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Ideological Bias of Joseph Nye’s Soft Power: A Critical Analysis of Soft Power Theory

Info: 14561 words (58 pages) Dissertation
Published: 12th Jan 2022

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Tagged: International Relations


Over the nearly three decades since Joseph Nye introduced the concept of soft power, his theory of attraction in international relations has become firmly entrenched in the political lexicon of academic and policy circles. However, despite such widespread adoption, there remains a tension over what soft power is and how useful an analytical tool it is for understanding the international environment. This dissertation performs a critical analysis of the concept, with particular focus on the development of attempts to measure it: such as the Portland Soft Power 30 Index. In doing so, we will see how Nye’s framing of the theory, and attempts to measure it, too often fail to live up to the claim of soft power being descriptive in nature. Indeed, the theory itself can work as a form of hegemonic discourse in international relations, due to an ideological bias towards definitions of attractiveness centred around American and Western value systems. Rather than reject the concept outright, I wish to remove it of these ideological biases and look at the presence of soft power outside a Western frame through a case study of Sino-Singaporean relations: especially during the leadership of Deng Xiaoping and Lee Kuan Yew.

List of Abbreviations

ASEAN – Association of Southeast Asian Nations

BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa

PAP – People’s Action Party

PM – Prime Minister

UK – United Kingdom

UN – United Nations

US – United States

Table of Contents

List of Figures / List of Abbreviations

Chapter 1: Introduction

1.1 Method & Methodology

Chapter 2: Literature Review                                                                 

2.1 Defining Power

2.2 The art of attraction: Joseph Nye’s soft power

Chapter 3: The Ideological Bias of Soft Power

3.1 Portland Soft Power 30 Index

3.2 Soft Power with Chinese Characteristics

3.3 Is soft power redundant?

Chapter 4: An Asian Attraction? Sino-Singapore Relations



List of Figures

Figure. 1 Portland Soft Power 30 Index rankings

Chapter 1: Introduction

If judged by the “breadth and frequency of its use alone” (Lock, 2009:32), Joseph Nye’s concept of soft power would undoubtedly be deemed a qualified success. Since Nye first coined the term in Bound to Lead (1990a), it has grown to become a “central analytical tool in foreign policy discussions” (Wilson, 2008: 114). Originally used to refute claims of American overstretch and decline (Kennedy, 1987), Nye argued that in a world of increasing “complex interdependence” (Keohane & Nye, 1987), traditional resources of ‘hard power’, particularly economic and military strength, would prove “too costly and dangerous” to deploy effectively (1990a:115); and that success in the rapidly changing international environment increasingly depended upon the application of “soft power; the power associated with attracting others and getting them to ‘want what you want’” (Nye, 1990a:32).

This ‘power of attraction’ was, for Nye, precisely why talk of the United States (US)’ power and influence being in decline was overstated. The US remained dominant through both hard power and “the attraction of its culture, its values, and the economic success of corporations”, resulting in its ability to influence and shape international institutions and values in a manner which no other state could rival (Nye, 1990b). This attraction results in the production of ‘soft power’, and the ability to “persuade rather than coerce others into wanting what America wants, emulating its example and following its leads” (Nye, 2004a).

While the concept of soft power was originally applied to the US, particularly in analysing contemporary American foreign policy, it has been adopted as a policy tool by various governments across the world, including those with vastly different political, cultural and value systems: from Chinese Premier Xi Jinping (2014)’s vow to “promote China’s soft power through its value system and cultural charm”, to British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson (2016)’s declaration that the United Kingdom (UK) is a “soft power superpower”.

Nye’s claim that the US generates soft power through attraction to its “universalistic culture” and respect for “human rights, democracy, individual and economic freedom” (2004a:32) might suggest that China, and other illiberal regimes such as Russia, would struggle to do the same. Nye himself holds that both China and Russia suffer from a “soft power deficit” (2012); what both “fail to understand is that Government cannot be the main producer of soft power… it must come from the full talents of a free civil society” (Nye, 2013).

Despite Nye’s rejection that soft power is “idealist or liberal” in construction – it is a “descriptive, rather than normative theory” (Nye, 2011), his perception of what is universally attractive and how this generates soft power leads to problematic issues regarding the descriptive label he has applied. This takes us to the central question of this research project:

“Is Joseph Nye’s theory of soft power ideologically biased? If so, does this mean we should reject the concept?”

In seeking to answer this question, the dissertation performs a critical analysis of Nye’s framing of soft power theory and his claim that it is descriptive in nature. In part, this will be done by citing the Portland Soft Power 30 Index, a recent development in attempts to measure soft power resources, described by Nye as “the best attempt to measure it so far” (2015:6) – yet which confirms that too often, American and Western cultural and values systems are treated as the most attractive. This not only limits the usefulness of soft power theory in analysing non-Western forms of cultural attraction as a power dynamic in international relations, but also turns soft power into a liberal hegemonic theory: which means that for illiberal and non-Western states to be seen as successful in terms of soft power, they must accept and emulate the political and cultural values of the Western world.

Rather than reject soft power outright due to its ideological bias towards liberal values, however, I wish to stay true to Nye’s (2004a:11) conception of it as a form of attraction to a state’s “culture, political values and domestic and foreign policy”. Yet with its emergence directly linked to its application as a tool for analysing US foreign policy, Nye’s theory, and much of the literature which has arisen from it, has a tendency to employ a Western lens that it fails to provide a full account. Thus the dissertation presents a case study of Sino-Singaporean relations during the leadership periods of Deng Xiaoping and Lee Kuan Yew; and argues that an elite-driven approach to soft power emerged as a rejection of liberal values and assertion of “Asian Values” (Zakaria, 1994; Barr, 2000; Subramaniam, 2000).

1.1 Method & Methodology

Conducting research on soft power brings with it the difficulty of testing a theory whose currency is from the more intangible aspects of international relations: in this case, attraction. Thus the dissertation takes the qualitative approach of performing a critical analysis on Nye’s concept to assess the accusation of ideological bias. Having been first to introduce the concept, Nye remains the “father of soft power theory”; so his publications (1990a, 1990b, 2004a, 2004b, 2008, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015) remain at the heart of its canon, while the Portland Soft Power Index 30 takes his formulation as its foundation. This makes it vital for the study to focus on his framing of soft power when performing the critical analysis; albeit not ignore the contribution of several other scholars to the theory’s development.

