Skip to main content

Soft Power: What is it and why is it important?

by Robert Hughes
Jun 17, 2024 11:24:20 AM

There’s no question that we’re living in unprecedented times. With an extremely uncertain international climate, and the looming realities of the fourth industrial and technological revolution, Australia needs, more than ever, to create a thoughtful, well-crafted ‘Soft Power’ strategy to promote, enhance and protect its interests both internally and internationally.

So what does this mean, and more importantly, what even is ‘Soft Power’?

‘Soft Power’ has existed for as long as civilization; there just hasn’t always been a name for it. However, in the late 1980s, Joseph Nye, an American political scientist, introduced the term, ‘Soft Power,’ in his book, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics.’  For Nye, power is the ability to influence the behaviour of others to your benefit, and there’s several ways this can be achieved. Now if we were to go back a few hundred years and ask Machiavelli, or even further to ask Sun Tzu, we’d find that their means of achieving power often involved methods of coercion such as fear tactics, or brute force, which Nye refers to as ‘Hard Power’. On the other side of this is ‘Soft Power’: the ability to attract people to want what you want. Nye stresses that getting others to want the outcomes you want can be a far more effective tool for achieving one’s goals, and he focuses on the distinction between co-opting people rather than coercing them.1

In theory this seems relatively simple. If we take a country like Australia, and look at the goals it may set itself, whether it be sustainably growing its GDP, reducing its carbon footprint or just maintaining overall safety, the only way to successfully achieve these goals is to get the nation’s people on board. But, in a democratic system with an opposing party and a country made up of numerous demographics each supporting varying opinions, this can be a lot harder than you might think. Consequently, Nye argues that “Soft Power’ is a much more difficult instrument for governments to wield than ‘Hard Power’ for two reasons:

  1. Many of its critical resources are outside the control of governments. It’s important to note that this was written at the end of the Cold War, where nations harnessed their media outlets to push political agendas. And of course while this is still pertinent today, there has been one huge change since then: the internet. Since Nye released his book in the 80s, the world has undergone a massive technological revolution. This is because 63.2% of the world’s population has access to the internet, which means over half the world’s population has access to news sources, opinions and information that may directly contradict or impede their state’s agenda. This is by no means a bad thing, a more informed and more involved population produces better governments, ones that are hiding less and less behind closed doors. But, with the freedom that comes with the internet, so do a lot of falsities, errors and bad information that mean a nation’s overall ‘Soft Power’ is in a constant state of fluctuation. The technological revolution has also led to the rise of extraordinarily powerful non-state parties, such as large tech companies that do not answer to one nation. These organisations have the ability to sway massive numbers of people, as seen in the 2016 Cambridge Analytica scandal, and are not always at the beck-and-call of the nations they reside in.
  1. ‘Soft Power’, in its essence, takes a long time to utilise. Due to its complexity and fickle nature, it tends to only work indirectly. States can’t just use the ‘Soft Power’ they have to achieve their desired outcomes; instead they must use it indirectly, shaping the environment for policy and co-opting people to want what they want. Because of this, it sometimes takes many years for there to be a noticeable change, let alone the ability for them to achieve their goals. 

So now we know a bit about what ‘Soft Power’ is, you’re probably wondering where the real world applications lie, and how much Soft Power’ nations actually have. 

But how does one go about measuring something that is in essence, so theoretical? 

While measuring ‘Soft Power’ will never be a precise science, there have been many attempts at quantifying it. The first attempt to properly measure the ‘Soft Power’ of nations through a composite index was created and published by the Institute for Government together with the media company Monocle in 2010.2 Monocle organised the metrics for this evaluation according to a framework of five separate indices:

  • Culture – The extent of the Nation’s cultural appeal.
  • Diplomacy – The strength of its diplomatic network.
  • Education –  The global reputation of its higher education system.
  • Business/Innovation – The attractiveness of a country’s economic model, and its digital engagement with the world.
  • Government – The quality of a country’s political institutions.

Within these indices, the list is calculated using around fifty factors that indicate the use of ‘Soft Power’. These include the number of cultural missions such as language schools, Olympic Medals and the quality of a country’s architecture and business brands. Of course, the factors actually involved in a nation’s full ‘Soft Power’ would be far greater than these lists measure, because some of these factors aren’t quantifiable, and many haven’t been recognised. However, ranking nations in this way has been mostly successful, with most countries setting specific goals to rank higher on the ‘Soft Power’ lists.

