefore making it the most pre-modern nation, along with China, whose power rests mainly on the size of its population. At the opposite extreme is Sweden, which owes a good part of its perceived power to the importance given to international aid and cooperation (correlation 0.09) and democracy (0.05), in addition to technology.

Figure 4. Ranking

International Cooperation.

Source: BRIE 3, May 2003.

This indirect approach can be complemented with a direct one. Later, in the ninth wave of the Barometer of the Elcano Royal Institute, carried out in May 2005, respondents were asked to rank the power of five countries in terms of the various factors we have discussed above (on a scale of 0 to 10).

Figures 4-12.

The analysis confirms that China is the eminent pre-modern power, being the country with the highest score for size and demography. Curiously, it ranks second to last in language. This is an interesting result, since it indicates that citizens value economies of scale and consider the number of countries in which a language is spoken to be more important than the number of speakers.

The United States is a modern power: the country with the highest ranking in terms of military power and economic development, but also in terms of science and technology. The US is also the lowest ranked politically, the perception of the quality of its democracy being affected by the war in Iraq and very likely by association with human rights violations from Guantánamo to Abu Ghraib.

In the opinion of Spaniards, Spain is a post-modern power earning the highest points in aid and cooperation, for the prestige of its culture and the number of people who speak its language. Germany is also in this category as the most democratic country, although this virtue is levelled out by the relative lack of importance of its language. Germany and Spain are at opposite ends from the US, which receives the lowest political ranking, as well as the least cultural points, due to the low prestige of its culture.

Finally, the hybrid profile of the UK is significant, with high points in the variables that determine modernity and post-modernity.

When we compare these profiles with the global ranking of the power of each of the nations we have considered here, we also confirm that the modern power (the US) is the most powerful, followed by the pre-modern power (China) and, in last place, the post-modern power (Spain). Therefore, although citizens recognise the importance of cultural factors, when they weigh all the factors and evaluate overall power, they are consistent and have a ‘realistic’ view of things.[7]

5. The social and international basis of dualism

Where do the different perceptions of power most clearly reside? To understand the social basis of the various perceptions of power (pre-modern, modern and post-modern) let us return to the causal analysis of the three factors that we dealt with earlier, in section 3 of this paper, referring to the data of the third BRIE (May 2003). The multiple regression technique, the results of which are shown in Figure 9 of the statistical appendix, enable us to analyse the simultaneous effect of different variables that determine attitudes, making it possible to put aside statistically spurious associations.

In the Nye factor (soft power) we find a high degree of consensus (R squared of 0.01). Curiously, the variable that discriminates the most, after eliminating others, is the socio-economic category of respondents: the upper classes (beta of 0.06 with significance of 0.06) consider it more important, while the lower classes (beta of -0.07 with equal significance) consider it less important.

By contrast, the R squared of hard power is considerably higher (0.07), which indicates greater discrepancy. Socio-economic level continues to be important –even more so than before– but now the situation is reversed: the upper classes (beta of -0.11 with significance of 0.005) consider it less important, while the lower classes (beta of -0.07 with significance of 0.05) consider it more important. The habitat size is associated negatively: in the cities it is considered less important than in the country. Finally, the people most exposed to the news media consider this factor less important than do those less exposed.

The value of R squared for the geo-demographic factor is average (0.03) –neither as finely determined as the Kagan factor, nor as low as the Nye factor–. The assessment is conditioned by ideology –greater on the right– and by the size of the habitat –greater in less urban areas–.

Among the lower social classes, the Kagan factor has more weight, while the Nye factor has less. And inversely, among the higher social classes, the importance of the symbolic factors are emphasised, while hard power is diminished.

Nye’s soft perspective is characteristic of the ‘post-materialist’ levels of society, to use Inglehart’s term. It is the vision of the post-modern lifestyle of advanced societies. By contrast, Kagan’s hard perspective is that of the ‘materialist’ levels, of modern lifestyles.

Therefore, a link can be seen between the internal cultural division of advanced societies and the way power at the international level is perceived.

However, curiously, this internal national cleavage can also be seen at the international level.

