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Turkey's potential as a soft power: a call for conceptual clarity.


Soft power is based on attraction and the ability to persuade others to further one's goals. The key sources of soft power are said to derive from one's culture, democratic political system, and fair-minded foreign policy. Yet it is often left unsaid that soft power is a Weberian archetype. All the three of the above sources are ideal types; they may not necessarily exist in complete forms, because one's culture, political system and foreign policy are all subject to flaws, weaknesses and gaps. In order for Turkey to project its soft power in turbulent neighborhoods like the Middle East and Central Asia, and indeed as a matter of strategic policy in general, it is vital to have a strong conceptual clarity first. Only then can soft power be applied by going beyond attraction and persuasion purely. Home grown reforms that are strong, ethical, and sustainable, for example, can be sources of appeal and attraction to the Middle East and Central Asia too, given that both regions long to see good governance and exemplary leadership.


"At the most general level, power is the ability to influence the behavior of others to get the outcomes one wants. There are several ways to affect the behavior of others.

You can coerce them with threats. You can induce them with payments. Or you can attract or co-opt them." (1)

Joseph Nye

The discourse of soft power marks the importance of persuasion and attraction in modern, indeed, even postmodern international relations, in which Turkey plays a key part by virtue of its newly conceived role as a "central country." But, just as hard power will encounter what Clausewitz referred to as 'friction' in any theater of operation, soft power cannot be expected to have it easy either once it is applied. Invariably fear, physical hardship and lack of clear information, stand in its way. No one should assume, for example, that soft power is a cost-free and convenient option that can be applied to others as if they were a tabularasa. (2) With this understood, the effectiveness of Turkey's soft power hinges, first and foremost, on a strong Turkish understanding of the regional characteristics of its theater of operation. Be it the Middle East or Central Asia, a proper assessment of each region's dynamics of power, historical forces, and identity issues are necessary before Turkey ventures into them. Such foreknowledge is akin to a form of strategic aptitude which can be gained through longitudinal or one-off studies.

More importantly, Turkey's ability to exert soft power in the Middle East and Central Asia also hinges on undertaking the necessary reforms at home to make Turkey's development attractive and persuasive to others. In the case of Turkey, in spite of its status as a 'civilizational connector,' its soft power influence in the Middle East, at least in the interim, revolves on the success of its reforms, and also the resources Ankara is willing to expend to get its hands 'dirtied' in the region. Without such an overarching attitude, the attraction and persuasion necessary for soft power to be effective will not be operational beyond the superficial feel-good factor of having lent one's weight to a good cause. More specifically, unless others know that Ankara is serious about wading into the problems of the Middle East and Central Asia, no one will take Turkey's leadership role in those regions seriously. Therefore, a neat balance of strategic aptitude and attitude is vital to emitting the message that Turkey, under Prime Minister Erdogan, is back, and that Ankara takes both regional neighborhoods seriously. (3)

Power is invariably an issue of exerting one's will over a subject either in a single interaction, or a repeated exchange. Although neither force nor coercion can be used if power is to remain soft, the ethical dilemmas are not completely resolved in the decision to exchange soft power for hard. After all, soft power in its ultimate objective is about 'winning the hearts and minds,' a point we will return to below. Come what may, soft power is about projecting one's strength through attraction and persuasion, when in fact the egoistic motive of the state cannot be entirely abandoned. (4)

Turkey in the Middle East

Consciously or otherwise, the assertion of Turkish soft power in the Middle East may have begun as soon as the doctrine of "strategic depth" was put in place. Under this policy, conceived by the political scientist Dr. Ahmet Davutoglu, now chief adviser to the Turkish Prime Minister, Turkey seeks to be the "central country" in its region. Among other things, this means moving beyond the image of Turkey as merely of a bridge connecting East and West to that of a regional power with many pivot points. Invariably, in keeping with this policy, Turkey has engaged in efforts to position itself as a country with deep strategic import across geopolitical, geo-economic and geo-cultural fronts.

As the birthplace of three Abrahamaic faiths, of all which intersect sharply when compounded by the problem of various forms of land-grabs sponsored either externally or from within, it was inevitable that the Middle East would fall under Turkey's policy of strategic depth. This policy encourages peace--rather than clashes--to overcome the historical and current problems at hand, and appears especially relevant at a time when the Middle East is awash with oil money, money Turkey actively seeks as a form of foreign direct investment.

Nevertheless, what has made Turkey's participation in the convoluted politics of the Middle East different from that of other actors who have involved themselves in the region in the past, remains its singular commitment to working with all groups, and factions--including Israel and even HAMAS--to find amicable solutions to the conflicts at hand. The first imprints of Turkish soft power may have been felt as early as 2005, when Davutoglu, invited Khalid Mershal, the Syrian-based leader of HAMAS, to Turkey. The goal, at least, was to demonstrate one key point: as long as HAMAS was a democratically elected government, no one should permanently shut their door on the organization in spite of the pressures at hand. As a democratic and peaceful country, Turkey sought to exemplify the importance of democratic engagement.