In attempting to reframe soft power away from being merely an analytical tool of Western foreign policy, the case study of Sino-Singaporean relations allows us to adopt an interpretive approach (Bryman, 2012); and use this as a framework to analyse the relationship between Lee Kuan Yew and Deng Xiaoping, and the significance of this for their respective countries. The research involves a combination of primary and secondary sources: including academic journals and books, government press releases, policy documents and elite interviews.

The dissertation is split into three major sections. The first of these involves broadening the debate on soft power and placing it within pre-existing discussions on power as a concept in international relations theory. As well as serving as a literature review, this section will expand and flesh out Nye’s concept in further depth, bringing in contributions and criticisms from other authors.

Having established Nye’s concept, the second section critically analyses it, especially in relation to the Portland Soft Power Index 30. I take a neo-Gramscian perspective in highlighting how soft power, through its promotion and idealisation of neoliberal Western values, turns itself into a hegemonic theory open to accusations of ethno-nationalism and cultural imperialism. This section also looks at how authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia are seen to be failing in soft power terms due to this ideological bias.

The final section offers a case study of Sino-Singaporean relations as a form of elite-driven soft power creation. Rejecting the liberal empiricist version of soft power, it argues that it is a construction, much like the discourse surrounding issues of security and identity (Campbell, 1998; Walker, 1993); and as such, it can be understood and applied in a number of contexts, including as an explicit rejection of Western values.

Chapter 2: Literature Review

2.1 Defining Power

Before we can fully understand the concept of soft power, we must first define what we mean by power itself. The idea of power has been central to politics as far back as Thucydides; while our understanding of it has been influenced by the work of Hobbes (1651) and Machiavelli (1532). Despite this, it remains “one of the most trouble in the field” (Gilpin, 1972), and its proper definition “remains a controversy” (Waltz, 1983:222). From a theoretical perspective, a good place to start is with the work of Robert Dahl (1957:202) and what is referred to as “the first face of power”. Dahl’s definition of power can be summarised as ‘the ability of A to get B to do something that A wants and B would not otherwise do’. Nye (2011:14) concurs with this definition.

From a realist perspective, this ability to affect behavioural outcomes lies in a state’s economic and military strength; a state’s “behaviour is largely shaped by the material structure of the international system” (Mearsheimer, 1995:91). Great states in international relations are determined by their “relative military capability… for a state to qualify as a great power, a state must have sufficient military assets to put a serious fight in an all-out continental war against the most powerful state on earth” (Mearsheimer, 2006). In terms of this definition in relation to the US, it remains the world’s only superpower due to its overwhelming military strength in relation to its competitors.

Yet possessing greater military resources has not always resulted in a successful outcome, as the US’ travails in Vietnam and Iraq demonstrated. It “was no use having more tanks if they couldn’t get them through the Vietnamese jungle” (Nye, 2004a); indeed, such a view of power turns it into a “vehicle fallacy”, defined only by the resources which a state has. Although realists have tended to frame the material capabilities of a state as the most important principle, they have, however, also picked up on more intangible aspects of power. While accepting the dominance of economic and military strength, E.H. Carr (1964) felt that “power over opinion” was also crucial to success in the anarchic international environment. Similarly, one of realism’s most famous theorists, Hans Morgenthau (1967), believed that power can also derive from traits such as “national character, national morale, the quality of government and the quality of its diplomacy”.

Returning to a theoretical perspective, if the first face of power as offered by Dahl can be identified in the use of economic and military strength and pressure, Nye’s theory of soft power can be seen in the second and third faces. The second face of power was introduced by Bachrach and Baratz (1962), and involves agenda and discourse setting: “The extent that a person or group – consciously or unconsciously – creates barriers or reinforces barriers to the public airing of policy conflicts, that person or group has power”.

How, though, does Nye frame soft power in the context of the first and second faces? Nye (2011) places his theory within a ‘liberal realist’ perspective of international relations, and holds that soft power works alongside hard power to form smart power (2004a:32), thus giving states the power resources they need to succeed in the global environment. Developing this further, soft power should not be thought of as an alternative or lesser form of power in relation to hard power, but a continuum of a spectrum: with hard or coercive power on the one side, and soft or co-optive power on the other.

While economic and military strength fall on the hard side of the spectrum, agenda-setting and attraction fall on the softer side. If agenda-setting in soft power is found in the second face of power, Nye’s concept of attraction can be found in the third. As we have noted, Nye argues that the US holds soft power because others wish to emulate its system and follow its lead, meaning it appears the most attractive to its international partners. This fits into more subconscious aspects of power, defined as the third face of power by Steven Lukes (1974): namely, the power to get your competitors to have the same preferences as yours in the first instance, meaning no need for conflict or tension. “Is not the supreme exercise of power to get another or others to have the thoughts you want them to have, that is to secure their compliance by controlling their thoughts and desires?” (Lukes, 1974)

Nye acknowledges soft power’s theoretical similarities to the second and third faces of power (2004a:7): though his description of attraction also bears Foucauldian similarities (1991) in the idea of power being omnipresent at all levels of discourse. He describes attraction in all walks of life – sexual relationships, love, friendship and aspiration – “power doesn’t necessarily reside with the larger partner in a relationship, but in the mysterious chemistry of attraction… smart executives know that leadership is not just a matter of issuing commands, but also involves attracting others to do what you want” (Nye, 2004a: 7).

2.2 The art of attraction: Joseph Nye’s soft power

Since Nye’s introduction of the soft power concept, it has been employed very widely in academic and policy circles (Parmar and Cox, 2010). Its success has led it to become a catch-all term; a “cultural artefact” (Chitty, 2017) for any aspect of a state’s attraction-power. It is often used in relation to cultural diplomacy (Griffin, 2010), public diplomacy (Ross, 2002) and nation branding (Anholt, 2007). It has been applied to nations including Japan (Iwabuchi, 2015), South Korea (Lee, 2009), Brazil (Chatin, 2016), Sri Lanka (Simons, 2017) and Nigeria (Ojo, 2017), among others.

