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The Chinese Journal of International Politics, Vol.

3, 2010, 189–211

An Unclear Attraction: A Critical

Examination of Soft Power as an
Analytical Category

Todd Hall*

The concept of soft power Joseph Nye proposed almost two decades ago has
provided academics and policymakers with a tool through which to refer to
sources of influence other than military force and economic payoffs. The
notion of soft power captures the idea that assets less tangible than bombs or
cheque books, such as culture and values, also act as power resources. In
Nye’s own words, ‘When you can get others to admire your ideals and to
want what you want, you do not have to spend as much on sticks and
carrots to move them in your direction.’1 Since it was first introduced, the
concept of soft power has arguably had impact on both analysts and prac-
titioners of foreign policy.
Actors in the policy world have employed the concept of soft power to
highlight the importance of a comprehensive foreign policy that incorpor-
ates cultural and public diplomacy. Policymakers in various countries have
adopted this terminology to advance and justify their international efforts
towards cultural promotion and public outreach. As one US State
Department official testified before the US Senate, ‘Along with the ‘‘hard
power’’ exercised by the military, the ‘‘soft power’’ of public diplomacy. . . is
an essential support in advancing U.S. interests abroad.’2 Similarly, the

Todd Hall is a research fellow at the Princeton-Harvard China and the World Program
and will be starting as an assistant professor in the Political Science Department of the
University of Toronto in Fall 2010. The author would like to thank Chen Qi, Matt
Ferchen, David Leheny, Sun Xuefung, Chigusa Yamaura and anonymous reviewers at
CJIP for comments.
Joseph Nye, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (New York: Public
Affairs, 2004), p. x.
‘Testimony of Christopher Midura, Acting Director, Office of Policy, Planning and
Resources Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, U.S. Department
of State, before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee
on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce, and the District of
Columbia’, September 23, 2008. http://hsgac.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction¼
Files.View&FileStore_id¼6d0ca93b-7d48-4a6b-914a-ff8a4c37a55e (accessed on October
22, 2009).

*Corresponding author. Email: thall@uchicago.edu

ß The Author 2010. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.
For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oxfordjournals.org
190 Todd Hall

Japanese Foreign Ministry states, ‘In recent years, pacifism, traditional cul-
ture, modern culture and such are potential sources of soft power for Japan;
there has been discussion about drawing on these in order to raise the pos-
ition of Japan in the world. On the basis of this idea the Foreign Ministry. . .
is organizing to enact a more systematic public diplomacy.’3 Indeed, with
this goal in mind, Japan’s Foreign Ministry appointed the popular cartoon
character Doraemon as the nation’s first ‘anime ambassador’ as part of the
effort to spread Japanese culture.4
Correspondingly, the term soft power is frequently employed in academia
as an analytical category referring to the various non-tangible resources that
state actors have at their disposal to influence the behaviour of others.
Originally applied to the United States, later analyses have also sought to
examine of the soft power resources of actors such as Japan, the European
Union, Canada, and India.5 More recently, scholarly interest has shifted to
the importance of soft power for China. Several authors within the United
States have published works that try to measure the extent and exercise of
Chinese soft power,6 their main focus being on PRC efforts to expand in-
fluence through diplomatic, developmental, and cultural channels.
This article does not dispute the existence of alternatives to hard power;
the author is indeed fully sympathetic to such a view. Its aim is rather to
present a critical perspective of the concept of soft power through the argu-
ment that although Nye’s concept lends itself for use in policy debates, it is
not suited for deployment as an analytic tool. To be more specific, Nye
emphasizes in his most recent versions of the theory the idea of attraction
as the primary mechanism behind the effects he attributes to soft power.
This article, however, finds that mechanism problematic, as regards both its
theorized sources and purported effects. It argues that in place of a theory of
soft power principally based on attraction we should instead disaggregate

http://www.mofa.go.jp/MOFAJ/comment/faq/pr/index.html#01 (accessed on October 23,
‘Doraemon Becomes Japan’s Anime Ambassador’, Japan Economic Newswire, March 19,
Jan Melissen, The New Public Diplomacy: Soft Power in International Relations, Studies in
Diplomacy and International Relations (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005); Evan H.
Potter, Branding Canada: Projecting Canada’s Soft Power through Public Diplomacy
(Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009); Parag Khanna, ‘The Metrosexual
Superpower’, Foreign Policy, No. 143 (2004), pp. 66–8; Douglas McGray, ‘Japan’s
Gross National Cool’, Foreign Policy, No. 130 (2002), pp. 44–54; Christian Wagner,
‘From Hard Power to Soft Power? Ideas, Interaction, Institutions, and Images in
India’s South Asia Policy’, South Asia Institute, University of Heidelberg, Working
Paper, No. 26, March 2005.
Ding Sheng, The Dragon’s Hidden Wings: How China Rises with Its Soft Power, Challenges
Facing Chinese Political Development (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2008); Joshua
Kurlantzick, Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power Is Transforming the World (New
Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).

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A Critical Examination of Soft Power as an Analytical Category 191

the concept into separate ‘soft powers’, each with a discrete pathway of
As stated earlier, numerous policymakers and scholars have employed the
soft power concept. As a full treatment of all existing variations on Nye’s
approach would result either in a conceptual muddle or a project of several
volumes, this article limits itself to the theory of soft power as articulated by
Nye in Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, his most thor-
ough treatment of the subject.7 Nye being both the intellectual ‘father’ of the
term and participant in present debates on its use, the author feels justified
in taking his articulation of soft power as that most authoritative. The con-
cept has, however, undergone refinement even within Nye’s own body of
work. Nye himself acknowledges that he has ‘honed the definition’ of soft
power and ‘explored the implications and limits in ways [he] had not done in
earlier works’.8 This article consequently addresses his most recent, compre-
hensive treatment of soft power, because to draw on earlier versions of his
theory would risk mixing concepts.
This article is in four parts. The first outlines Nye’s theory of soft power as
presented in his book of 2004 as a basis for later discussion. The second
section introduces the two concepts of ‘categories of practice’ and ‘categories
of analysis’. It argues that although Nye’s theory possesses elements that
predispose it to being a category of practice, this fact does not qualify soft
power as a category of analysis. The third section explores the difficulties
that confront the concept of soft power as a category of analysis, and
critically examines the idea of attraction as a causal mechanism. Finally,
this article suggests an alternative approach—that of disaggregating forms
of soft power into different mechanisms with separate causal logics. It gives
three examples—institutional power, representational power, and reputa-
tional power—of how such an approach might proceed.