Lately, Turkey's Middle East peace initiatives have gone from strength to strength. Israeli President Shimon Perez and President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas came together in Ankara before the Annapolis Summit in November 2007. This important and progressive initiative represents the changing vision of Turkish foreign policy. Israel has sought the help of Turkey to broker a peace agreement with Syria, although at this stage Turkish involvement remains confined to relaying messages.

Parallel to such macro-political goals, Turkey has used its International Development Agency (TIKA) as a strategic, albeit subtle, means, to carry out demand-driven development projects in the Middle East. In other words, instead of wading openly into the region, TIKA sought to create a code of conduct whereby any Middle Eastern countries that were in need of Turkish aid and assistance, could seek them by applying to TIKA. Invariably, TIKA retained the option to accept or reject such proposals, lest it finds itself financially and politically overstretched. Centers of learning and think tanks in Istanbul and Ankara were also encouraged to foster more connections with the Middle East.

Consciously or otherwise, then, the assertion of Turkish soft power in the Middle East has begun. Among other things, this has meant prodding Turkey beyond the role of a bridge between East and West, limited to connecting two points only, to that of a multi-dimensional regional power that harnesses all of the crisscrossing nexuses and pivot points that arise from Turkey's strategic and historical depth.

Turkey in Central Asia

Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Turkey quickly initiated a concerted campaign to expand relations with the newly independent states of Central Asia and tried to become the unofficial leader of the Turkic-speaking states in the region. This campaign marked the first clear attempt to introduce Turkey's soft power in this neighborhood.

Turkey's impetus to extend its soft power in Central Asia was driven in part by the fear that Russia and Iran would reassert their strategic and other hard power assets in this part of the world, due to the relative weakness of the Central Asian states. (5) Yet, in order not to provoke a costly security standoff with Russia and Iran, even in a limited form, Turkey took the path of wading gently into this neighborhood as well. Not surprisingly, Ankara opened up cultural centers in the Central Asian republics; it established extensive scholarship programs to allow Central Asian students to study in Turkey; and it expanded its television broadcasts in an effort to extend its cultural influence in Central Asia. However, Turkey's efforts met with only limited success, as the nation as a whole was unable to adjust to the new paradigm, after years of being allied or wedded to the U.S.-sponsored Cold War architecture.

In other words, in the initial phase in the 1990s, Turkey's vision of wielding influence in Central Asia was confined to a few elites. Other than the lip service paid to the importance of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) and the renewed focus on the Economic Cooperation Organization, domestic actors in Turkey were not entirely persuaded of the importance of Central Asia to the pursuit of their private and collective interests. As a result, Turkey was forced to scale back many of its grandiose plans. The early euphoria about Central Asia becoming a Turkish sphere of influence has been replaced by a more sober and realistic approach. Central Asia continues to occupy an important place on Turkey's foreign policy agenda, but today there is a greater recognition of the obstacles Turkey faces in trying to expand its influence in the region.

That said, what the state may not have been able to take up independently has ironically devolved to other actors. The impact of the new post Cold War policy can be seen in the total performance of civil and official activities in Central Asia. According to Bulent Aras,
   Turkish businessmen, contractors and civil society organizations
   [have] launched a considerable number of initiatives and projects
   in Central Asian states. President Abdullah Gul, for instance, was
   accompanied by the Turkish Union of Chambers and Commodity
   Exchanges (TOBB) and a high number of businessmen during his visit
   to Turkmenistan in December 2007. Businessmen and civil society
   organizations are seen as essential for Turkey's commitment to the
   stability and welfare of the region. (6)

Soft Power as an Archetype

Judging from the geopolitical and geo-cultural sweep of the Middle East and Central Asia, often impinging on and intruding into the old power interests of other regional behemoths, it is vital that Turkey has a strong and clear soft power policy, underpinned by a solid theoretical understanding of what soft power is and what it can and cannot do. To date, it has been customary to discuss soft power in terms of what Joseph Nye conceived in the opening quotation, where an implicit distinction between hard and soft power is made: "At the most general level, power is the ability to influence the behavior of others to get the outcomes one wants. There are several ways to affect the behavior of others. You can coerce them with threats. You can induce them with payments. Or you can attract or co-opt them."

However, one should begin by understanding that soft power was, and remains, a Weberian archetype. By virtue of its idealistic ambition--to attract and persuade--soft power has no independent, or even, external, reality. It is in fact derived from the equally flawed process of "reification" which invariably involves collapsing all the nuances, distinctions, and finer points--even the weaknesses and subcultures of a country--into one wholesome, or at least unitary, whole.

Thus, when Nye spoke of the importance of attraction and persuasion, he was alluding to the notion of the United States being seen as the positive sum of all the ideals--a reification--that the country adheres to, and stands for. Not surprisingly, Nye offers no allowances as to how the United States, like any other country, oftentimes fails to match its idealist rhetoric with its political realities, especially when it wades into difficult geopolitical terrains with strong undercurrents of local or tribal resistances.