All these fields of academic inquiry are related; they are about “the communication of information and ideas to foreign publics with a view to changing their attitudes towards the originating country or reinforcing existing beliefs” (Melissen, 2005:16). As a result, within both academia and government, there are “struggles over the numerous labels and definitions within the field of influence – propaganda, soft power, cultural diplomacy and public diplomacy” (Fisher and Lucas, 2011).

Nye (2004a:6), however, underscores that “soft power is not merely the same as influence… and soft is more than just persuasion”. So what is soft power? “In behavioural terms, soft power is attractive power and any asset which produces attraction is a soft power resource” (Nye, 2004a:6). A state’s soft power rests primarily on three sources: its culture (where is it attractive to others), 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). In a broader sense, soft power is the attractiveness of “culture, values, legitimate policies, a positive domestic model, a successful economy and a competent military” (Nye, 2011:99). This definition is shared by Viotti and Kauppi (2013:207), who see it as the “non-material capabilities such as reputation, culture, and value appeal that can aid the attainment of a state’s objectives”; while Breslin (2011) posits that “soft power is conceived as the idea that others will align themselves to you and your policy preferences because they are attracted to your political and social system, values and policies”.

The role of culture in achieving soft power can take both passive and instrumental forms. Just like definitions of power, culture itself remains a concept which has been very difficult to pin down; indeed, Kluckholm and Kroeber (1952) found over 150 diverse views of what culture is. For the purposes of this study, culture is defined as a society’s values, norms, practices and epistemes which distinguish that society from other societies (Jacob, 2017:140), and are expressed in various forms: including literature, music, language, sport, food, film and television. The US is often argued to have obtained this immense soft power through the proliferation of its culture, particularly the reach of its entertainment industries: “U.S. culture, low-brow or high, radiates outward with an intensity last seen in the days of the Roman Empire… America’s soft power rules over an empire on which the sun never sets” (Joffe, 2001:43).

Much of the discussion on soft power surrounds how states use their cultural industries in an effort to generate it, instrumentally, – from Japan’s PM Shinzo Abe emerging from a pipe at the Rio Olympics dressed as Super Mario (Easton, 2016); to the popularity of the NBA (Fuhua, 2013) and Manchester United in China (Chowdury, 2016). The spread of cultural centres such as the British Council and Alliance Française, the sponsorship of football teams (Krzyzaniak, 2016) and continued technological innovation in Silicon Valley are all held up as sources of soft power (Nye, 2004a:13). What’s important for Nye is that such cultural resources help spread the values of these countries to their target recipients.

Nye (2004a:16), though, notes that “all power depends on context – who relates to whom under what circumstances. Soft power depends more than hard power on there being willing interpreters”. His focus on ‘willing interpreters’ amounts to an acknowledgement that American popular culture can attract and repulse at the same time. He highlights how American television shows and movies, for example, can be attractive to young people in Iran, while simultaneously repulsing the more conservative in society: in the case of Iran, its ruling elites (Nye, 2004a: 52, 55, 95-96). “Features of popular Western culture don’t always have the power to compel others to love the United States, but they do have the effect of making the West seem exciting and cutting edge”. Attempts at boosting soft power can backfire if they lack credibility: Qatar’s hosting of the FIFA World Cup in 2022, for instance, has met with controversy, with the supposed ethos of nations coming together conflicting profoundly with the severe conditions workers have faced in building the stadia to host it, leading to a “soft disempowerment” (Brannagan and Giulianotti, 2015).

This lack of credibility is one of the main reasons why Nye claims China is failing to achieve much success in its “soft power dream” (Jintao, 2007). The Chinese government has taken an interest in the ideas around soft power ever since its market-focused reforms in the 1980s led to rapid economic growth and the potential of China challenging American hegemony: what has been termed as the China threat theory (Saeki, 1995; Broomfield 2003; Yang and Xinsheng, 2012). In seeking to mitigate fears surrounding its dramatic emergence, the Chinese government sought to change perceptions through a narrative of a “peaceful rise” (Jia, 2005; Quanshan & Gouli, 2007; Scobell, 2012): it aimed to reassure other states, both locally and globally, of its intentions.

In doing so, China has looked to project its culture and its appeal through soft power events such as the Shanghai Exposition and Beijing 2008 Olympics (Brownell, 2013), while spending heavily on the promotion of Chinese culture and language with the development of Confucius centres around the world (Ying and Luk, 2016). Supposedly, these centres are intended to play a similar role to the British Council or Alliance France in promoting language and cultural output; yet they have been mired in controversy, due to frequently being set up within Western universities, seemingly with the aim of drowning out criticism of Chinese foreign and domestic policy (Tin-ya Lo and Pan, 2016). China has also endeavoured to project its view of the world (Kurlantzick, 2008) by promoting its news organizations such as Xinhua News; and what until recently was CCTV, rebranded as China Global Television. This rebranding was hailed by Chinese Premier Xi Jinping: “Let China know the world better and let the world know China better, allowing us to tell China’s story well” (SCMP, 2016).

Despite the vast investment in developing these soft power assets, Chinese attempts at soft power often contrast starkly with domestic censorship and state abuse. As the ‘credibility of the message’ is critical to it receiving a positive reception on the international stage, China’s propaganda falls flat (Shambaugh 2013). In a world in which “politics has become a contest of competitive credibility” (Nye, 2004a:106) and publics have become more wary and sensitive about propaganda, seeking to project an image which is not backed up by reality is destined to fail.

While much of this discussion has been focused on the cultural aspects of soft power, this isn’t to say this makes up the entirety of soft power resources. Nye also argues soft power is created through an attraction to a countries corporations and business practices, or to its universities and wider education system. In the case of China, much of the discussion surrounding its soft power push has focused on its international aid, particularly in Africa (Fijalkowski, 2011), though the success of this push, much like its cultural promotion, is seen as mixed.