Soft Power Defined

Power, according to Nye, is ‘the ability to get the outcomes one wants’.9 Hard
power in international relations means use of military force or economic re-
sources (in Nye’s words, ‘sticks’ or ‘carrots’) to obtain desired outcomes. Soft
power, in contrast, is a way of achieving a desirable result by ‘getting others to
want the outcomes you want’.10 Soft power, therefore, ‘rests on the ability to
shape the preferences of others’.11 In other words, whereas hard power

Joseph Nye, Soft Power.
Ibid., p. xii.
Ibid., p. 1.
Ibid., p. 5.
Ibid., p. 5.

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192 Todd Hall

changes the external costs or benefits facing an actor, soft power alters an
actor’s perception of what is desirable or undesirable in the first place.
Attraction, according to Nye, is the primary mechanism through which
this happens. As Nye writes, ‘What is soft power? It is the ability to get what
you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments,’12 or to be
more concise, ‘soft power is attractive power’.13 The intuition behind the
idea of attraction is that something intangible belonging to certain attributes
or modes of behaviour elicits the compliance of other actors. In Nye’s own
words, ‘If I am persuaded to go along with your purposes without any
explicit threat or exchange taking place—in short, if my behaviour is deter-
mined by an observable but intangible attraction—soft power is at work.’14
Nye specifies three main sources of soft power. They are: culture, values,
and foreign policy.15 He elaborates, ‘The soft power of a country rests on
primarily three resources: its culture (in places where it is attractive to
others), its political values (when it lives up to them at home and abroad);
and its foreign policies (when they are seen as legitimate and having moral
authority).’ 16 Culture for Nye is the ‘set of values and practices that create
meaning for a society’.17 These can be conveyed by both the pathways of
high culture (such as higher education) and of low culture (such as popular
culture). Political values are those manifested in the broad domestic and
international policies of a government. They include the values a govern-
ment promotes in its domestic and international discourse as well as in its
general foreign policy objectives.18 Finally, foreign policy as a soft power
resource refers to the ways in which governments frame their goals and go
about pursuing them. Nye points out, ‘Policies based on broadly inclusive
and far-sighted definitions of the national interest are easier to make attract-
ive to others than policies that take a narrow and myopic perspective.’19 The
execution of foreign policy, such as the use of public diplomacy to convey a
state’s position in the most positive light, also falls under this category.
To frame succinctly the causal logic of Nye’s argument, the attraction that
soft power assets, in the form of culture, values and foreign policy, generates
can act as a resource that helps states achieve their goals without employing
explicit inducements or coercion. This is accomplished by changing the pref-
erences of others, or at least by eliciting their acquiescence. Whether or not a
Ibid., p. x.
Ibid., p. 6.
Ibid., p. 7.
While in other places Nye also cites institutional agenda-setting as a soft power mechan-
ism, this plays a much smaller role in his 2004 version. He does cite it as being on the soft
power side of the continuum, but does not treat it as a primary source of soft power.
Moreover, it does not figure in his later empirical analyses. For these reasons, this paper
primarily focuses on the three soft power resources outlined above.
Joseph Nye, Soft Power, p. 11.
Ibid., p. 11.
Ibid., p. 14.
Ibid., p. 61.

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A Critical Examination of Soft Power as an Analytical Category 193

specific attribute is indeed a soft power asset that ‘produces attraction’, Nye
states, can be measured through polls or focus groups.20 Nye’s argument is
significant in challenging the many realist, and even ‘neo-utilitarian’,
approaches which focus solely on force and economic resources as sources
of influence. In particular, Nye highlights the role soft power took in pro-
moting US policies during the Cold War, when the attraction of US soft
power assets, such as its culture and political values, successfully tipped a
material standoff. It is for these reasons that Nye believes soft power can be
instrumental in deciding the outcome of international political issues, hence
his warning, ‘When we discount the importance of our attractiveness to
other countries, we pay a price.’21

Category of Practice or Category of Analysis?

The popularity of the concept of soft power, particularly among actual
practitioners of international relations, would appear to suggest its capture
of something of analytical value; otherwise, it would arguably not be so
broadly embraced by the groups closest to the machinations of international
politics. This section sets out to differentiate the attributes of the soft power
concept that make it useful in policy debates as opposed to valuable as a
scholarly tool. To this end it introduces the terms ‘category of practice’ and
‘category of analysis’ as originally delineated by Brubaker and Cooper.22
The argument here is that although certain attributes entailed in the concept
of soft power indeed enhance its attraction as a category of practice, cate-
gories of analysis should nevertheless be judged according to separate cri-
teria. This section concludes by laying out those criteria as a basis for the
ensuing critical evaluation.
The point of this section is to argue that wide and popular use of a concept
does not qualify it as an appropriate category of social science analysis. This
difference is highlighted in the distinction Brubaker and Cooper make,
between ‘categories of practice’ and ‘categories of analysis’ in their writings
on the term ‘identity’.23 They claim that ‘identity-talk’ and ‘identity-politics’
within popular and political discourse can produce problematic, essentialist
ideas of identity as an inherent human attribute. These folk theories of
identity as manifested in popular language and social behaviour constitute
what Brubaker and Cooper refer to as ‘categories of practice’. Specifically,
Brubaker and Cooper define categories of practice as those ‘used by ‘‘lay’’

Ibid., p. 6.
Ibid., p. 119.
Rogers Brubaker and Frederick Cooper, ‘Beyond Identity’, Theory and Society, Vol. 29,
No. 1 (2000), pp. 1–47.
Ibid., p. 4.

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194 Todd Hall

actors in some (not all!) everyday settings to make sense of themselves, of

their activities, of what they share with, and how they differ from, others’.24
Put differently, categories of practice describe the concepts that seem in-
tuitive to social actors, in the sense that they reflect common folk assump-
tions that actors make about how the world functions and what constitute
valid ontological categories. An alternative example of a common category
of practice the term ‘criminal’ as used to portray a class of individuals. To
the general public, ‘criminals’ may seem to be a particular type of human
being with identifiable characteristics, but this category is highly contingent
on the social context. The idea of ‘the criminal’ only exists with reference to
specific, socially defined and politically institutionalized laws that are viol-
able, laws which vary significantly both historically and across societies. A
person who counts as a criminal in one time or place, therefore, might not in
A particular problem inherent in a concept such as that of ‘the criminal’ is
that it is commonly believed to denote actual, enduring attributes of indi-
viduals (outside of their behaviour in social contexts) which can be isolated
through scientific analysis. Scientific practitioners have taken it upon them-
selves at various times in history to find specific traits—such as skull shapes
and facial types—that distinguish the criminal type from other individuals.
Research of this kind has been carried out on the assumption that criminals
are distinct by virtue of being a specific type of human being, identifiable
through certain patterned physiological manifestations. What these now
discredited scientific endeavours actually attest to is the fundamental prob-
lem of taking a ‘category of practice’ as a ‘category of analysis’.
‘Categories of analysis’ are therefore the ‘experience-distant categories
used by social analysts’.25 Although it may seem intuitive to individuals in
everyday life—especially those employed in law-enforcement—that there
exists a certain type of human who is criminal, this assumption does not
necessarily constitute a basis for scientific research. Valid categories of ana-
lysis are those that try to identify objects or groups of phenomena according
to similarities rooted in shared, specifiable attributes or mechanisms that are
discrete from the outcomes they are purported to explain. Certain categories
of practice may indeed also be valid categories of analysis, by virtue of
reflecting groupings that possess analytic utility. But attributes that make
an appealing category of practice do not necessarily match those that con-
stitute a functioning category of analysis.
Kleptomania, as opposed to the concept of the criminal, for instance,
qualifies as a category of analysis because it identifies a particular psycho-
logical disorder associated with hoarding behaviour and stealing. People
suffering from kleptomania may engage in criminal behaviour at times,
Ibid., p. 4.
Ibid., p. 4.