Seen from another vantage point, Nye's notion of soft power is largely ethnocentric. It is based on his assumption that there is a link between wholesome American attractiveness and the ability to influence others in international relations. (7) However, Fan Ying believes that this assumption poses two problems:
   Firstly, a country has many different actors. Some of them like the
   attraction and others don't. Whether the attraction will lead to
   the ability to influence the policy of the target country depends
   on which groups in that country find it attractive and how much
   control they have on policymaking. Secondly, policymaking at the
   state level is far more complicated than at the personal level, and
   has different dynamics that emphasize rational considerations. This
   leaves little room for emotional elements, thus significantly
   reducing the effect of soft power. (8)

As Turkey seeks to promote its soft power in the Middle East and Central Asia, it must be mindful of the fact that it is purely engaged in country branding. Such a strategy is based on how Turkey sees itself, and to what extent others agree to go along with this very biased picture. Thus, if Turkey is regarded in these neighborhoods as a negative archetype, say, of what Samuel Huntington called a 'torn country,' i.e. one which is often wracked by identity crises and ideological brickbats, then sufficient attention is needed to correct this negative prism first; without such efforts, Turkey's attempts to assert its soft power will not accrue any important or strategic returns, other than the feel-good factor mentioned above.

Come what may, it is important to concede that an archetype, no matter how positive sounding it can be, can veer all too easily into a caricature. Unless extensive measures are undertaken to understand the gaps that separate the two, Turkey's attempt to attract and persuade could fall on stony ground in both regions, especially the Middle East, which had once been under Ottoman control.

Other Problems of Soft Power

Nye's notion of soft power is also problematic by virtue of the ostensible distance or gap that divides soft power from hard. Attracting subjects in a target country to the values, cultures and foreign policy of the United States may not be a problem if their society is predominantly Western in outlook already. Yet, if the subjects were to live in places like Palestine (especially Gaza), certain parts of Pakistan, and Iran, where anti-Americanism/Westernism forms part of a subject's collective identity, then allowing oneself to be seduced, even secretly, by the U.S.'s soft power may pose a serious physical risk. In other words, just as the United States cannot 'go it alone,' in the world, many at the receiving end of soft power cannot go it alone in their respective communities--or, for that matter, policy circles--when it comes to pledging their affinity.

For example, when the United States invaded Iraq in May 2003 on the assumption that its soldiers and tanks would be welcomed by the people in the streets--an assumption that proved contrary to reality--it clearly had overestimated the strength of its soft power prior to the launch of the military operation. The ramifications of this dilemma have not been treated by Nye at all. (9)

In the Turkish case, there is no telling how its years of statism, Arabism, and Western-centric capitalism have combined to skew the views of people in the Middle East in regard to Turkish resurgence. A Muslim Arab of Shia belief, for example, cannot openly support Turkey, even if he or she is appreciative of what Turkey is doing, since showing support could be tantamount to a clash of views and values with his or her own local community. Such reluctance can only create what must amount to a 'soft power dilemma': The purveyor of soft power does not know the fullest extent of its influence and allure on the ground, i.e. whether it can crystallize into a solid base of support. Therefore, more engagement on the ground, rather than between states and diplomats, becomes imperative. This fact is something that Turkey must take into consideration when it seeks to wade into the Middle East; the same does not hold true in Central Asia, which is more receptive to Turkish participation and involvement, given the ancestral links in play.

Similarly, if soft power and globalization latch on to one another as a free market imperative--if not also a cultural imperative--then simultaneous market and cultural penetration can bring about a crisis of economic and cultural imperialism, as has happened in France, Russia, China and other countries. No matter how soft, or above board soft power can be, there is likely to be a whiplash reaction to it. Again Nye has not taken this to heart.

As a RAND study asserts, soft and hard are subjective terms, inimical to conceptual clarity:
   Joseph Nye emphasizes that soft power is the power of attraction,
   not the power of coercion. When other countries are persuaded that
   American ideals or policies are legitimate, indeed desirable, then
   the "soft power" of the United States is enhanced. Nor is the
   distinction between the two very precise. Economic power, for
   instance, is sometimes regarded as soft and sometimes as hard. It
   depends on who is doing the perceiving. From the perspective of the
   United States, economic sanctions may be softer than military
   force, yet from the perspective of the target, those sanctions may
   look very hard indeed. (10)

Soft Power as a Popular Tautology: Strategic Cost and Seduction

What would indeed be a more accurate criticism is that Nye's concept of soft power, as it has been used, now borders on a tautology. This is because attractiveness and persuasiveness are said to depend on the legitimacy of one's actions. Such assertions render soft power vulnerable to circular logic, i.e. a country's action is viewed as legitimate because that country is seen as attractive and persuasive, while the country's status as attractive and persuasive renders its actions legitimate. Conceptually, such 'legitimacy' does not have to prove whether it is true or false, only that it offers a valid, albeit un-falsifiable, premise: attractiveness.

Instead, feedback often abounds in the form of "they like us"; "our popularity is going up"; or "our presence is appreciated." All such responses can be true. However, the quality of the truthfulness of such public opinions, and with it the actual efficacy of soft power, can be penetrated by multiple pressures, and indeed shaded by what other countries seek to do in the same neighborhood. If Russia, China, Japan, and other central countries begin to introduce their respective soft power measures in the regions, Turkey will be practically pitched against them as well. Granted that these countries have more resources, Turkey would either have to pony up (with more money and resources) to compete with them or concentrate on a very limited range of operations.