Chapter 3: The Ideological Bias of Soft Power

Having examined how Nye believes the power of attraction in international politics can be turned into soft power, the next section looks at attempts at measuring soft power. As its currency relies on intangible resources, particularly cultural and political values, it is far more difficult to evaluate its effects than it is with hard power (Li, 2017). Nye believes that opinion polls such as the Pew Global Attitudes Survey (2017) and BBC World Service Poll (2016) offer a good snapshot of public opinion in relation to how countries around the world are received. The rise of social media and access to ‘big data’ have also allowed researchers to obtain the instant reaction of people to political developments as they happen (David & Ji, 2017), allowing them to track how certain soft power assets are being received. However, this study focuses on the development of indexes attempting to measure soft power; and here, we start to notice the bias in Nye’s theory.

Several of these indexes have been published, with the first often credited to The Institute for Government: a private NGO based in the UK, which has published its ‘New Persuaders’ Index in Monocle Magazine every year since 2010. Similarly, the Anholt-GFK Roper Nation Brands Index (2016) was developed together with branding pioneer Simon Anholt; while the Ernst and Young Rapid Growth Markets (2012) looks at the soft power of emerging countries.

3.1 Portland Soft Power 30 Index

While all these indexes have their own variables in measuring soft power, they either fit into an objective (amounts of resources) or subjective (focusing on opinion polls) measure. This brings us to the Portland Soft Power 30 Index (2016): the first attempt to combine both objective and subjective measures into a composite index, which Nye has called “the best attempt yet to measure soft power”, and has been covered by major news outlets such as The Financial Times (Parker, 2016), The Economist (2015), The Straits Times (Mclory, 2016) and several others: playing a major role in shaping global perceptions of soft power.

Now into its second year, with the third edition expected to be published in summer 2017, the Portland Soft Power Index is published by Portland Communications, a public relations agency based in London; along with Facebook and COMRES. Portland set up the index in relation to Nye’s three sources of soft power: culture, political values, and foreign policy. To do so, it separated these into six major sections: Engagement, Culture, Government, Education, Digital, and Enterprise. The UK topped the list in the first edition, but fell to 2nd place behind the US in 2016. The rest of the top 30 is dominated by European or Western nations, with 21 (including Japan) from the Global North (Figure 1); while most BRICS nations are at the bottom, with India failing to make the list at all despite Bollywood, tourism and its diaspora worldwide.

Figure 1

Country Ranking
United States 1
United Kingdom 2
Germany 3
Canada 4
France 5
Australia 6
Japan 7
Switzerland 8
Sweden 9
Netherlands 10
Italy 11
Spain 12
Denmark 13
Finland 14
Norway 15
New Zealand 16
Austria 17
Belgium 18
Singapore 19
Ireland 20
Portugal 21
South Korea 22
Poland 23
Brazil 24
Greece 25
Hungary 26
Russian Federation 27
China 28
Czech Republic 29
Argentina 30

Source – Portland Soft Power Index

Found in these 76 metrics are a tendency to frame soft power around the same ideas which Nye claimed to be universal: democracy, freedom of speech, economic freedom. Such a choice of Western-centric indicators is highly problematic; is there an assumption in the Portland Index that for states to be ranked higher, they would need to introduce economic liberalization and democratic reform? Metrics are derived from organizations such as The Economist, Democracy Index, and Freedom House, which display a bias towards the US and its allies (Steiner, 2016), and a more critical approach to its rivals (Tysgankov and Parker, 2015) – while the Gender Equality Index is included, despite several regions having very different views on female equality (Dahlgreen, 2015). It is also important to note the commercial aspect of the Portland Index, in particular its relationship with Facebook. While the growth of digital diplomacy has seen soft power initiatives move onto social media, the relevance of how many Instagram followers a world leader has and how this is converted into a power resource is never developed.

Any system or index which defines soft power through criteria such as “government accountability, low levels of corruption, investment climate” (Urnov, 2014: 306) itself becomes a tool of American soft power; in other words, if states looking to increase their soft power do so to meet the conditions found in these measurements, it turns “soft power into a self-fulfilling prophecy, as it arguably creates a reality it describes” (Kiseleva, 2015: 319).

If we were to take Thomas Cox’ (1981) quote that “theory is always for someone and for some purpose. All theories have perspective” and apply it to Nye’s interpretation of soft power, his perspective on soft power still retains its original use as a tool of US foreign policy. Nye’s view, that countries whose dominant culture and values are closer to “prevailing global norms”, which “now emphasize liberalism, pluralism, and autonomy” (Nye, 2004a: 31-32) as well as “democracy and human rights” (Nye, 2004a: 62), are more likely to gain through soft power, could be developed with precisely that purpose in mind.

Even if, as Nye concedes, ideas around what constitutes ‘prevailing global norms’ change with time, how would this correspond with empirical resource attempts at measuring international soft power? If China were to become the new dominant power in the global system, with the same ability to project its culture as the US has now, while managing to maintain its current economic and undemocratic system, would the index have to change to represent these new Chinese-centric values?

From a neo-Gramscian perspective, Nye’s concept of soft power works as a form of hegemonic discourse in the study of international relations, as seen in Kiseleva (2015)’s self-fulling prophecy. Countries such as Russia and China are far removed from Nye’s liberal value model; they have largely closed civil societies and therefore do not understand:

“The main instruments of soft power… When a country’s culture includes universal values and its policies promote values and interests others share, it increases the probability of obtaining its desired outcomes because of the relationships of attraction and duty that it creates. Narrow values and parochial cultures are less likely to produce soft power. The United States benefits from a universalistic culture” (Nye 2004a, 11).

Nye’s promotion of a universalist culture bears similarities to the work of Herbert Schiller, which pointed towards American cultural imperialism in the developed world, with mass media utilised to gain new forms of control:

“The concept of cultural imperialism today best describes the sum of the processes by which a society is brought into the modern world system and how its dominating stratum is attracted, pressured, forced and sometimes bribed into shaping social institutions to correspond to, or even promote, the values and structures of the dominating centre of the system” (Schiller, 1976:9).