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A Critical Examination of Soft Power as an Analytical Category 195

but the mechanisms that trigger their actions differ from those of the people
who steal for material gain. Identifying kleptomania as a separate analytical
category hence enables us to avoid the confusion that results from perceiving
all criminals—or even just thieves—as possessing similar traits that guide or
produce their actions.
The concept of soft power, given its adaptations by both practitioners and
students of international relations, has so far led a dual existence as a cat-
egory of practice and a category of analysis. In line with the earlier discus-
sion, this article argues that there might be important reasons why soft
power is welcomed as a category of practice which bear little relation to
its analytic value. For one, this article would suggest that the ways in which
soft power has opportunely fitted various political debates over the past two
decades is a significant factor. To be concise, soft power as a term has a
political utility quite separate from its analytic utility. Second, soft power
approaches possibly also feed into the pre-existing dispositions of actors to
view their own values and political goals in a favourable light.
To elaborate, the term soft power has since its inception been of a political
nature. As David Leheny points out, the concept of soft power was born of
debates in the late 1980s and early 1990s about American decline, whereby
the claim that the US maintained a soft power advantage worked to offset
anxieties about US material decline vis-a-vis a then rising Japan.26 In Bound
to Lead, the first book in which Nye addressed the concept of soft power, he
argued that past analogies of declining power did not hold because, ‘The mix
of resources that produce international power is changing’,27 and corres-
pondingly, that the United States still held the ‘soft ideological and institu-
tional resources to retain its leading place. . .’.28 The soft ideological
resources Nye described at that time included most prominently American
ideals and culture; he was therefore offering an assuring reaffirmation of the
place of the United States in the world while simultaneously confirming
certain US liberal values.
More recently, soft power has become part of a debate on post-9/11 US
strategy. Nye and others have used the concept as a direct critique of the
Bush administration’s foreign policy and its perceived unilateralism.29
According to this view, US foreign policy under the Bush administration
fell out of sync with American culture and ideals, over-emphasized the role
of hard power and was thus a cause of declining US influence. In Nye’s

David Leheny, ‘A Narrow Place to Cross Swords’, in Peter Katzenstein and Takashi
Shiraishi, eds., Beyond Japan, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006), pp. 216–18.
Joseph Nye, Bound to Lead: the Changing Nature of American Power (New York: Basic
Books, 1990), p. 260.
Ibid., p. 260.
Joseph Nye, Soft Power.

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196 Todd Hall

words, it was a ‘foreign policy that combines unilateralism, arrogance and

parochialism’.30 The United States consequently needed to increase its soft
power by returning to policies that conformed to its values, built consensus,
and worked towards promoting a more positive image abroad.
On a superficial level, this was an argument for greater public diplomacy
and multilateralism. On a deeper level, however, the concept of soft power
was being employed to advocate and justify a certain set of values and a
specifically liberal conceptualization of American identity as central to US
international power. Nye was hence using the idea of soft power to stake out
a position in the debate on what should constitute American values and, by
extension, US foreign policy.
The idea of soft power as employed by policymakers in other national
contexts, especially Europe and Asia, has also mapped on to the belief that
certain ‘national values’ are inherently attractive. In other words, policy-
maker responses in Europe and Asia to soft power arguments have not
challenged the idea of soft power per se, but instead substituted their own
culture, value systems, or policy alternatives as those most attractive, either
regionally or internationally. European states emphasize the soft power of
multilateralism; China has cited the attraction of Confucian values and the
‘Beijing model’ of development. In all cases, it is exactly the values or poli-
cies—not to mention narratives of national selfhood—that particular pol-
icymakers try to promote and preserve that they claim as important soft
power resources. Describing something as a soft power resource can thus
serve as an endogenous validation of the policies and national discourses
that political practitioners advocate. In short, the concept of soft power has
political utility in serving to reaffirm the policies and values that political
actors—Nye included—advance.
Social identity theorists moreover suggest that actors generally attribute
more attractive and positive characteristics to their in-group,31 and are pre-
disposed to imbue their particular values and positions with an inherent
attraction. A bias of this kind can therefore make actors more receptive to
arguments that encourage such beliefs. Soft power approaches arguably fit
this description to the extent that they propose foreign policy benefits for
those states which remain true to their values. By promoting certain articu-
lations of their own values and national discourses abroad, actors create
opportunities for the kind of social feedback that endorses pre-existing be-
liefs. Indeed, from the social psychology perspective, actors are likely to

Joseph Nye, The Paradox of American Power (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001),
p. xii.
Jonathan Mercer, ‘Anarchy and Identity’, International Organization, Vol. 49, No. 2
(1995), pp. 229–52.

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A Critical Examination of Soft Power as an Analytical Category 197

focus on the types of international reactions to their soft power strategies

which provide positive feedback while at the same time rationalizing away
evidence that their values or beliefs are less than attractive.32 This generates
a self-reinforcing dynamic that feeds into pre-existent in-group biases.
The purpose of this discussion is to propose that it is both the political
utility and, from the social identity theory perspective, so-called attractive-
ness entailed in the concept of soft power that encourages policymakers to
endorse it. Soft power is a term that offers a convenient fit for the political
needs, beliefs and possible biases of state actors who, in turn,
inter-subjectively buttress the notion that soft power is at work by adopting
strategies rooted in the claims of soft power approaches.
The fact that many policymakers have adopted the concept of soft power
qualifies it as a category of practice. But as the above discussion seeks to
postulate, the qualities of the concept of soft power that are responsible for
this are not necessarily those that recommend it as a category of analysis. As
earlier stated, a category of analysis is based on attributes or mechanisms
common to the objects or phenomena it designates, but at the same time
discrete from the observed outcomes they are purported to explain. The
purpose of this section is to stress that widespread usage is not sufficient
for designating a term a category of analysis.
That said, status as a category of practice does not necessarily disqualify a
term as a category of analysis. The criteria necessary for a category of ana-
lysis are, after all, shared attributes or mechanisms. Significantly enough,
Nye proposes a mechanism—attraction—which analytically unites soft
power resources. The matter under discussion in the next section, therefore,
is the suitability of attraction as a mechanism upon which to base a category
of analysis.33 If attraction proves to be a viable mechanism common to the
soft power assets that Nye outlines, there is good reason to treat soft power
as a category of analysis. If not, the concept of soft power needs to be
rethought. The next section poses two questions. The first: does the behav-
iour that actors exhibit towards designated soft power resources signify at-
traction? Second, if attraction does exist, does it produce favourable foreign
policy outcomes for states that enjoy its benefits? Reframed in social science
terms, these questions explore whether or not the mechanism under exam-
ination is operative, and if so, whether or not it produces the outcomes that
have been attributed to it.