Soft Power Increasing in Salience by Default and Design

Beyond the popular tautological usages of the term, and regardless of the criticisms that have been leveled against Nye, soft power has been the staple of political discussions for well over two decades, both by default and by design. This is due to global aversion to war and corruption as instruments of public policy, instruments whose destructive impacts are clear to all. Since soft power promises to be a tool that foregoes both, it has been catapulted to an esteemed status.

Indeed, quantifiable measures of what statisticians may allude to as 'soft' methods when assessing soft power have also been found. Surveys to capture the number of students studying in a foreign country, or the extent to which they wish to live and work there, for example, implies soft power at work. (11) Such statistical findings are not the most accurate measures of attraction and persuasion, but they do reflect the trends at hand.

While the problem of tautology and archetype remain unsolved--and indeed insoluble--the movement towards making soft power more empirical indicates an attempt to utilize the practical aspects of the policy on the back of the idealism to which one can ostensibly subscribe. Thus, the world's fascination with soft power is not so much guided by its intellectual clarity, or its scientific lapses, as it is driven by its own aspirations--no doubt idealist ones--to avoid the trap of war, and the vicious cycle of corruption.

Ironically, the extent that one's own country is hated or disliked by others, policymakers and pundits alike often point to the breakdown in the use of more, rather than, less soft power. Yet, very little is said about the exact instruments or programs that can bridge the gap between policy and public opinions. Opinion polls conducted by the German Marshall Fund and the Pew Charitable Trusts indicate that America's image declined precipitously in most European countries due to Washington's foreign policy conduct after 9/11. However, there is no mention of how Europe itself has to step up only that America must step down. When soft power is understood in this way, it does not provide a clear cognitive map to a better policy.

For example, more than 80 percent of the populations of Germany (83 percent), France (85 percent), and Spain (81 percent) disapprove of U.S. foreign policy. Only in countries like the Netherlands (60 percent) and Poland (36 percent) is popular displeasure and distrust less pronounced. And as the Pew Report of 2007 indicates, "The U.S. image remains abysmal in most Muslim countries in the Middle East and Asia, and continues to decline among publics of many of America's oldest allies." Today, just 9 percent of Turks and 30 percent of Germans have a positive view of the United States. (12)

In fact, it can be said that the predominance of polling, both within Turkey and without, has made policymakers in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and perhaps even the Turkish Prime Ministry and presidency, more inclined to use soft power, since their participation in the Middle East and Central Asia can effectively be measured (no matter how weakly) to justify their trips and presence there. Therefore, the more prevalent polling becomes, both domestically and externally, the more likely policymakers will likely be attracted to and persuaded by the efficacy of soft power, since they can judge and measure their policy or their own personal appeal. Polling and statistics, in other words, create the strategic seduction of soft power, especially in establishing a simple causality between policy and populism.

That said, the strategic thrust of soft power, especially its ability to alter the behavioral parameters of elites and people on the ground, remain uncertain. As Nissim Kadosh Otmazgin, commenting on Japanese soft power, affirms:
   In today's market economies the mechanism of creating and
   distributing cultural commodities is beyond the direct control of
   governments and is much more difficult to wield. Moreover, even if
   we accept the notion that cultural products contain subliminal
   images and messages, such as values regarding individualism,
   consumer choice or freedom, these do not necessarily oblige
   consumers to accept these ideas. The fascination and attraction
   derived from the exposure to cultural goods could be simply that,
   not power. (13)

So, how do we go about understanding soft power in a more coherent and organized manner? One method involves understanding the origins of its debate, a task that Turkey must not avoid. If Turkey is to come out with its own original conceptualization of soft power, it must do so by first recognizing the limits inherent in other models.

The Origins of Soft Power

To be sure, the trajectory and origins of soft power began with the debate between revivalists and declinists in the 1980s. At stake was the issue of whether the United States was on the cusp of decline or revival. In 1989, when Nye's book Bound to Lead was first published, the goal was to repudiate the theory of Yale historian Paul Kennedy that the United States had reached an "imperial overstretch," and was fast entering an age of decline. (14) Nye countered at the time that Kennedy had ignored the element of soft power, as many countries continued to look up to the U.S. for leadership. Nye asserted that the essence of soft power lies in values: "in our culture and in the way we handle ourselves internationally." Since the United States had led the world to defeat communism, he argued, it still enjoyed an abundance of good will and social capital.

It was in this book that the notion of soft power first emerged as the lexicon by which Nye conceptualized the basic tenets of the United States' global leadership. Yet, global leadership was not all. Soft power has to be achieved through wise domestic policies too. Nye writes:
   If the United States were to follow policies that cut domestic
   consumption by the two percent of GNP by which it rose in the past
   decade, the richest country in the world could afford both better
   education at home and the international influence that comes from
   an effective aid and information program abroad. What is needed is
   increased investment in "soft power," the complex machinery of
   interdependence, rather than in "hard power"--that is, expensive
   new weapons systems. (15)

As can be seen, Nye's immediate preoccupations in the 1990s were the distorted domestic priorities and fiscal spending of the United States. That said, Nye's concept took on a larger importance when the collapse of the Soviet Union paved the way for the United States to emerge triumphant, without necessarily being obliged to correct its internal and domestic problems.

