Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Paradox of plenty: Channeling soft power in the 21st century “Information Age”

In his contribution to the ANNALS, “Public Diplomacy and Soft Power,” Joseph Nye presents public diplomacy as a strategic tool in “the arsenal of smart power,” one that is capable of defeating “transnational terrorism[by] . . . . winning hearts and minds” (108).

The use of public diplomacy to promote a positive image of one’s country is not a new practice. As Nye notes: “The soft power of a country rests primarily on 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)” (97). These three criteria that support soft power have not changed; however, the global landscape and, to use Nye’s term, “conditions for projecting soft power,” have shifted dramatically since the end of the Cold War (99). In our current “Information Age,” Nye explains, the incredible about of information available at our fingertips has resulted in Simon’s “paradox of plenty,” an explosion of information and scarcity of attention to follow-up.

Therefore, nation-states today must grapple with the challenge of attracting people’s attention while maintaining absolute credibility, Nye argues. The pressure is high, for if a nation is perceived as jingoistic or propagandizing, it won’t be able to supplement its hard power to win hearts and minds.  This is difficult to disagree with. Nye is, after all, the father of soft power.

In light of one particular point Nye makes ("Why pour money into VOA when CNN, MSNBC, or Fox can do the work for free? But such a conclusion is too facile. Market forces portray only the profitable mass dimensions of American culture, thus reinforcing foreign images of a one-dimensional country." Page 205), it would be interesting to see how he would contend with Shashi Tharoor’s arguments that private industries such as MTV, McDonald’s, and Bollywood have powerful and instrumental role in exporting culture and supporting a country’s soft power.


  1. You bring up a great point MJ; the use of public diplomacy and the core elements of ‘soft power’ are not new concepts. I think it is also interesting to consider that the need to adapt to a changing landscape in which public diplomacy is practiced and the soft power resources are communicated to foreign publics is not a new concept either. I was reading an essay by Jim Murphy, Minister for Europe in the U.K.’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, in Engagement: Public Diplomacy in a Globalised World in which he point out that, “The hallmark of a successful state, and of a successful diplomat, lies in this capacity to adapt” (8). He references the 1600’s when the printing press changed the way the world interacted, and at that time diplomacy although it was not termed in such a way, had to adapt as well.
    Murphy further states that, “We need to hone our diplomacy to fit our time, our environment and our challenges” (8). It seems that in our time our challenges include the paradox of plenty and the multitude of information venues and products through which to export culture. This adds to the difficulty in communicate a credible and consistent message.

    (Work cited: http://www.fco.gov.uk/resources/en/pdf/pd-engagement-jul-08)

  2. Such excellent points, Brittany, thank you! Adaptability is indispensable to diplomacy. It is one of the 13 dimensions of the U.S. Foreign Service. Cultural adaptability is defined as the ability "to work and communicate effectively and harmoniously with persons of other cultures, value systems, political beliefs, and economic circumstances; to recognize and respect differences in new and different cultural environments." The printing press analogy is very fitting.

    Another important point you highlight that is the need for greater awareness of contexts and landscapes--which may vary at different locales around the globe. As you rightfully point out, we can only gain by contextualizing.

    (Source: http://careers.state.gov/uploads/7e/3b/7e3b2a09abdf83eb5afc24af5586c896/3.0.0_FSO_13_dimensions.pdf)

  3. MJ,

    Thank you for highlighting the opposing argument between Nye and Tharoor. I think it is imperative to look at what private industry has done to help develop the soft power of the United States. Hollywood specifically has done a great job selling the Halloween holiday, emulated all across the world. However, I would have to agree with Nye. Private industry all to often offers what viewers want to see and not American culture as it really is. This perpetuates a fallacious conception of America and it's people, potentially harming intercultural relations.

    I believe it is necessary for the US government to work with Hollywood as well as employ its own programs in order to construct a perception of America that is more realistic and likely to appeal to foreign audiences.