Robert Jervis, Perception and Misperception in International Politics (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1976), pp. 143–202.
Again, Nye has in other writings noted institutional agenda-setting as a possible form of
soft power. This, however, is an entirely different mechanism from the notion of attraction
he advances in Soft Power (2004). As such it will not be treated as belonging to the same
category of analysis.

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198 Todd Hall

Types of Attraction
Soft power, according to Nye, ‘arises from the attractiveness of a country’s
culture, political ideas, and policies’.34 This section follows Nye in subdivid-
ing soft power resources into his three major categories. For these assets to
function in the way Nye describes, they must (i) produce an attraction, and
(ii) this attraction should help a given state in its pursuit of foreign policy
goals. To explore whether or not this is the case, this section examines each
of Nye’s three categories of soft power resources.

Culture might seem an amorphous concept, but the empirical examples
Nye offers are clear indicators of what he regards as representative. His
analysis as it pertains to the United States in particular focuses on academic
and other cultural exchanges (high culture) as well as on popular culture
(low culture). The question, therefore, is to what extent these are sources of
When considering academic institutions as a source of soft power, it is
difficult to parse out attraction from other possible mechanisms. The desire
to study abroad might have less to do with attraction to a state’s ‘culture’,
understood in the broadest sense, and be more a reflection of the brand
status and resources of that state’s academic institutions. From the perspec-
tive of career advancement alone, there are strong enticements to study at a
university recognized as being at the cutting edge of research, or that has
high name recognition. What is more, the location of a university may be
importantly correlated to its ability to access resources through connections
to domestic business and science sectors. Couple the above factors with the
path dependent effects of reputation for acquiring talent and it becomes
obvious that there are many reasons other than culture for selecting a
specific university. Statistics appear to support this proposition. The top
three most popular fields among foreign students in the United States are
those of business and management, engineering, and physical and life sci-
ences,35 all of which have clear economic and technological orientations.
Attraction to a particular culture should hence not be confused with more
self-interested motivations.
This does not discredit the argument that the experience of studying in a
foreign country—or other forms of exchange—might heighten the positive
impression individuals may hold of it. This is an important topic worthy of

Joseph Nye, Soft Power, p. x.
See ‘Table 16: International Students by Field of Study, 2006/07 & 2007/08’, Open Doors
2008: Report on International Educational Exchange (New York: Institute of International
Education, 2008).

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A Critical Examination of Soft Power as an Analytical Category 199

future study. In situations where the citizens of two states have little contact,
it is easy to imagine the ways in which limited high culture exchanges could
break down and humanize what were hitherto exaggerated stereotypes.
There is nevertheless need for caution. Any given society is complex, with
both positive and negative elements. Although more frequent exchanges
might counter the simplistic views certain actors hold of their foreign coun-
terparts, familiarity can also breed contempt. This, at least, would seem to
be the case for the 9/11 hijackers who had studied in ‘the West’. As Nye
himself observes, exposure may also elicit ‘repulsion’.36 On a less extreme
level, we should not automatically assume that exchange participants are
incapable of nuance. Exchanges might indeed promote attraction among
participants toward a host state’s people or culture, but we should not
assume that the scope of this attraction will include the host government
or its foreign policies. Again, more research is needed on this topic. In pro-
ceeding, however, we must be careful of selection biases. In other words,
those choosing to study abroad might already be predisposed towards cer-
tain views of their host country.
Popular culture is perhaps the most widely mentioned and controversial
soft power resource. Nye cites figures which demonstrate that people
throughout the world are attracted to products of American popular cul-
ture,37 and that there are, moreover, large foreign markets for American
cultural products, particularly movies. It cannot be assumed, however, that
this constitutes attraction to American culture as a whole for several im-
portant reasons.
First, people need to be aware of cultural goods before they can consume
them. This presupposes an existing network for advertising, distribution,
and sales. The popularity of Hollywood movies, for instance, has long
been touted as representative of the attraction of American culture. But
Hollywood is differentiated from its competition by access to substantial
amounts of capital and an unparalleled international marketing and distri-
bution apparatus. Take for example the internationally top grossing movie
of 2007, Pirates of the Caribbean: At the World’s End. The trailer alone was
expected to reach ‘an estimated 200 million þ viewers in 62 countries, 31
languages, across five continents and spanning over 12 time zones’ within
days of its release.38 The movie cost an estimated US $300 million to make,
and was eventually shown in ‘more than 10,000 theatres in 104 countries’.39
When examining the success of this ‘cultural product’ it is difficult to ignore
the massive amount of resources that were marshalled to make Pirates into
Joseph Nye, Soft Power, p. 52.
Ibid., p. 36.
‘Worldwide Trailer ‘Roadblock’ Debut for Walt Disney ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: At
World’s End’ to Reach an Unprecedented Global Audience’, Business Wire, March 16,