The thesis of the "end of history" peddled by Francis Fukuyama further reinforced the winsome quality of soft power since liberalism and free marker ideology were both seen to have triumphed, and their cultural and political tenets had gained wide admiration. Nye's concept of soft power was thus further vindicated, irrespective of the methodological confusion it wrought. But the confusion was clearly there. Or rather the intellectual tension between hard and soft power was never adequately resolved. This is most obvious in Nye's writings with Robert Keohane. Seeking to pursue the argument of their 1977 book Power and Interdependence in a 1998 Foreign Affairs article, they write:
   [The] information revolution has dramatically changed one feature
   of what we described in Power and Interdependence as "complex
   interdependence"--a world in which security and force matter less
   and countries are connected by multiple social and political
   relationships. (16)

Yet in the same article, both assert:
   However, the information revolution has not made dramatic changes
   in the two other conditions of complex interdependence. Military
   force still plays a significant role in relations between states,
   and in a crunch, security still outranks other issues in foreign
   policy. One reason that the information revolution has not
   transformed world politics to a new politics of complete complex
   interdependence is that information does not flow in a vacuum but
   in political space that is already occupied. Another is that
   outside the democratic zone of peace, the world of states is not a
   world of complex interdependence. In many areas, realist
   assumptions about the dominance of military force and security
   issues remain valid. (17)

In other words, between 1989 and 1998, Nye spoke more often of soft power, but did not do so with more caveats that he had already introduced in the jointly written article in Foreign Affairs with Robert Keohane. But if the confusion over soft power has not been terminal, that is because Nye has had both the time and opportunity to evolve the concept further. Since 2004, Nye, for example, has emphasized the criticality of soft power in the globally emerging information age. As Nye notes, "Politics has become a contest of competitive credibility. The world of traditional power politics is typically about whose military or economy wins. Politics in an information age may ultimately be about whose story wins." (18) Thus in one bold stroke, Nye took the debate into the realm of reputational gains and losses, into which some international relations theorists had indeed been looking without clearly associating it with soft power. Still, the family resemblance between the two paradigms i.e. reputation and soft power persuasiveness, created a synergy whereby soft power retained some salience.

Nor did Nye stop there. In his 2004 book, Soft Power: the Means to Success in World Politics, Nye further sought to underline another point--that of working with, and through, multilateral institutions to advance the goals of the United States. Such a strategy, he stresses, is all the more crucial in light of the erosion of the United States' international standing under the go-it-alone unilateralist policy of the second Bush Administration. (19) Nye warns:
   The recent decline in U.S. attractiveness should not be so lightly
   dismissed. It is true that the United States has recovered from
   unpopular policies in the past (such as those regarding the Vietnam
   War), but that was often during the Cold War, when other countries
   still feared the Soviet Union as the greater evil. It is also true
   that the United States' sheer size and association with disruptive
   modernity make some resentment unavoidable today. But wise policies
   can reduce the antagonisms that these realities engender. Indeed,
   that is what Washington achieved after World War II: it used
   soft-power resources to draw others into a system of alliances and
   institutions that has lasted for 60 years. The Cold War was won
   with a strategy of containment that used soft power along with hard
   power. (20)

As one can see, to wield soft power, one must be ready to work with others in the international system, without which any attempts to cultivate one's narrative, international standing and credibility can only be gainsaid. Thus, although soft power remains a term that distinguishes the subtle effects of culture, values and ideas on others' behavior from more direct coercive measures called hard power such as military action or economic incentives, the willingness to engage in multilateral cooperation is an equally important, distinguishing characteristic. But, once again, Nye does not confine soft power to the notions above. In the same book, Nye describes the growing use of English as a medium of transnational communication as a factor that gives the United States "soft power ... the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments." (21)

What Nye fails to acknowledge is that non-Americans can use English to advance their own interests rather than merely as a means to become informed of and follow American leadership. Due to the impact of America's hard power, foreign governments are forced to understand American as well as their own national politics, whether they regard the impact of the United States as positive, negative or variable. The growing fluency of English among the French elite is an outstanding example of the self-interested acquisition of English. Another is the use of English by transnational terrorists and anti-globalization campaigners to challenge American policy. By contrast, Washington has much less incentive to understand the politics or languages of countries that lack hard power. This situation produces a dialogue in a common language, English, but it is a dialogue with an asymmetry of understanding.

If anything, then, the power dynamic associated with the politics of language could work against the interests of the U.S.. As Richard Rose further adds:

"The dominance of English encourages Americans to be introverted while people who use English as a second language are more likely to have a cosmopolitan understanding of American political interests as well as their own. It follows from this that the diffusion of English as a foreign language will tend to increase the soft power of non-Americans for whom English is not their native language and weaken the influence of Americans who mistakenly assume that because those with whom they communicate are speaking English they also share the political values and goals." (22)

In 2005, writing to further elaborate on his concept of soft power, Nye--finally--asserted the importance of context. This put Nye back on the right road again: "The United States had far more measurable military resources than North Vietnam, but it nonetheless lost the Vietnam War. Whether soft power produces behavior that we want will depend on the context and the skills with which the resources are converted into outcomes." (23) Thus, as long as the strategic context of operation is unclear, no one knows whether hard or soft power may be more effective since the outcome cannot be compared.