Nye’s “universal values, a fruit of western industrial civilisation, are dividends of soft power”. They work as a “Trojan horse sent by the West to attract people with its ideologies and individuals to infiltrate the values of individuals” (Fei, 2017:57). Yet whereas Nye has never really referred to the ethical dynamic of soft power, Schiller (1976) took a much more critical stance of the US, as did Lukes (1974):

“Is it not the supreme and most insidious use of power to prevent people, to whatever degree, from having grievances by shaping their perceptions, cognitions, and preferences in such a way that they accept their role in the existing order of things, either because they can see or imagine no alternative to it, or because they see it as natural and unchangeable, or because they value it as divinely ordained and beneficial?” (Lukes, 1974: 24).

While Nye has acknowledged that international norms are subject to temporal conditions and can therefore change, he tends to ignore how these norms came to exist in the first place: namely, as a result of US hegemony, starting with the establishment of post-war international institutions and the promotion of US cultural industries, and intensifying during and following the Cold War. The idea of soft power was introduced before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and it’s promotion of liberal values has similarities to Francis Fukuyama’s (1992) idea of the ‘end of history’: his claim that liberal democracy was the last evolution of political organization, and that many more states would soon become liberal democracies in consequence.

Countries which do not come under this framework fall into the deviance category instead, as in Huntingdon’s “Clash of Civilizations” (1993) between large cultural groups: especially the Western world, its Chinese and Islamic counterparts. “The two concepts act like the logos of buildings. People should put them against their historical backgrounds to see which buildings they have illuminated” (Fei, 2017:53). This illumination through the ideas of liberal triumphalism rejects those who do not subscribe to such views; and leaves the very concept of soft power open to “charges of ethnocentrism” (Fan, 2008).

Indeed, Nye falls into the same trap he criticises realist scholars for: namely, the “vehicle fallacy”, the idea that power resources are useless unless these can be “dropped on a city or on your foot” (Nye 2008:96). His argument here, that “tanks were not able to roll through the jungles of Vietnam” (2004a) is not at all reflected in the empirical application of the Portland Soft Power Index. The latter simply turns soft power into an accumulation of liberal values and resources, and ignores how its resources are often received. Nye himself acknowledges that soft power can be received very differently by the general population and elites in society – and attempting to count soft power as resources in indexes such as these misses its many behavioural nuances.

For example, while the success of the ‘Cool Korea’ movement and Korea’s emergence as a major cultural exporter of popular cultures such as television and music has been talked of as a soft power success, the reality is far more complicated. While Korean media, particularly pop stars and television dramas, have had tremendous success in China and Japan, indeed the recent television drama, Descendants of the Sun, was said to have been widely smuggled into North Korea (Wong, 2016), this development has been met with aworried response from officials in these countries. Both have introduced quotas of home grown shows and bans on foreign media, particularly from South Korea (Kim and Lee, 2014). Yet nuances regarding how cultural output is received in other countries (negatively in this case, thereby causing diplomatic harm) are not part of the Portland Index.

The Index also features a lack of clarity on agent-subject relations, and the ability of the subject to have influence in political decision-making. Nye’s failure to account for how soft power is received means he allows very little agency to the subjects. He develops his theory around cultural and political value promotion as soft power resources which a state can use to its advantage, but his explanation is confusing regarding how and who these value promotions are aimed at. Lock (2009) highlights this through the example of relational-structural power. Nye claims that soft power is in play when a state can influence and change another state’s set of values. Lock describes this as a form of relational power, defined by the relationship between two actors. However, Nye also says that soft power is in play when states have similar cultures and values, therefore finding each other more attractive. Yet these values and norms are part of structural power, and lead to Nye describing two different forms of power relations.

Moreover, while Nye acknowledges that soft power can both attract and repulse, he does not clarify this beyond the example we have already noted. Yet an increase in soft power in the eyes of one state can lead to it decreasing in the eyes of another. For example, China might enlist a policy which Russia finds attractive, increasing the soft power dynamics of that relationship; yet at the same time, this may detract from its relationship with other states. This is similar to the issues raised with the success of the ‘Cool Korea’ explosion and its reaction in China and Japan. Nye remains unclear of the conceptual depth of soft power beyond simple ideas of cultural and political attraction, resulting in the criticism of his theory being “soft” (Ferguson, 2004) or lacking as “category of analysis” (Hall, 2010). Much of this vagueness is a result of the fact Nye did not specifically set out to develop soft power as a framework for analysis of power in international relations (Sun, 2012) and instead it was developed specifically as a tool of US foreign policy.

While soft power may have its ideological roots in Nye’s development of it as a tool for American foreign policy, due to the polysemy nature of the soft power concept, it has been co-opted by numerous authors outside of its original inception. Kiseleva (2015:317)’s point on the duality of soft power discourse, albeit in a Russian context, can also be applied to Chinese soft power: it seeks to both “accept and reject the hegemonic discourse of the theory”. According to Laclau and Moffe (1981)’s discourse theory, itself influenced by Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, soft power can be thought of as a “nodal point” and privileged signifier in the discourse – similar to Chitty’s idea of it as a cultural artefact, able to assign meanings to other signifiers in the discourse (Cheskin, 2012; Rear & John, 2013:379), combine ideas around culture, political values and foreign policy, and turn them into ‘soft power resources’.

Another key aspect of discursive theory is that hegemonic discourses such as Nye’s can be challenged by counter-hegemonic ones as part of installing another form of hegemony (Mouffe, 2008: 4): in this case, Russia and China’s soft power, and the development of discourse around frameworks which provide a country-specific rejection of the neoliberal interpretation of soft power as currently presented. This highlights how soft power has been adopted in sub-alterns around the world, and used for particular purposes by elites.

3.2 Soft Power with Chinese Characteristics

Having established the implicit bias in Nye’s soft power theory, and shown how attempts at measuring such resources rely on attraction to ethnocentric US- and Western-centred liberal values and culture, this leads us to wonder: what use do we have for the concept of soft power? This section looks at soft power theories which reject the biases of Nye’s ideas and adapt themselves to international relations theories of countries such as China and Russia; as well as alternative ways of using soft power as an analytical tool in international relations theory.

How, then, are we to study regimes which do not conform to the standards expected of liberal democratic countries and the values they espouse? The rise of China has led soft power theory to be applied to it perhaps more than any other country except the US: from both a Western and Chinese academic and policy perspective. Since its introduction by Wang Huning (1993) into Chinese academia, soft power has been continued through a ‘Nyesian’ perspective, but also co-opted to form a “soft power with Chinese characteristics” (Glaser & Murphy, 2008; Xia, 2009).