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200 Todd Hall

an international phenomenon. One has to ask whether it was the cultural

content of the film that drew audiences, or the production, marketing, and
special effects spectacle it presented. If the latter is the case, it is less a matter
of a given culture being attractive than its ability to mount a packaging and
delivery blitzkrieg.
Also to bear in mind is the fact that consumers of cultural goods might not
always react to them in the way their producers expect. An extreme example
of this is the screening before Somali audiences of the 2001 American film
Black Hawk Down,40 intended as grim and tragic portrayal of American
heroism after a military helicopter is grounded and comes under attack in
Mogadishu. Scenes where American soldiers are injured or killed, however,
elicited cheers rather than sympathy from Somali cinema-goers.
On a more subtle level, though, consumers might bring to bear their
specific cultural frameworks of interpretation when attaching meaning to
cultural products. There is no reason to assume that the message being sent
is the same as that being received; audiences after all have their own pro-
cesses of generating meaning.41 What some may perceive as national values
embodied in a cultural product, others may see as universal values devoid of
national association, or even as vices, peculiarities, or devoid of meaning.
The point here is that the cultural values that manufacturers ascribe to their
goods might not be those that are understood—let alone viewed as attract-
ive—by their foreign consumers.
Finally, it might not be what cultural goods are but what they are not that
makes them attractive. In other words, foreign cultural goods might provide
convenient symbolic resources that can be put to use in internal cultural or
political struggles. Under these circumstances they might be appropriated
less for their inherent attraction than the fact that they present a readymade
way of demonstrating a differentiated status, or of manifesting resistance to
an existing cultural order. This is true not only of movies but equally, if not
more, of food, fashion, and other consumable goods. Nye cites, for instance,
the role of rock and roll music in the Soviet Union.42 The main question
is whether or not there was anything special about this music, other than
its ready availability as a signifier of resistance against a regime that dis-
couraged it.
Even when acknowledging that all of these elements in some way imply a
sense of attraction to a state’s high and low culture, it remains unclear—and
this is the second question—how such an attraction translates into positive
outcomes for a state’s foreign policy goals. As Niall Ferguson bluntly states,
‘Somalis Flock to See Bootleg Version of ‘Black Hawk Down,’ Cheer American
Casualties’, Associated Press, January 23, 2002.
For a classic framing of this critic see Don Kulick and Margaret Willson, ‘Rambo’s Wife
Saves the Day: Subjugating the Gaze and Subverting the Narrative in a Papua New
Guinean Swamp’, Visual Anthropology Review, Vol. 10, No. 2 (1994), pp. 1–13.
Joseph Nye, Soft Power, p. 49.

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A Critical Examination of Soft Power as an Analytical Category 201

‘All over the Islamic world kids enjoy (or would like to enjoy) bottles of
Coke, Big Macs, CDs by Britney Spears and DVDs starring Tom Cruise.
Do any of these things make them love the United States more? Strangely,
not.’43 This suggests that the indicators Nye associates with ‘cultural attrac-
tion’ are not linked in a straight forward manner to political persuasion.
The difficulty in viewing the attraction individuals might harbor for
certain aspects of another state’s culture—either due to their consumption
of cultural goods or prolonged cultural exchange—as a foreign policy re-
source stems from the presumption it makes of undifferentiated attractive-
ness. Why assume that individuals, even foreign policy novices, are
incapable of holding nuanced views? For instance, as demonstrated in the
2008 Pew Global Survey, there sometimes exists a considerable difference
between the view foreign observers have of a state and of its citizens. The
survey observes, ‘In many countries, there are significant gaps between the
favourability rating for Americans and the rating for the United States, with
the American people receiving much more positive reviews.’44 If such dif-
ferences can indeed exist between impressions of a state and of its people,
there is no reason why it should not also be the case in the sphere of culture.
The assumption that positive cultural impressions equate with support for a
given state’s foreign policy hence stems from the simplistic view that political
actors lack cognitive complexity. How this model of naı̈ve political actor-
hood is actually defensible is not entirely apparent.
In sum, the problems facing a soft power argument based on the mech-
anism of attraction in the sphere of culture are (i) it is not clear whether
preferences for American cultural goods (high or low) indicate attraction to
the actual national-cultural elements of those goods; and (ii) the idea that an
attraction towards cultural goods or other factors is a foreign policy asset
assumes a simplistic model of political actorhood. This review, therefore,
recommends caution against taking for granted the idea that the cultural
aspects, as framed by Nye, are sources of attraction, and moreover that this
attraction can spill over into the foreign policy realm.

Political Values
Political values appear a more concrete concept than culture and hence a
more straightforward issue, but the ensuing argument suggests that this is
not necessarily the case. Determining whether or not political values are
attractive entails first defining them—in itself a highly political exercise.
Whether or not this attraction helps a state achieve its foreign policy
goals is further complicated by the ways in which external actors might
Niall Ferguson, ‘Power’, Foreign Policy, No. 134 (2003), p. 21.
‘Some Positive Signs for U.S. Image’, Pew Global Attitudes Project, June 12, 2008, p. 24.
and_polls/GAP%20report061208.pdf (accessed on October 29, 2009).

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202 Todd Hall

strategically claim certain political values as their own. This section

addresses each of these issues.
First, in examining whether or not political values produce attraction, we
must first define the political values at issue. Quite simply, there exist a
multitude of values in any polity. Which are promoted as ‘national values’
is a highly politicized and continually shifting process. For instance, promot-
ing ‘American values’ as unitary and unchanging is at best a gross mischar-
acterization. To cite one example, recent polls suggest that almost half of all
Americans believe that torture can be justified in cases of suspected terror-
ism.45 This finding reflects not only a debate on the effectiveness of torture,
but also a major divide between beliefs about the value of individual human
rights and dignity and communitarian ideas of security. This significant
division on a matter of basic values would suggest that ‘national values’
are far from monolithic.
Nevertheless, in practices of national representation—both by official
state actors and external observers—there occurs a process of selection in
which certain values are promoted as being most fundamental. But exactly
which values are emphasized and which downplayed, what kind of inter-
pretation is proposed, and where exceptions are allowed—even in domestic
contexts—is highly contextual and politically fraught. Consequently, choos-
ing particular values as belonging to a state is in the first place no innocent,
objective, analytical move, but rather an act of intervention in a political
discourse of national identity.
The implications of this point not only pertain to analysts looking to
employ the concept of political values, but also to the possible motives of
external actors. Citing values attributed to a particular state as attractive
enables foreign actors to embrace or advance a specific version of that state’s
discourse on national identity. There is nothing odd about foreign actors
adopting certain political values; the question is why they would also accept
the claims of such values as belonging to or representative of a specific
national political culture.
Put bluntly, actors may have strategic reasons for echoing such
claims. During the Cold War, for instance, certain leaders proclaimed
their affinity with American values purely to gain US support in either
international or domestic struggles. Alternatively, opposition groups may
try to marshal international backing by appealing to ostensibly shared
values. Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress is a prime example
of an opposition figure claiming to hold ‘American values’ in hopes of US
backing for his cause.46 This type of strategy could conceivably play upon
Pew Research Center, ‘Public Remains Divided Over Use of Torture’, April 23, 2009.
http://people-press.org/report/510/public-remains-divided-over-use-of-torture (accessed
October 24, 2009).
For an in-depth treatment of Chalabi and the role of the INC, see Aram Roston, The Man
Who Pushed America to War (New York: Nation Books, 2008).