As Nye further writes,
   the mention of hard power immediately conjures up images of tanks,
   fighters, and missiles. But military prowess and competence can
   sometimes create soft power. Dictators such as Hitler and Stalin
   cultivated myths of invincibility and inevitability to structure
   expectations and attract others to join their cause. As Osama bin
   Laden has said, people are attracted to a strong horse rather than
   a weak horse. A well-run military can be a source of admiration.
   The impressive job of the U.S. military in providing humanitarian
   relief after the Indian Ocean tsunami and the South Asian
   earthquake in 2005 helped restore the attractiveness of the United
   States. Military-to-military cooperation and training programs, for
   example, can establish transnational networks that enhance a
   country's soft power. (24)

From the above, one can also see that the increase in soft power involves the conversion of inert power resources into networks or platforms of cooperation and learning--an approach widely appreciated by sociologists studying social networks. Military hardware when used in humanitarian missions can also become a form of soft power. Since 2007, Nye has had to transform soft power into 'smart power'; this by combining it with the judicious use of the abundance of the United States' military resources.

In the bipartisan Commission on Soft Power hosted by Center of Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C, Nye and his co-chair Richard Armitage agreed that:
   The United States should focus on five critical areas: Alliances,
   partnerships, and institutions: The United States must reinvigorate
   the alliances, partnerships, and institutions that serve our
   interests and help us to meet twenty-first century challenges and
   solutions. Global development: Elevating the role of development in
   U.S. foreign policy can help the United States align its own
   interests with the aspirations of people around the world. Public
   diplomacy: Bringing foreign populations to our side depends on
   building long-term, people-to-people relationships, particularly
   among youth. Economic integration: Continued engagement with the
   global economy is necessary for growth and prosperity, but the
   benefits of free trade must be expanded to include those left
   behind at home and abroad. Technology and innovation: Energy
   security and climate change require American leadership to help
   establish global consensus and develop innovative solutions.

In the latest incarnation, then, we can see that an emboldened and intellectually ambitious Nye has--finally--located soft power side by side with hard power, despite the earlier ambiguity about it. As he notes: "Our view, and the collective view of this commission, is that the United States must become a smarter power by investing once again in the global good--providing things that people and governments in all quarters of the world want but cannot attain in the absence of American leadership. By complementing U.S. military and economic might with greater investments in its soft power, America can build the framework it needs to tackle tough global challenges." (25)

Permissive Association with Hard Power

While Nye can be credited as being the first scholar to develop the idea of soft power in full, one can see from the above that he eventually came to the resignation that that efficacy of soft power invariably involves a strategic marriage with hard power.

However, while this concession may give the appearance of solving the confusion over soft power, rendering it a vital auxiliary to hard power, the manner in which it is wielded would still have to be determined by the context of its operation. Soft power, in this sense, can not be an automatic option, just as hard power likewise no longer enjoys such a privilege. Their collective or separate application would still have to be debated before their implementation could properly take place.

One thing is certain, however: The true genesis of soft power discourse occurred within and was affected by dormant confusion over what constitutes national power as such. State power, for example, can be conceived at three levels: (1) resources or capabilities, or power-in-being; (2) how that power is converted through national processes, or power in application; (3) and power in outcomes, or power in effect, as measured by determining which state prevails in any particular circumstances.

The starting point for thinking about--and developing metrics for--national power is to view states as "capability containers," while recognizing that those capabilities--demographic, economic, technological, and the like--only manifest themselves through a process of conversion. For example, states need to convert material resources into more usable instruments, such as combat proficiency. Yet as Clausewitz notes: "Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult." (26) Clausewitz terms "friction" the "only concept that more or less corresponds to the factors that distinguish real war from war on paper." (27) Friction is caused mainly by the danger of war, by war's demanding physical efforts, and by the presence of unclear information or the fog of war.

In the end, however, what policymakers care most about is not power as capability or power-in-being as converted through national ethos, politics, and social cohesion. Rather, in light of Clausewitz's warning, they care about power in outcomes. That third level is by far the most elusive, for it is contingent and relative, both in war and peace. It depends on power for what, and against whom.

Since no scholars have effectively resolved the tension posed by the concept of 'friction' he discussion of power is often confined to (1) and (2), and rarely extends to (3), as the latter requires exhausting and empirical studies, or even first-hand experience as a military strategist or influential policymaker.