Interestingly, soft power has also developed in Chinese academic and policy circles as a tool not only to project China’s image abroad, but as part of its “national comprehensive strategy” and even of “negative soft power” (Callahan, 2015): which encompasses a focus on the uniqueness of the Chinese character; its superiority against the foreign ‘other’; the virtues of socialism as opposed to the corrupt West; the emergence of the ‘Chinese Dream’ (Xi Jinping, 2016; Callahan, 2016), a new promotion of national identity founded upon the cultural history of China; as well as the reintroduction of Confucianism. The recent publication by the Chinese Soft Power Institute of a “Research Outline for China’s Cultural Soft Power” (Guozuo, 2017) sets out a vision of Chinese soft power through the promotion of socialist values and a non-interference foreign policy. This extends to its historical narrative, given the rapid development of museums dedicated to promoting the famous Chinese explorer Zheng He, and his explorations around the Malayan Peninsula and further afield, to Africa (Barr, 2011).

While soft power has not been applied as extensively to Russia as to the US or China, it too has faced an increasing amount of focus from both within and without. Much of the work on Russian soft power has looked at its resources and effectiveness in the post-Soviet countries of Eastern Europe, such as Ukraine (Hudson, 2015) and the South Caucasus (Cheskin, 2010; Makarychev, 2015), and Central Asia (Makarychev 2016): referred to as the near-abroad or its sphere of influence in Russian official discourse (Laruelle, 2015). Russian-adopted soft power theory has therefore emerged; along with it, like in China, being co-opted by the ruling elite (Kiseleva, 2015; Morozov, 2015:115-128): in this case, through both the ‘Soft Power of Conspiracy Theories’ (Yablokov, 2015) and the success of Russia Today/RT.

3.3 Is soft power redundant?

Before moving on to the final section, where we continue our focus on framing soft power outside of Nye’s theories, it is necessary to remind ourselves why we rejected them in the first place. Nye’s idea of soft power confuses relational and structural forms of power, and who is expected to benefit from soft power promotion. Moreover, contrary to its claim of being a descriptive, not a normative theory, it promotes a form of universal attraction entirely in line with American culture and values: meaning that critics’ charges of ethnocentrism, which cast doubts on its suitability as an analytical tool in international relations, have considerable merit. This is not to say Nye isn’t critical at times of US foreign policy: he has criticised the ‘War on Terror’ for damaging US soft power (2004b) but rather, even in his criticism of it, he views soft power through a liberal lens. Any deviation from this viewpoint results in soft power reduction.

What, then, of soft power? Moving forward, this thesis takes Nye’s soft power conception and applies it to a context outside this framework. It aims to strip the liberal objectivist presumptions of Nye’s theory and place it instead within a social constructivist framework: while nonetheless maintaining the core of Nye’s theory of attraction around culture, political values and foreign policy. It will do so by focusing on a case study of Singapore and China during the Lee Kuan Yew and Deng Xiaoping eras; with a particular focus on ideas around Asian values and the rejection of Western liberalism.

Chapter 4: An Asian Attraction? Sino-Singapore Relations

To meet the objective of providing a constructivist framework for the study of soft power, this section steers it away from a theory of neoliberal resource promotion, towards constructivist theorists’ focus on values and norms, and how these affect international relations. I will use soft power as a framework to study Sino-Singaporean diplomatic relations during and after the leadership periods of Deng Xiaoping and Lee Kuan Yew. Holding true to Nye’s focus on attraction towards culture, political values, and foreign policy, I will demonstrate that such an attraction existed between the leadership of these two countries, particularly during the emergence of the Asian Values debate: resulting in an elite-driven focus on soft power.

The focus on Singapore and China offers an interesting case study of how soft power can be in play at specific moments, to achieve specific aims between countries which do not subscribe to the neoliberal Western views which Nye considers most attractive in soft power accumulation. It also allows for a soft power study which combines both relational and structural forms of power: which as Lock (2009) has noted, are rather ignored in existing conceptualizations of soft power. By looking at relational power as the relationship between agents – in this instance, Lee Kuan Yew and Deng Xiaoping – we can identify an elite-driven approach to attraction to values related to structural power: a shared set of norms and values outside their own.

It also means we can reject the idea that power relations are a zero-sum game. This Chapter does not examine how either Singapore or China were able to exercise power over each other; but rather, how both gained power through mutual co-operation, forged through attraction to each other’s culture, political values and foreign policy.

Singapore could be considered a slight outlier in the South-East Asia region, given its plays host to its smallest population and geographical size. Yet it remains its most successful economy, having transitioned from a “third world economy to a first world economy” (Lee, 2000) over just one generation since independence from British Crown Rule in 1955, and full independence from the Malayan Federation a decade later. Following the developmental model which enjoyed such success in Japan and other Asian Tiger economies, through its Economic Development Board (Low et el, 1993), Singapore directed industry and infrastructure, while opening itself up to multinational corporations seeking to invest in the country. In so doing, it has become one of the world’s financial centres: with a host of cultural events, international businesses, and the leading university in the region.

Its position at number 19 in the Portland Soft Power Index was viewed as favourable in Singapore, a small country punching above its weight; indeed, it finished 1st in the enterprise category, though failed on aspects of culture and government due to its lack of diplomatic reach. Nye himself has commented that “Singapore enjoyed soft power by transforming itself into a technologically advanced and innovative society hospitable to freeing talent.. and today, it is a rich and prosperous country. If the rest of the world could accomplish what Singapore has accomplished, the world would be a better place” (Nye, 2000).

It has been a staunch supporter of the US and its influence in the Asia-Pacific region, maintaining strong military ties and hosting American aircraft carriers. Goh Chok Tong (2000) has described the US as a reassuring, stabilising force in Southeast Asia. Thus, Singapore has offered to host the American naval logistics command centre (WESTPAC LOGCOM), and has increased access for American vessels and aircraft after the closure of US bases in the Philippines (Goh, 2004).