In the Worldviews 2002 poll (Chicago Council on Foreign Relations/German Marshall Fund) in six European countries and in the US, respondents were asked which they considered most important to determine a country’s power and influence: the economy or the military. Twice as many US respondents chose the military than the European average: 27% versus 12%.

Figure 5. Importance attributed to military power and economic power in international issues – International comparison

Economic power8189808988838466
Military power15916710111227

Source: Chicago Council on Foreign Relations/German Marshall Fund of the United States (2002).

In another more recent study, Transatlantic Trends 2003, by the German Marshall Fund/Compagnia de San Paolo/Luso-American Foundation, carried out in the same countries plus Portugal, the question was whether respondents agreed that economic power was increasingly more important than military power. In Europe, 14% disagreed, compared to 24% in the United States.

Figure 6. Degree of agreement regarding the importance of economic power in comparison to military power – International comparison

Agree strongly393744314436464031
Disagree strongly574453757

‘On international issues, economic power is increasingly more important than military power’. Source: German Marshall Fund/Compagnia de San Paolo/Luso-American Foundation (2003).

The above differences in the importance attributed to the two factors are significant, inasmuch as they translate into differing assessments of the power of countries.

Figure 7. Assessment of the power of different countries (US, Europe and Spain) – International comparison

UKFranceGermanyHollandItalyPolandSpainEuropean averageUS

Averages on a scale of 0 to 10. In columns, the evaluating countries; in rows, the evaluated countries.
Source: Chicago Council on Foreign Relations/German Marshall Fund of the United States (2002), and Royal Elcano Institute 2002 for Spain.

The above table clearly reveals several common trends. First of all, there is consistent agreement about the power of the US. Second, practically all the countries (the US, France and the UK), with the sole exception of Germany, consider themselves more powerful than the others do.

However, what is undoubtedly most relevant is that there are differences between Europeans and Americans. The latter consider China and Russia more important than the former (one point and half a point more on the scale, respectively). Americans also believe that the EU is less influential than European themselves think, while they also consider the UK more important than Europeans do.

The differences between Europe and the US are not great, but neither are they insignificant. We could conclude that, in this sense, Kagan is right: assessment criteria are now different on either side of the Atlantic.[8]

6. Conclusions

The purpose of this work has been to provide a theoretical and empirical review of Nye’s dualist theory of power. Certainly, the concept of soft power has played an important role in highlighting the importance of public opinion in the new international context. This is a result of the growing democratisation of societies, greater access to education and the new information technologies to more social classes, and the impact of the global news and information media. However, the theory presents serious problems.

Soft power is not a type of power at all; rather, any resource, including military capabilities, can be soft inasmuch as it is perceived as legitimate for a soft purpose, for example, humanitarian aid. This means that how it is perceived is the key factor and that, of the two types of soft power posited by Nye, the hard version is the valid one –soft power as ideology– rather than the soft version –soft power as persuasion–.

In fact, an analysis of the perceptions of average citizens shows that they do not share Nye’s dualistic view of things. First, this is because they have a ‘realistic’ perception of power as hard power and second, because they do not perceive a conflict between hard and soft factors.

In fact, the dualist viewpoint à la Nye is not universal. Rather, it is clearly socially based and is fed only by certain sectors in society, specifically the post-materialist ones. Also, in relative terms, it likely reflects only the values of the most advanced, post-modern societies.

Javier Noya
Senior Analyst, Image of Spain, Elcano Royal Institute

Statistical Appendix

Figure 8. Aspects of the power of nations – Factorial analysis (varimax rotation)

Final Statistics
FactorEigenvalue% var.Cum %
Rotated Factor Matrix
Factor 1Factor 2Factor 3
Humanitarian aid.65918.29633.13199

Source: the authors, based on the Barometer of the Royal Elcano Institute, 3rd wave, May 2003.

Figure 9. Variables determining the importance attributed to the factors that make up power – Multiple regression analysis

Women (ref. male)
Habitat size-.20***-.13***
Upper class.06*-.11***
Lower class (ref. middle)-.07*.07**
Higher education
Secondary studies (ref. basic studies)
Ideology (left-right).08*
Nationalism (periphery-centre)
Exposure to media.08*
R squared.01.07.03

Note: in Figure 9, the correlations among factors are determined by extracting factors with oblique rotation.