Indeed, as the empirical cases of the emergence and decline of great powers have proved difficult to generalize into observable laws, the answer to power-over-outcomes, to this day, remains elusive. In his book The Politics of Nations, Hans Morgenthau concerns himself with the definition of power, as well as with its measurement and distribution at the systemic level (i.e. 1). He rests in the conviction that a state power is defined in equal measure by material capabilities and less tangible factors, such as national morale and national character. Morgenthau is, however, explicit in stating that power also depends on policy factors, what he labels the "quality of diplomacy," and on leadership factors, which he refers to as "quality of government" (i.e. 2 or the conversion process). (28)

Nonetheless, Morgenthau remains fairly vague about identifying the stage in which the material and less tangible aspects of national power converge to transform a state into a great power (i.e. 3). What is true, however, is that in spite of their importance, little attention has been paid to what makes a major power--or for that matter a major soft power. The possession of substantial material power is obviously an important part of the story, but becoming a major hard or soft power also entails a policy choice. How that choice is made remains unclear, to date, in international relations theory.

As shown above, Nye has tried to fill the lacunae in the concept of soft power by speaking of a myriad of things. Thus between 1989 and 2007, the permutations by which soft power remains soft power increased exponentially. Other scholars and policymakers likewise succumb to the same folly of concept proliferation, because power over outcomes is invariably contingent on context and friction, both in war and peace.

Which Epoch/Age are We in?

As can be seen, it took Nye almost thirty years to conceptualize soft power in various guises and formulations. In order for Turkey to deploy soft power in the Middle East and Central Asia, it is more vital to understand the contexts and theaters within which Turkey wishes to wield it, and especially to grasp Turkey's long-term national interests in both regions. But beyond that, it is also crucial to understand whether Turkey is entering a modern or postmodern phase of international relations in the regions, or perhaps a hybrid of the two.

If Matthew Fraser is right, the world has moved into an age where pop culture predominates. Does this apply to the Middle East and Central Asia? Can Turkish pop culture make its presence felt here, and increase the attraction and persuasiveness of Turkey in these parts of the world? Not surprisingly, many scholars agree that the combined effects of movies, television, pop music, Disneyland, and fast food brands including Coca Cola and McDonald's, formed the ultimate template of what soft power is all about. (29) But how sure are we that Fraser is right?

Writing in Foreign Affairs in March 2008, Jerry Muller spoke additionally of the continued importance of ethnic nationalism in determining the next century. (30) Yet, a long quote from Philip Stevens, writing in The Financial Times, shores up the deficiency of our understanding just as quickly:
   The myriad theories of the new global order (or disorder) share
   several characteristics: a yearning for tidiness; unshakeable
   certainty in their enunciation; and flimsiness in the face of
   predictably unpredicted events. Over two decades we have thus seen
   the world described and re-described in perhaps a dozen different
   guises. We started off, some will remember, with the end of
   history, a trite but beguiling phrase claiming the triumph of
   economic and political liberalism. We have since encountered, in
   quick succession, George H. W. Bush's new global order, the U.S.
   retreat from foreign entanglements, the unipolar moment, the
   American imperium and, more recently, the rise of the rest--the
   rest being the patronizing label affixed to emerging great powers
   in Asia and Latin America. In between times, we have had Americans
   landing from Mars and Europeans descending from Venus, the victory
   of hard power and the revival of soft power, the ineluctable march
   of democracy and the birth of the capitalist autocracies. Oh, and
   lest we forget, the return of the clash of civilizations in the
   form of the long war against al-Qaeda extremists. Now, courtesy of
   Robert Kagan, one of the most prolific and engaging of the
   aforementioned grand strategists, we have the return of history.

The short and fast answer is that none of us know the key characteristics of our age, other than to concede that it would combine both modern and postmodern features, due to how unevenly globalization has proceeded over the last five centuries. The last point has been conceded by Nye too; as we move into an information age imbued with interdependence, certain features of international relations will still be based on how the great powers play the three dimensional chessboard. (32) By this token, the question of how Turkey can apply its soft power in the Middle East and Central Asia through repeated exchange and iteration, involves an honest undertaking of true reforms domestically first. Only after Turkey takes on the key issues and confusions wrought by globalization at home will it have the license to go abroad in aid of others.

With the AKP now subject to possible closure, the world will watch with bated breath to see how it will seek to reinvent or resurrect itself, and the extent to which Ankara will continue to exert the energy and motivation to seek the more aggressive reforms that would truly put Turkey on the world map as a central country. Turkey's success in the realm of soft power will also involve repairing its tattered academic, economic, and civilizational links with the two regions. Without such broad efforts, Turkey's soft power in the Middle East and Central Asia will amount to nothing other than a feel-good factor, and even that could be subject to equal challenges from other central countries that view these regions as vital to their own geo-strategic and geo-economic interests.


(1.) Joseph Nye, "Soft Power and Leadership," Compass: a Journal of Leadership (Spring 2004), p.28, available online at

(2.) "Blank Slate." See Eugenia C. Kiesling, "On War Without the Fog," Military Review (September-October 2001),

(3.) See Gareth Winrow, "Turkey and the Newly Independent States of Central Asia and Transcaucasus," Middle East Review of International Affairs, 1, no. 2 (July 1997),

(4.) For a succinct overview of the theoretical schools that address the concept of soft power, see texts like James E. Dougherty, Robert L. Pfaltzgraff, Jr., eds., Contending Theories of International Relations: a Comprehensive Survey (5th Ed.) (New York: Longman, 2001); Pual R. Viotti and Mark V. Kauppi, International Relations Theory: Realism, Pluralism, Globalism, and Beyond (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1999).