According to Brand Finance’s 2021 survey, Germany tops the international ranking, closely followed by Japan at number two, then the United Kingdom in third place. According to Brand Finance’s CEO, David Haigh, Germany’s first place, having moved up two spots since last year, is largely due to the steady leadership of Angela Merkel and her scientific, data driven response to the COVID-19 pandemic, ‘epitomising her renowned credibility.’

For the most part, COVID has played a huge role in this year’s soft power rankings, as it offered the masses a much clearer view of their nations, and said nations’ abilities to handle and control an unprecedented situation. For example, coming in at second place, Japan jumped six rankings due to its own COVID response, as well as reaping the benefits of, ‘strong brands, solid consumer spend, and high levels of business investment.’ However, the United States, traditionally known as the ’Soft Power Super Power,’ has dropped to sixth place, due to a turbulent election year and extreme mismanagement to the global pandemic. 

As for Australia, our soft power has been steadily rising year by year, and has proven to be the fastest growing nation among the top ten. This has come not only due to our comparatively successful response to the COVID crisis, but also due to a precise attempt at improving some of our Soft Power pillars, such as our International Relations and Media Communication. 

The idea of soft power existed before there was an agreed upon method of measuring it, so why do countries pay so much attention to their ranking, and put so much time, energy and resources into improving it? The answer to this involves another complexity that comes with the pursuit of ‘Soft Power’. This is because a high ranking on the ‘Soft Power’ index actually increases one’s ‘Soft Power’, particularly when we keep in mind how the outside world perceives a country. As a country rises up the ‘Soft Power’ list, more and more outside parties align themselves with the common goals of that country and as a consequence, more ‘Soft Power’ leads to a higher ranking on the index, which in turn leads to more ‘Soft Power’.

However, with more and more power comes a greater chance of crashing. Take the USA for example. They haven’t specifically crashed or fallen hard on any of the ‘Soft Power’ indexes, but their ranking has always been one of the ficklest. Due to the highly publicised nature of their government, and the wide reach of their media, it’s just as easy to dissuade a huge amount of people as it is to co-opt them.

Ok, so just like the theory, it’s clear that you could spend your whole life getting down into the nitty gritty of measuring ‘Soft Power’, as some people do. But you probably don’t have time for that, or you might even be wondering why it matters at all. Despite its difficulty to measure, ‘Soft Power’s’ importance to a country is undeniable. A country’s ability to align its people to a common goal is paramount in achieving it. And now, in the modern era, it could be seen to be easier and easier for nations to connect with their people, thanks to digital communication: 

The Government recognises the greater ability in a globalised world of individuals and non-state actors to shape outcomes on issues of importance to Australia. Digital communication also allows non-government actors and nation states alike to influence public attitudes at a place and scale not witnessed before.

Here we see, in a past Advance Soft Power report, just how much importance the Australian Government places on Soft Power.

So what is Advance doing? Well as we can see above, a country’s soft power is hugely reliant on how the world perceives it (like how Merkel’s leadership managed to take Germany to first place). But it’s also imperative that, for Australia’s soft power to grow, we’re constantly learning and adapting what the rest of the world is doing, and utilising all of the resources we have. While Australia has a vast and impressive source of knowledge right here, we also have so many amazing expats living, working and learning overseas. We love to see this, we love showing off the incredible things Australians are constantly doing on the global stage. And with each accomplished expat, comes an increased perception of Australia. 

Seems simple right? It is. Advance is here to find those amazing expats and show not only Australia, but the rest of the world, all the incredible work they’re doing. We’re here to help them in any step of the journey, whether it’s finding a network in their new country, or returning home and utilising the skills and knowledge they learnt in their time overseas. It’s our people that are our greatest resource, and if we can continue to connect them and encourage them to achieve amazing things, Australia’s soft power will continue to steadily rise as it has done for the past decade.

1 Joseph S. Nye, Jr (2004-03-16). Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics.

2 McClory, Jonathan (2010-12-07). “The new persuaders: an international ranking of soft power”.