In recent years no scholarly article about diplomacy or report on the subject in the toffs’ press has been complete without a knowing reference to “soft power” – the deployment of cultural and other peaceful assets as means of persuasion. It is often contrasted with “hard power”, persuasion by use of bombs, drones, Special Forces, blackmail, threats, and the like. Now the term soft power has been comprehensively discredited by the person best qualified to torpedo it, Emeritus Professor G R Berridge, the guru of diplomatic studies and author of their classic text, Diplomacy: Theory and Practice, among many other books and articles. In a few witty and pithy paragraphs on the home page of his website, Professor Berridge expertly deconstructs the definition of “soft power” rashly recorded by its inventor, the distinguished American scholar “Joseph S. Nye, Jnr., a Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor and former senior member of the US military-intelligence complex”. Berridge castigates Nye’s definition as “cluttered with redundant words”, and for describing “something for which we have long had a more elegant term: influence. Removing the clutter makes this obvious.” He thereupon surgically excises the clutter, exposing what remains as nothing more than a perfectly satisfactory definition of “influence”.
Berridge offers three possible reasons for the virus-like spread of this “silly and inelegant synonym for influence”: first, that it’s easy to grasp, whereas ‘influence’ is hard to define even though not hard to understand; secondly, because of “the influence, sorry, soft power, of the leading American universities, the US International Relations establishment … and major American publishers, reinforced by the pull of the English language”; and thirdly because the enthusiasts for soft power (and for its originator) have yielded to the temptation to describe it as a concept, rather than simply a term, “thereby suggesting the discovery of something new”, even though Nye himself is on record as admitting that “the behaviour it denotes is as old as human history”.
Practising diplomats, especially typically pragmatic British practitioners, as distinct from academic teachers and students of the theory and history of diplomacy, are sometimes bewildered by theoretical expositions of what they are supposed to be up to and why they are up to it. Here is a refreshing example of the reverse: a leading academic demonstrates that the soft power emperor is sartorially challenged, that calling influence “soft power” adds precisely nothing to our understanding of it, and that the exercise of non-coercive influence has been one of the principal features of diplomacy, among several others, since the first human tried to persuade the second human to have a bite of the first apple. Diplomats need no longer feel uneasy about their activities being defined as the deployment of soft power, when what they do is largely simple common sense. Influence is the diplomat’s primary tool, almost always preferable to the use or threat of force as a means of getting others to behave in the way you want them to. Calling it soft power is neither here nor there.
(Full disclosure: Geoff Berridge is an old friend. I was privileged to be invited to read an early draft of his short essay on soft power and to encourage him to publish it on his website. If his piece succeeds in killing off this superfluous and pretentious term, I shall have to plead guilty as a minor but enthusiastic accessory to the assassination.)