‘Soft power’, coined by Joseph S. Nye, is the power of attraction; hard power is the power of government or a state to coerce or persuade. They can be hard to distinguish, especially since governments have grasped the efficacy of ‘soft’ power and are now using it with ‘hard’ power in a combination that Nye has termed ‘smart’ power.
Hard power is the traditional magazine of powers a state has, viz. military, diplomatic and economic. We could also include ‘political’, slightly more nebulous. An example of the last is the Israeli’s occupation of the West Bank: encouraged by the government, backed by the military, but a citizen-led land-grab. Hard power could be economic sanctions, such as the international ones against apartheid South Africa, Iran and North Korea. These have variable effects – South Africa was effective, but North Korea stumbles on, chiefly because one country will not join the trade embargo. The Iranian sanctions were followed by diplomacy between the West and Iran, and this led to the sanctions being recently lifted. At the moment, the USA is threatening North Korea with the hardest power of all, the military.
Soft power is not centred in the government, but is spread diffusely in civil society. The strength and impressiveness of America can be seen in the number of military bases it has globally, but these are matched by the number of Walmarts globally. In buying American products, such as Coca Cola, from American stores (to use the American word), the consumer is buying into American culture, and, as politics springs from culture, will become receptive to American political ideals. The dominance of American companies over the internet is another example of soft power. China has censored Google precisely because the government recognises the power of soft power: access to Google could, eventually, lead to revolution. The British exercise soft power through their education system – internationally-renowned universities, schools with foreign branches, the British Council. The Chinese have, perhaps inspired by the British Council, started their own soft power unit, the Confucius Institutes, which are all over the world and which promote Chinese culture and language. These are, as everything is in China, funded by the government, but they have no overt political aim. Similarly, the investment in Africa by Chinese companies (whose leaders all belong to the Chinese Communist Party) is also soft power – this investment does not directly involve state politics or economics, but does benefit China as a whole, and not just individual Chinese businesses.
‘Smart’ power is a combination of the two, where the government, either through agencies or through directly encouraging private entities, establishes positive relations that go beyond the healing of antagonism (diplomacy, economic power), and forge something positive that will bind the countries – perhaps establishing complex interdependence. Obama’s intention re. Iran was to have soft power spreading to, eventually, topple the Islamic regime – where hard power has failed for 38 years. Trump has stopped this, and reverted to hard power, and the Iranians have reacted negatively.
Soft power is perhaps more effective in the long term.