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A Critical Examination of Soft Power as an Analytical Category 203

the social psychological biases mentioned in the last section, whereby polit-
ical actors might be favourably disposed to positive feedback that confirms
the attractiveness of their values. Under such circumstances, the proclaimed
political values of other states can provide a readily appropriated set of
symbolic resources capable of generating international allies.
This process, however, can also work in reverse. The discursive and pol-
itical nature through which values become associated with particular states
can also be observed in the rhetoric of actors that deprecates adversaries.
This seems to have been the strategy which Iranian leader Ali Khamene’i
adopted when he denounced the United States and other ‘Western’ states for
promoting ‘sexual freedom by their deeds, by their speeches, by their propa-
ganda and even by their philosophy’,47 saying that the ‘West’ therefore
aimed to ‘abuse and insult women’.48 This rhetoric reveals a selective por-
trayal of the values attributed to a group of states aimed not at gaining
allies, but rather at painting a picture of moral decay.
The main point here is that a state’s explicit ‘national values’ and the
extent to which external actors frame them as attractive (or not!) is in
many cases intricately linked to the political struggles in which the relevant
actors are engaged. For these reasons, analysts and outside observers
should be extremely cautious when accepting, in evaluations of the interna-
tional attractiveness of a given ‘value’, claims that a certain belief is a
‘national value’.
All the same, even if it were possible to bracket all these concerns and ask
how others’ overt emulation of a given state’s proclaimed political values
might help that state with its foreign policy goals, one would still face
difficulties. The main problem is that of the important qualitative distinction
between ‘wanting what you want’ or even ‘wanting to be like you’ on the one
hand, and ‘wanting what you want them to want’ on the other.49
Japan after the Meiji Restoration is a classic example of this problem.
There is a a strong argument that following the restoration Japan did inter-
nalize the political values of the dominant powers of the time. Indeed, Japan
demonstrated an explicit desire to study the Western powers, and hence
learned to want what they wanted, namely naval power, natural resources,
markets, colonies—an empire. These political values, however, put Japan on
a collision course with the very states it emulated, ending in the massive
bloodshed of World War II.
On a less extreme level, since developed nations began trying to reduce
carbon emissions, the internalization by developing nations of the values of

‘Iran’s Khamenei Tells ‘Elite Students’ About Importance of Self-confidence’, BBC World
Monitoring, 5 January 2008.
Ibid., p. 2.

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204 Todd Hall

industrialization and consumption, as epitomized by lifestyles in the first

world, has become a source of tension. From the perspective of industria-
lized states, therefore, developing countries eager to emulate their industri-
alization and consumption patterns represent a significant obstacle to the
common task of curbing carbon emissions, and hence a conflict of interests.
The object of these examples is to show that emulating ‘what a state
wants’ and ‘wanting what helps that state’ are two different things. The
fact, for instance, that Hamas has chosen to pursue political power through
open elections—thus apparently adopting the ‘American values’ of demo-
cratic competition—does not mean that it aspires to what the United States
‘wants them to want’. Sharing the same ‘political values’ should hence not
automatically be equated with sharing the same foreign policy goals. This
means we should be wary of arguments that assert a straightforward correl-
ation between putative national values and the ability to accomplish foreign
policy objectives.

Foreign Policy
The final source of soft power, according to Nye, is a state’s foreign policy.
Interpreted uncharitably, this hypothesis becomes semi-tautological; other
actors will support an attractive foreign policy, the attractiveness of which is
defined by the degree to which other actors support it. Under such a for-
mulation, the hypothesis is unfalsifiable. Brusquely stated, it is hard to
register the attractiveness of a policy absent the support others give to it.
In this section the two questions outlined at the outset of this endeavour fold
into one—what is it about foreign policy that makes actors support it?
A slightly more generous application of Nye’s approach in light of this
question would be that specific foreign policies gain the support of other
states absent the use of coercion or payoffs by building upon shared values.
Even phrased in this manner, however, it is difficult to separate situations
where attraction is the driving mechanism from other, possibly non-material
motivations. Neo-utilitarians would argue that correspondence of interest is
a primary motivator.50 According to this logic, states support policies that
further their own purposes. Saudi Arabia, for instance, had clear security
reasons for supporting the United States in the 1991 Gulf War, albeit having
echoed US rhetoric about the invasion of Kuwait as an outrage against
international law.51 Support such as this arguably has little to do with at-
tractiveness and everything to do with selfish interests.

John Ruggie, ‘What Makes the World Hang Together? Neo-Utilitarianism and the Social
Constructivist Challenge’, International Organization, Vol. 52, No. 4 (1998), pp. 855–85.
‘Saudi Statement Says Saddam Alone is Responsible for Consequences of his Actions’,
BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, 22 January 1991.

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A Critical Examination of Soft Power as an Analytical Category 205

A more nuanced approach would be to look at the ways in which states

promote their policies as being for the common good, or in other words, of
benefit to all or of benefit to the advancement of a shared normative order.
By gaining legitimacy in this fashion, states could be theorized as benefiting
from the mechanism of attraction. But how or why other states accept the
justification of a policy as ‘legitimate’ remains unclear. It may simply be that
governments that also stand to gain from a certain policy assist in its packa-
ging, thus giving the policy a veneer of international legitimacy sufficient to
garner domestic support. The issue then becomes not the attractiveness of
the policy per se, but rather the willingness of other states to help market it.
Also to be considered is the idea that broader appeals to common values
help a state to achieve its goals. It seems intuitive that arguments which
appeal to the greater good carry more traction than those plainly stemming
from egotistical motivations. Indeed, Nye criticizes the latter as the ap-
proach of ‘unilateralists. . . directly responsible for the decline of America’s
attractiveness abroad’. 52 The problem, however, is that efforts to frame
policies in more multilateral, ‘common good’ terms to expand a state’s in-
fluence could well backfire. Nye himself admits that attempts to be more
multilateral can at times function as a ‘straightjacket’.53
Specifically, although such a strategy could serve certain foreign policy
objectives in the short term, it might also become a constraining factor in the
long run. Frank Schimmelfennig, for instance, has highlighted in his work
the effects of ‘rhetorical entrapment’, whereby ‘even if community members
only use the standard of legitimacy opportunistically to advance their
self-interest, they can become entrapped by their arguments and obliged
to behave as if they had taken them seriously’.54 Rhetorical entrapment
works in three ways. First, states executing a particular policy to maintain
foreign backing might find themselves unwillingly bound to the initial rhet-
oric through which they justified the policy. The United States, for instance,
was not able simply to install a new, albeit friendly, dictator in Iraq, willing
to accord with its needs. Having justified the Iraq War as a necessary step to
spread democracy throughout the Middle East, the US government then
found itself constrained by the demands of elected Iraqi officials. Second,
to avoid revealing the self-interested basis of their claims, states are obliged
to follow similar norms of behaviour in related concurrent or ensuing situ-
ations. Schimmelfennig gives an account of how, having previously

Joseph Nye, Soft Power, p. 64.
Ibid., p. 66.
Frank Schimmelfennig, ‘The Community Trap: Liberal Norms, Rhetorical Action, and
the Eastern Enlargement of the European Union’, International Organization, Vol. 55, No.
1 (2001), p. 65.