(5.) Bulent Aras, "US-Central Asian Relations: A View from Turkey," Middle East Review of International Affairs, 1, no. 1 (January 1997),

(6.) Bulent Aras, "Turkish Policy Toward Central Asia," SETA Policy Brief, Number 12 (April 2008).

(7.) Such relational or "effect-based" definitions have a rich tradition in the social sciences literature. See for example, Robert Dhal, "The Concept of Power," Behavioral Science, vol. 2, no. 3 (July 1957), pp. 201-215.

(8.) Fan Ying, "Soft power: the power of attraction or confusion," Place Branding and Public Diplomacy, 4, no. 2 (2008), quoted from the abstract.

(9.) We owe the distinction between hard and soft power most notably to Joseph S. Nye, Jr. See The Paradox of American Power: Why the World's Only Superpower Can't Go It Alone (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

(10.) Gregory F. Treverton and Seth G. Jones, Measuring National Power (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2005), p. 10, available online at

(11.) See for example, Joseph S. Nye, Jr., "Soft Power and Higher Education," Forum Futures 2005 (publication of Forum for the Future of Higher Education), available online at

(12.) Data from GMF Transatlantic Trends at For details of the study by two organizations, see Andrew Kohut and Bruce Stokes, America against the World: How we are Different and Why we are Disliked (New York: Times Books, 2006).

(13.) Nissim Kadosh Otmazgin, "Contesting Soft Power: Japanese Popular Culture in East and Southeast Asia," International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, 8, no. 1, (May 2007), p. 77.

(14.) Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Bound to Lead: the Changing Nature of American Power (New York: Basic Books, 1991); Paul M. Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 (New York: Random House, 1989).

(15.) Joseph S. Nye, Jr., "The misleading metaphor of decline," The Atlantic (March 1990).

(16.) Robert O. Keohane and Joseph S. Nye, "Power and interdependence in the information age," Foreign Affairs, 77, no5 (September/October 1998), pp. 81-94.

(17.) Keohane, Nye, "Power and interdependence in the information age," pp. 81-94.

(18.) Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Soft Power: the Means to Success in World Politics (New York: Public Affairs, 2004), p. 106.

(19.) Nye, Jr., Soft Power: the Means to Success.

(20.) Joseph S. Nye, Jr., "The Decline of America's Soft Power," Foreign Affairs (May/June 2004).

(21.) Nye, Jr., Soft Power: the Means to Success, p. ii.

(22.) Richard Rose, "Language, Soft Power and Asymmetrical Internet Communication," Oxford Internet Institute Discussion Paper; e-Democracy Center Working Papers 2005/03, online at Language_Soft_Power_and_Asymmetrical_Internet_Communication.pdf.

(23.) See Joseph S. Nye, Jr. "Think Again: Soft Power," Foreign Policy (March/April 2006). In fact, such contextual consideration has been emphasized in the literature without reference to soft power. David Baldwin, for example, has discussed on the importance of context in determining the outcomes of interaction given a power relation. See Baldwin, "Power Analysis and World Politics: New Trends versus Old Tendencies," World Politics, 31, no. 2 (January 1979), pp. 161-194; Baldwin, "Power in International Relations" in Walter Carlsnaes, Thomas Risse and Beth A. Simmons eds., Handbook of International Relations (London: SAGE, 2002), pp. 177-191. See also Robert E. Goodin and Charles Tilly, eds., The Oxford handbook of Contextual Political Analysis (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2006) for extensive discussions of how factors beyond the traditional focus of political science (ideas, religion, technology, for instance) affect political outcomes.

(24.) Nye, "Think Again: Soft Power."

(25.) Richard L. Armitage and Joseph S. Nye Jr., A Smarter, More Secure America: Report of the CSIS Commission on Smart Power (Washington, D.C.: CSIS Press, 2006), p. 5.

(26.) Carl Von Clausewitz, On War (London: Penguin Classics, 1982), p. 119.

(27.) Clausewitz, On War, p. 119.

(28.) Hans J. Morgenthau and Kenneth W. Thompson, Politics Among Nations: the Struggle for Power and Peace (New York: Knopf, 1985).

(29.) Matthew Fraser, Weapons of Mass Distraction: Soft Power and American Empire (New York: St Martin's Press, 2005).

(30.) Jerry Z. Muller, "Us and Them: The Enduring Power of Ethnic Nationalism," Foreign Affairs, March/April 2008.

(31.) Philip Stevens, "Clever conceits cannot hide the world's jagged edges," Financial Times, May 1, 2008.

(32.) For such view, see Joseph S. Nye, Jr., "Toward a Liberal Realist Foreign Policy: A memo for the next president," Harvard Magazine (March-April 2008): 36-8, 84.

PHAR KIM BENG, Visiting Scholar, Waseda University and SETA Asia Fellow.
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Author:Beng, Phar Kim
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Date:Apr 1, 2008
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