Source: the authors, based on the Barometer of the Elcano Royal Institute, 3ªd wave, May 2003.

Bibliographical References

Allison, L., and T. Monnington (2002), ‘Sport, Prestige and International Relations’, Government and Opposition, XXV.

Bourdieu, P. (2000), ‘Las formas del capital. Capital económico, capital cultural y capital social’, in P. Bourdieu, Poder, derecho y clases sociales, Desclee de Brouwer, Bilbao.

Cooper, R. (2003), The Breaking of Nations: Order and Chaos in the 21st Century, Atlantic Books, London.

De Swaan, A. (2001), Words of the World, Polity, Cambridge.

Ferguson, N. (2003), ‘Power’, Foreign Policy, nº 134, p. 18-24.

Ferguson, N. (2005), Coloso. Auge y decadencia del imperio americano, Debate, Barcelona.

Gitlin, T. (2003), ‘El poder blando, una estrategia desestimada’, Vanguardia Dossier, 7, p. 79-81.

Kagan, R. (2003), Poder y debilidad, Taurus, Madrid.

Keohane, R., and R. Grant (2005), ‘Accountability and Abuses of Power in World Politics’, American Political Science Review, 99 (1).

Kennedy, P. (2005), ‘¿Poder duro contra poder blando?’, El País, Saturday 19/2/2005.

Martínez, J.S. (2003), ‘Capital y clase social’, in J. Noya (coord.), Cultura, desigualdad y reflexividad. La sociología de Pierre Bourdieu, Catarata, Madrid.

Melissen, J. (2005), Wielding Soft Power: The New Public Diplomacy, Clingendael, The Hague.

Noya, J. (2004), ‘Potencias blandas’, en VVAA, Perspectivas exteriores, 2004, Política Exterior, Madrid.

Nye, J. (2003), La paradoja del poder norteamericano, Taurus, Madrid.

Nye, J. (2004), Soft Power, PublicAffairs, New York.

Nye, J., and R. Keohane (1998), ‘Power and Interdependence in the Information Age’, Foreign Affairs, 77 (5).

Rosendorf, N. (2000), ‘Social and Cultural Globalization’, in J. Nye and J. Donahue (eds.), Governance in a Globalizing World, Brookings Institution, Washington.

Torres, M. (2004), Visiones del poder en los EEUU, Working Document, Centro de Análisis de Seguridad, Universidad de Granada, Granada.

Treverton, G., and S. Jones (2005), Measuring National Power, RAND Corporation, Santa Mónica, California.

[1]Among the many bibliographic references on soft power, one of the most outstanding academic papers was published in Millenium magazine; among think tanks, the most noteworthy papers are the recent Rand documents, Measuring National Power (Treverton/ Jones) and the one by Melisen, of Clingendael.

[2]This work develops some of the ideas and analyses published by Noya (2004).

[3]The indicators of soft power proposed by the RAND Corporation are:technological innovation, international aid and cooperation, the demand for a language and the spread of art, film and culture in general.As a subjective indicator, we suggest the survey question:‘apart from your own, which other country would you like to live in?’(Treverton and Jones, 2005, p.17). A recent study by the Pew Global Attitudes Project (May 2005) used a similar question:‘If a young person who wanted to leave the country asked your opinion on where to go to live well, which would you recommend?’

[4]Along the same lines, see the interesting analysis of sports as an exhibition of the power of a nation, by Allison and Monnington (2002).

[5]On Bourdieu’s theory of fields and capitals, in addition to the abundant bibliography in French and English, also consult the work by Martínez.

[6]Figure 8 of the statistical appendix shows the results of the factorial analysis.

[7]We must also keep in mind that a more balanced power like the UK is in second place.However, we must not rule out the possibility that this is a distortion caused by the war in Iraq.

[8]Various studies show the internal gap in the US between the view of the Republicans and the Democrats (Pew Center for People and the Press).

Javier Noya

Written by Javier Noya

Investigador Principal, Opinión Pública e Imagen Exterior de España, Real Instituto Elcano