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206 Todd Hall

championed the ideals of a liberal, European community, European Union

members found themselves forced to acquiesce to eastern enlargement.
Third, states are constrained from raising objections to the policies of
others justified on the basis of norms that they have in effect committed
to practicing. The actions of states under all three situations are limited by
the very arguments through which they originally expected to generate sup-
port for their own objectives. Crafting an ‘attractive’ foreign policy in the
short term, therefore, could effectively limit the room a state has to
In conclusion, this section highlights the methodological difficulties of
parsing out what constitutes attraction, given that both its indicator and
its effect—namely support for a given policy—are the same. Moreover, it
suggests that the ability to employ attraction (which seems in many ways to
signify legitimacy) to muster support for a foreign policy might also involve
significant tradeoffs. Soft power, therefore, might be a useful tool for pro-
moting a state’s foreign policy in one area, but could also limit it a state’s
freedom of political movement in others.

As stated, the goal thus far has been to ask two questions. First, does the
behaviour that actors exhibit towards designated soft power resources sig-
nify attraction? Second, if attraction does exist, does it actually produce
favourable policy outcomes for states that enjoy its benefits? The prelimin-
ary answers appear mixed at best. First, whether or not it is the cultural
elements of high and low culture goods or exchanges that make them at-
tractive is not apparent. Even if they are understood as generating an at-
traction, there is still no clear link between this and support for a particular
state’s foreign policy. Second, as it pertains to political values, soft power as
an analytic category is in itself highly problematic, given the fact it is inter-
woven with discursive struggles over political identity. What is more, the
desire to emulate another state’s perceived ‘political values’ does not neces-
sarily signify wholehearted backing of its foreign policy. There is an import-
ant distinction between actors that ‘want what you want’ and that ‘want
what you want them to want’. Finally, on the question of attraction and how
it relates to support for another state’s foreign policy, it is difficult to dis-
entangle evidence of attraction from its claimed outcome, which could easily
have other causes. Even if we accept that certain policies can theoretically be
framed in ways that accentuate their attractiveness, the benefits of such
tactics are still not clear, because theoretical commitment can also produce
actual constraints in the longer term.
More broadly, however, the concept of attraction itself makes for an un-
wieldy theoretical tool. Nye’s writings present attraction as a psychological
mechanism, but the psychology behind it is missing. It is hence unclear

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A Critical Examination of Soft Power as an Analytical Category 207

exactly what generates attraction, whether or not attraction takes different

forms or is transferable across categories, how attraction can be translated
into support, and how permanent an asset’s attraction actually is. Concisely
stated, attraction is a very ambiguous mechanism. As it stands, the concept
of attraction as articulated by Nye appears at best an imprecise basis for a
category of analysis.

The goal of this article is not to discredit the notion that alternatives to hard
power exist. The problem it highlights is the difficulty of defining the soft
power alternative as a category of analysis based on a mechanism of ‘at-
tractive power’. The question, therefore, is how to proceed. Some might
argue for a more intensive theorization of the concept of attraction. Such
a theory entails a more thorough explication of the psychological under-
pinnings of attraction; an outline of its different forms; specification of its
eliciting conditions, durability, and tangible effects; and ways to empirically
disentangle attraction from processes that have similar consequences. This
accomplished, there is still no guarantee that this mechanism is actually
capable of generating important empirical effects. The author believes
there is a simpler alternative. This article proposes preserving the basic in-
tuitions of the soft power approach—that there are pathways of influence
apart from military and economic power—but discarding the concept of
attraction. Nye identifies in his writings various possible sources of influ-
ence, such as institutions, reputations, and dissemination of information. It
is possible to extract and develop theories based on these sources, without
the need to assume the mechanism of attraction is at work. This, however,
requires disaggregating the notion of soft power into separate analytical
categories and abandoning the assumption that these mechanisms are uni-
fied by anything other than the fact that none is a type of hard power. In
other words, we should speak not of soft power, but ‘soft powers’, each with
distinct causal pathways and mechanisms.
The next section presents three preliminary proposals for categories of
analysis with clear, testable mechanisms that build upon the sources of in-
fluence Nye identifies. It is by no means an exhaustive list, and this article is
certainly not the first to propose disaggregating forms of power.55 The in-
tention is to provide brief illustrations of how we can forge more precise
categories of analysis out of the foundational material Nye provides without

See, for instance, Michael Barnett and Raymond Duvall, ‘Power in International Politics’,
International Organization, Vol. 59, No. 1 (2005), pp. 39–75.

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208 Todd Hall

invoking the ambiguous concept of attraction. Specifically, this article pro-

poses an examination of the categories of institutional power, reputational
power, and representational power.

Institutional Power
The role of institutions occupies a large body of international relations lit-
erature.56 Barnett and Duvall define institutional power as ‘preconstituted
actors exercising control over others indirectly through institutions’.57 This
definition encompasses all the ways in which state actors can indirectly,
often unintentionally, shape the behaviour of others over time and space.
This article, however, is interested in a more narrow definition. Specifically,
it defines institutional power as the options available to state actors accord-
ing to their membership and relative position within specific international
organizations which enable those states to exercise influence within them.
For example, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security
Council have institutional powers that non-P5 states do not, as regards
agenda-setting, authorizing international actions, and either legitimizing or
censuring the behaviour of others. This is not simply a function of material
power; there are significant variations in material capabilities among the P5
states, and also rich, populous, nuclear-armed states that do not enjoy
permanent status. The status of permanent member hence confers specific
pathways of influence on a select few.
Outlining and testing the effects of institutional power is a straightforward
matter. If we take institutional position or membership as the independent
variable, we can then examine its effects on the dependent variable of foreign
policy success. Looking at states with different relative positions, either
within or outside institutions, enables us to produce variations on the inde-
pendent variable while controlling other factors. Coupling with this complex
process tracing to determine exactly what attributes of their institutional

Stephen D. Krasner, ‘Regimes and the Limits of Realism: Regimes as Autonomous
Variables’, International Organization, Vol. 36, No. 2 (1982), pp. 497–510; Andreas
Hasenclever, et al., ‘Integrating Theories of International Regimes’, Review of
International Studies, Vol. 26, No. 1 (2000), pp. 3–33; Robert O. Keohane,
‘International Institutions: Two Approaches’, International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 32,
No. 4 (1988), pp. 379–96; Robert O. Keohane, After Hegemony: Cooperation and
Discord in the World Political Economy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984);
Martha Finnemore and Michael N. Barnett, ‘The Politics, Power and Pathologies of
International Organizations’, International Organization, Vol. 53, No. 4 (1999), pp. 699–
732; Barbara Koremenos, Charles Lipson, and Duncan Snidal, ‘The Rational Design of
International Institutions’, International Organization, Vol. 55, No. 4 (2001), pp. 761–99;
For a good overview, see Beth A. Simmons and Lisa L. Martin, ‘International
Organizations and Institutions’, in Walter Carlsnaes et al., eds., Handbook of
International Relations, (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2001), pp. 192–211.
Michael Barnett and Raymond Duvall, ‘Power in International Politics’, p. 51.