Moreover, Singapore is a strong supporter of the free market capitalist system, and is vehemently anti-Communist in its political, foreign and domestic policies (Lee, 1998: 172-3, 321-4). Henry Kissinger has commented that “a medium sized city has become a significant international and economic player, especially in fostering multilateral relations… (and an) excellent friend of the United States”.

Yet despite Singapore’s welcoming of American influence and neoliberal economic policies, its political system has been markedly less open. It remains a flawed democracy in several metrics, having had just three leaders since independence: two of whom were from the Lee family, all of whom have been members of the ruling PAP. Press freedom, respect for individual rights and political opposition have all remained limited.

Finally, despite the official narrative of Singapore being a multi-racial democracy, it remains ethnically dominated by the Chinese. 76% of the population are of Chinese descent, while Malays and Indians make up the rest. Singapore is thus the only ethnically Chinese-dominated country other than China and Taiwan, which has resulted in Confucianism values of collectivism and society becoming dominant: so much so that these were used to promote the corporatism of its economic plan (Tamney, 1996:25-50; Chua, 1997).

This brings us to the connection between Singapore and China, and how soft power moved into play between these two countries during the early 1980s. When Deng Xiaoping sought to renew the Chinese economy following the stagnation of the Cultural Revolution, he looked towards Singapore as a model: whereby China could become economically open, while the Communist Party retained political dominance. This provided a market-based alternative (Zha, 2015) to that offered by leftists (Misra, 2003). Lee Kuan Yew (1980), who Deng Xiaoping invited to visit Beijing as early as 1976, has spoken hugely positively of his reforms:

“Deng Xiaoping is a great man, he fought a great revolution, he saw the product of that revolution turn sour and he lived long enough and had the courage to say no and change course, to learn, to stop trying to do everything by themselves”.

Speaking on his famous Southern Tour in 1992, Deng Xiaoping offered in turn that: “Singapore’s social order is rather good. Its leaders exercise strict management. We should learn from their experience, and we should do a better job than they do”.

Under Deng, China had already begun normalising its relations with ASEAN states such as Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand. It went further in Singapore’s case: ‘friendship meetings’ were held between the two countries in 1980, 1985 and 1988 (Zheng and Lye, 2016). The building of the Haw Paw Villa in the mid-1980s and later the Tang Dynasty Villa aided the Chinese diaspora in Singapore and the development of an effective narrative around Chinese entrepreneurs and their importance to the country (Saunders, 2010).

As a predominantly ethnic Chinese city-state located in the heart of South-East Asia, Singapore held special importance in the eyes of Chinese decision-makers. In the early 1990s, Singapore remained important for Beijing because Chinese leaders could trust their counterparts. It eagerly sought the role of mediator between Beijing and the outside world, a role it had begun to fashion for itself during the Cold War. Singapore’s government was especially useful in helping elaborate a theory of Asian Values which could help justify authoritarian government. During the second half of the 1990s, Singapore assumed a new importance for China by promoting ASEAN regional economic integration (Haacke, 133): hosting the so-called Wang Koo Talks and establishing China on the ASEAN Regional Forum. The development of the Suzhou Industrial Park project to advance the Shanghai hinterland was successfully agreed in consequence (Pereira, 2004).

Singapore, then, recognized that its relationship with China provides opportunities for mutual co-operation and gain; despite some degree of economic competition and conflicting strategic aims. For its part, China viewed Singapore as an independent, objective voice in international relations; and a very useful bridge between the Asian way and Western diplomacy and politics.

As China’s reforms continued, by the end of 1991, ASEAN states had committed $1.41bn to 1042 projects approved by Beijing. Singapore led ASEAN states in trade and investment in China. By mid-1994, it had become China’s fifth largest overseas investor after Hong Kong, Taiwan, the US, and Japan. By the end of 1995, it had invested in 3834 projects in China: and pledged $6.8bn in total (Sutter, 2005).

The central argument of this Chapter is that soft power between China and Singapore resulted in attraction from their leaders towards their systems. Much of this owed to rejecting Western pressure to adopt political values more in keeping with liberal countries, democratize and undergo economic reforms. During what we might term the liberal triumphalist period during the early 1990s, following the end of the Cold War and the forcing of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq out of Kuwait under UN auspices, more pressure began to be exerted not only by the American administration, but also the wider Western world. Singapore’s record of press freedom and human rights was increasingly criticised (Hatchen, 1989; Human Rights Watch, 1989), and the country held as an illiberal democracy (Rodan, 1993; Brown, 1994).

When military tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square in 1989 to put down student protests for democratic reform, Western nations sharply criticized the Chinese government, cutting of diplomatic ties and initiating economic sanctions. Yet Singapore remained resolutely unmoved: with Lee telling British High Commissioner to Singapore, Michael Pike, that Deng would “do Tiananmen again” to stop democratic reform being unleashed in China. “I didn’t think democracy was a good thing then, and I doesn’t think it is a good thing now”. Indeed, Lee was dismissive of democracy ever working in China, arguing that it needs a strong leader to keep it together and from falling into chaos:

“I understood Deng Xiaoping when he said: if 200,000 students have to be shot, shoot them, because the alternative is China in chaos for another 100 years. Deng understood, and he released it stage by stage. Without Deng, China would have imploded” (Lee, 1989).

As we can see, there has been a mutual exchange between Singapore and China, with the latter looking to the former as a model to bring about economic reform while resisting democratic reforms. Looking at the discourse between Lee and Deng, we can identify an attraction to each other’s political systems: in the sense of their mutual rejection of Western-centric democratic systems, and a visible attentiveness being paid towards promotion of non-Western governance models.

Much of this rejection of liberal democracy took place around the “Asian Values” debate (Chong, 2004) and the discourse surrounding it: with the implication being that certain liberal values were incompatible with liberal democratic ideas. While Deng was never directly quoted regarding Asian values, Lee, along with other Singaporean ministers such as Tommy Koh, rejected the growing literature from North America which looked towards Asian countries such as Vietnam and China as the next countries likely to incur assisted liberal change (McCormick, 1998). Lee argued that Asians were not interested in the individual rights afforded by liberal democracies; but instead valued order, strong governance family, community and respect for authority:

“What Asians value may not necessarily be what Americans or Europeans value. Westerners value the freedoms and liberties of the individual. As an Asian of Chinese cultural background, my values are for a government which is honest, effective and efficient” (Lee, 1992).