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A Critical Examination of Soft Power as an Analytical Category 209

status states are able to draw upon in pursuing their goals enables us to
identify exactly which institutional pathways generate influence.

Reputational Power
Much work has been done on the role of reputations in deterrent situ-
ations.58 This body of work has primarily been interested in the questions
of credibility of threat and reputations for belligerence.59 Comparatively less
research has been done on other types of reputation and their effects.60 A
reputation for being economically successful, for instance, might give a state
more of a say in the creation of development models. Being known as a
neutral broker could qualify a state to intercede as arbitrator in a conflict. A
reputation for giving aid might dispel suspicions that a state has exploitative
intentions. Reputations develop in complex ways and may not be simply a
reflection of past behaviour of international actors.61 Nevertheless, the
images others have of a state actor influence the importance they attach
to its statements, the manner in which they interpret its actions, and the
predictions they make about future behaviour.62
Reputations as independent variables can be measured through polling,
focus groups or surveys. But we should be careful to clearly differentiate the
different types of state reputations. Popular evaluations of a state as simply
favourable or unfavourable reveal little of the criteria that actors rely upon
to form judgments about a said state’s reliability, intentions, credentials, and
expertise. Although a state may be despised in general, its officials might
retain influence by virtue of their perceived expertise in a particular area.
The term reputational power, therefore, highlights the manner in which
particular reputations provide states with issue-specific forms of influence.
Certain types of positive reputation might be evident in foreign policy out-
comes; others might not. In looking at the effects of reputations on the

For the classic treatment of this topic, see Thomas Schelling, Arms and Influence
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966).
For more recent treatments, see Mark Crescenzi, ‘Reputation and Interstate Conflict’,
American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 51, No. 2 (2007), pp. 382–96; Anne Sartori,
‘The Might of the Pen: A Reputational Theory of Communication in International
Disputes’, International Organization, Vol. 56, No. 1 (2002), pp. 121–49; Johnathan
Mercer, Reputation in International Politics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996);
Daryl G. Press, Calculating Credibility: How Leaders Assess Military Threats (Ithaca:
Cornell University Press, 2005); Paul Huth, ‘Reputation and Deterrence: A Theoretical
and Empirical Assessment’, Security Studies, Vol. 7, No. 1 (1997), pp. 72–99.
Important exceptions are: Michael Tomz, Reputation and International Cooperation:
Sovereign Debt Across Three Centuries (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007);
Peter van Ham, ‘The Rise of the Brand State: The Postmodern Politics of Image and
Reputation’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 80, No. 5 (2001), pp. 2–6.
Johnathan Mercer, Reputation in International Politics.
Robert Jervis, The Logic of Images in International Relations (New York: Columbia
University Press, 1989).

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210 Todd Hall

dependent variable of certain foreign policy successes, it is necessary to be

precise about exactly how a state’s reputation informs others in ways that
shape their decisions. By clarifying the type of reputation involved we can
also be more exact in identifying the scope conditions under which certain
reputations affect outcomes.

Representational Power
Constructivists within international relations have devoted considerable
effort to analysing discourses that constitute identities and shape the choices
of actors. Janice Bially Mattern, in particular, has emphasized the role of
‘representational force’, whereby threats are ‘aimed at the victim’s subject-
ivity rather than physicality and are communicated not in reference to ma-
terial capabilities but through the way the author structures her narrative’.63
In other words, for Mattern, representational force aims to coerce others by
placing them in a discursive trap that forces them either to submit or to
surrender their subjectivity. For the purposes of this article, however, rep-
resentational power is defined in a more limited and concrete fashion as the
ability of states to frame issues, advance their own interpretations, and con-
sciously seek to shape the beliefs of others. Sources and tools of represen-
tational power include public diplomacy, propaganda and information
A state which possesses a high degree of representational power is better
able to spread internationally a message that both reflects its interests or
ideology and puts its spin on a given issue, but that also discredits alternative
interpretations. Representational power can overlap with reputational
power in a state’s efforts to promote a specific national image abroad, but
the two are not the same. Reputations come from multiple sources; con-
versely, representational power can be used to shape beliefs about things
other than reputations. States can employ representation power, for in-
stance, to advance the impression abroad that particular groups are terror-
ists as opposed to freedom fighters, that a given issue is scientific rather than
political, or that a state is a victim rather than a perpetrator. Successfully
perpetuating such frames of reference helps states in their efforts to shape
international debates to their advantage. Representational power can thus
be measured by comparing the message a state is attempting to propagate
with the degree to which its target audiences accept the way it is framed.
Likely variables relevant to the success of representational strategies include
access to resources through which state actors can disseminate their

Janice Bially Mattern, ‘Why ‘Soft Power’ Isn’t So Soft: Representational Force and the
Sociolinguistic Construction of Attraction in World Politics’, Millennium, Vol. 33, No.3
(2005), p. 602.

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A Critical Examination of Soft Power as an Analytical Category 211

framings, adroit spin skills and the ability to delegitimize or block adver-
saries’ counter-rhetoric. Research on this form of power should show clear
links between the efforts of state actors and actual outcomes through close
examinations of along exactly which pathways states have successfully con-
veyed a given message, and to what extent that message related to support
for specific foreign policies.
Again, the three earlier examples of ‘soft powers’ are not purported to be
the last word on the subject. Rather, they are meant to illustrate alternatives
which capitalize on the basis Nye provides without resorting to the attrac-
tion mechanism. The causal pathways outlined here are specific, traceable
and denote clear mechanisms that serve as categories of analysis.

Understanding the various ways in which states achieve their aims is one of
the goals of international relations scholarship. The concept of soft power,
as articulated by Nye, has helped this endeavour by highlighting types of
influence other than the tools of military force and economic statecraft. Soft
power arguments powered by the so-called mechanism of attraction,
however, appear problematic. Although policy makers might welcome
such arguments, the concept of attraction does not form a suitable founda-
tion upon which to base a category of analysis.
This article therefore proposes that the idea of soft power be replaced with
a conceptualization of various soft powers rooted in different mechanisms
which operate through discrete pathways. The themes of institutions, repu-
tation and the ability to advance particular representations all appear
in Nye’s work and the author believes that these offer possibilities as
departure points from whence to proceed. The sketches of institutional
power, reputation power, and representational power provided above are
intended as examples, but many other possibilities undoubtedly also exist.
Nye has identified a field of analysis, but much work remains to be done,
both theoretically and empirically, to specify the pathways which run
through it.

The Chinese Journal of International Politics, Vol. 3, 2010, 189–211

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