These values of Confucianism brought Singapore and China culturally together (Roy, 1994) and can be observed in the promotion of Confucianism in terms of developing a new national narrative and identity in both states. While, as we have noted, Singapore attempted on the surface to be multi-racial, in fact, the 1970s and 1980s oversaw the increasing promotion of communitarian, particularly Chinese Confucian value systems, by way of promoting official policies of corporatism (Lee,1994). Moreover, after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) needed a new ideology to build around; and thereby sought a combination of Confucian thought alongside Deng’s market-based economic theories (Lahtinen, 2015).

Between Lee and Deng was a clear mutual respect for this shared Chinese cultural heritage. Although Lee was always quick to remind people that he was “Singaporean first, and could not speak for a Chinese person, but he could speak for someone with the built-in memory programming of a Chinese person” (1967), for his part, Lee added that:

“My upbringing in a three-generation family made me an unconscious Confucianist. It seeps into you, the Confucianist belief that society works best where every man aims to be a gentleman”.

Deng and Lee enjoyed a very productive, close relationship of mutual respect and even admiration (Vogel, 2011). Lee has remarked in his conversations with Tom Plate (2010) that “no other country except Britain has had more effect on Singapore’s political development than China, where three-quarters of our people come from”. And still more interestingly:

“The Chinese know I have helped them in the past. The ideas that Deng Xiaoping formed, if he had not come here (in the 1970s) and seen the Western multinationals in Singapore producing wealth for us, training our people, so as a result we able to build a prosperous society, then he might have never opened up, opening up on the coastal SEZ that eventually led to the whole of Singapore opening up by joining the World Trade Organisation. The relationship with me goes back a long way, opening windows for them” .

Cultural and value differences between Asia and the West were stressed by several official delegations at the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna. The foreign minister of Singapore warned that “universal recognition of the ideal of human rights can be harmful if universalism is used to deny or mask the reality of diversity”. The spokesman for China’s foreign ministry even held that “individuals must put the state’s rights before their own” (Chong, 2004:103).

More than anything, Asian values have been increasingly championed because of the need to resist Western cultural hegemony: an issue which must surely bring to mind memories of the colonial past among all too many in the Asia Pacific.

This linkage, though quite artificial, can be highly effective rhetorically. Lee has emphasised the special nature of Asian values and made powerful use of the general case for resisting Western hegemony to bolster the argument for Asian particularism. This rhetoric has extended to the defiant (if self-evident) declaration that Singapore is not a “client state of America” (Lee, 2008:223).

At this point, I should emphasise that I am not asserting that Asian values are inherently a thing; indeed, both Sen (1997) and Tanaka (1998) have shown that this is not the case. Yet both leaders did appeal to these ideas of cultural connection through a shared heritage, both believed in a pragmatic approach to development, and both supporting each other diplomatically. I am not treating Asian values as a clear alternative to Western ones here; but given that a discourse existed in which two states had cultural connections, and positive affirmations with regard to these, Asian values were clearly of some significance.

Indeed, Singapore went on to secure backing for its amendment around universal rights at the United Nations Human Rights Convention in 1993: garnering support from several developing nations including China, whose entry into ASEAN it helped facilitate in turn.

In summary, this case study of Sino-Singapore relations represented an attempt to use soft power as an analytical framework to evaluate the relations between these two countries. By utilising the currency of soft power – attraction to culture, political values and foreign policy – we have been able to analyse the relationship between these two countries (particularly, the discourse surrounding Lee Kuan Yew and Deng Xiaoping), and argue that the key actors’ reaction to early and mid-1990s Western liberal triumphalism led its own soft power to form. This soft power allowed the two countries to resist international pressure to subscribe to these values, and offered a counter-hegemonic support structure.

While this broadens the focus slightly away from an elite-driven approach, there continued to be an attraction from China towards Singapore, due especially to Deng’s modelling of the former on the latter. Indeed, thousands of Chinese academics came over to study Singapore’s government and civil service, attracted to the ability to keep political control while allowing economic liberalization.

While the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997 is often heralded as the end of the Asian Values debate, and the relationship between Singapore and China has grown increasingly strained in the last few years, there remains a respect for Lee Kuan Yew in China and for his contribution towards the two countries relationship. In 2011, Chinese Premier, Xi Jinping, hailed his Singaporean counterpart – who he had already referred to as “our senior, who has our respect” with the following:

“To this day, you are still working tirelessly to advance our bilateral relationship, and you have my full admiration. We will never forget the important contribution you have made to our bilateral relationship (Xi, 2011).

This continued respect has resulted from a soft power attraction to the cultural and political values that Lee Kuan Yew was so prominent in promoting.


The aim of this thesis has been to explore Nye’s concept of soft power and its use as an analytical tool of international relations. As we have noted, the concept clearly suffers from its roots as a tool of US foreign policy; while inherent within it are values which adhere to American neoliberal cultural and value promotion. This has led attempts at analysing soft power to focus merely on resources, not the nuances of soft power and diplomacy; and also for Nye’s theories to be guilty of ethno-nationalism, and even cultural and imperial hegemony.

Rather than discard the idea of soft power altogether, the final section remedied the issues identified by reframing it. To achieve this, the research looked at a case study of Sino-Singaporean relations, and the soft power in play due to the attraction of culture, political values and foreign policy which existed between Lee Kuan Yew and Deng Xiaoping; and placed it within a broader context of discourse around Asian values. This approach allowed for critical analysis of the concept of soft power by stripping it of ideological bias.

Soft power as employed in North America, Europe and, as we have noted, Asia too, has been adapted to suit the belief that certain ‘national values’ are inherently attractive. Rather than challenge the idea of soft power per se, policy makers have often substituted their own culture, value systems, or policy alternatives as those most attractive. That is to say, the concept of soft power is often used to reaffirm the cultural and political values that a country or policy maker wishes to advance, Nye included. Yet as this dissertation has shown, we are able to reject this ideological bias without rejecting soft power as a concept outright, and continue to use it as an analytical tool for understanding international relations.


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