What is Smart Power?

smart power


Antonella Valenti

Antonella Valenti

The concept of smart power was first elaborated by Joseph Nye[1] in his book “Soft power. A Future for America” (Einaudi, 2004) in which he defines smart power as the ability to combine hard power and soft power resources into effective strategies depending on the context. Nye explains how the use of force, reward and the setting of action programmes based on them constitute what he calls hard power; while, soft power in its full definition is the ability to influence others by co-opting them through programme setting, persuasion and positive attraction, in order to achieve the desired results. Hard power exerts pressure, soft power appeals.

Soft and hard power are closely related since both are approaches to achieving one’s goals by influencing the behaviour of others:[2]

According to Wilson, the smart power approach stems from the realisation that soft and hard power are not simply neutral instruments to be exercised independently. They constitute separate and distinct institutions and institutional cultures that exert their own normative influences on their members, each with their own attitudes, incentives and expected career paths. Smart power means knowing the strengths and limitations of these instruments[3]. The large amount of investment made by China to promote its own culture around the globe is a clear example of soft power. Nye sees the establishment of hundreds of Confucius Institutes around the world and the rapid growth of Chinese international radio and televisions broadcasting as a powerful means of attracting foreign students to China. Combining the growth of its hard power with a compelling discourse on soft power, China has sought to use smart power to convey the idea of the peaceful rise of knowledge and culture[4].

Nye Joseph, Smart power, Laterza, p. 26.
Nye Joseph, Smart power, Laterza, p. 26.

In general, resources associated with hard power include tangible factors such as strength and money, while those associated with soft power often include intangible factors such as institutions, ideas, values, culture and perceived legitimacy of policies. The effectiveness of soft power in achieving certain results depends much more on the recipient than is normally the case with hard power.  But the relationship is not perfect because intangible resources such as patriotism and legitimacy have a significant impact on the military’s ability to fight and win; the threat of using force is also an intangible factor, although it is an aspect of hard power[5].

In international politics, the resources that produce soft power arise largely from the values that an organisation or country has expressed in its culture, in the examples it sets through its domestic practices and policies, and in the way it manages its relations with others; but if the contents of a country’s culture, values and policies are not attractive, the public diplomacy that conveys them cannot produce soft power, indeed it may produce the opposite. For example, as Nye mentions, if one were to export Hollywood movies full of nudity and violence to conservative Muslim countries, this would produce repulsion rather than soft power[6].

It should be specified that smart power is not just “soft power 2.0”, but is an evaluative as well as a descriptive concept. Furthermore, it overcomes the limitation to apply the concept to the United States of America, because as Nye states, smart power is available to all states and non-state actors[7]. The Centre for Strategic Studies and the Commission for International Studies have idealised the concept by stating that smart power means developing an integrated strategy, resource base and toolkit to achieve objectives, drawing on both hard power and soft power[8].

Since the term has been used by the Obama administration, some analysts think it refers only to the United States, while other scholars see it as a slogan to boost propaganda discourse, the concept can be used for analytical purposes and is in no way limited to the United States[9]. Today, the quest for smart power is not only driven by the right or wrong choices of the individual leader. Sophisticated nations have it all: smart bombs, smart phones, smart blogs, to name but a few. Any actor with an ambition to improve its position in the world seeks to build strategies around these new foundations of smartness[10].

Culture is the set of social behaviours by which groups transmit knowledge and values and exists at multiple levels, it is never static and different cultures interact in different ways and over time they influence each other[11]. This is an important resource of soft power. Culture and leadership are two sides of the same coin, because in creating groups and organisations, leaders first create culture. Once culture exists, it determines the criteria for leadership and therefore who can and cannot be a leader. For example, in different areas in the Middle East there are national, regional, local, religious, organisational, and other subcultures. Therefore, leaders face daunting challenges in understanding the cultural contexts of different countries and must also realise that their communication style has different effects on different public opinions[12].

According to Brannen, resorting to smart power is not very complicated, one has to become more aware of the available tools, and above all, re-evaluate alliances and defensive posture, in a way that has changed rapidly in recent years. Resorting to hard power is not always indispensable, as one has to think “beyond the barrel of a gun”[13].

Smart power in the 21st century is not about maximising power or preserving hegemony, but about finding ways to combine resources into successful strategies in a new context characterised by the spread of power and the rise of other actors[14]. This would consist of a strategy that relates means and ends and this requires clarity about the objectives (desired outcomes), resources and tactics for their use. A smart strategy must also answer a second question: what the available power resources are and in what contexts can they be used. In addition, it is essential to have an accurate view of the capabilities and inclinations of potential opponents. In most cases, a good understanding of the target audience is essential for calibrating the tactics used to combine power resources[15].

Antonella Valenti


[1] Nye J., Smart power, Laterza, p.17.

[2] Kennedy R., The nature and demands of Smart Power, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College (2013), p. 67.

[3] Wilson E. J., Hard Power, Soft Power, Smart Power, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 616, 2008, pp.110-116.

[4] Nye J., op. cit., pp. 24-26.

[5] Nye J., Diplomacy and Soft Power, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 616, 2008, p. 95.

[6] Nye J., op. cit., p. 248.

[7] Wilson E. J, op. cit., pp. 112-113.

[8] Geertz C., Interpretazioni di culture, il Mulino, 1998, p. 73.

[9] Nye J., Leadership e potere: hard, soft e smart power, Laterza, 2009, pp.108-113.

[10] Brannen S., How to make a Great Power a Smart Power, Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, Vol.10, 2009, pp. 169-174.

[11] Nye J., op. cit., pp.246-247.

[12] Craig G. e Gilbert F., Reflections on Strategy in the Present and Future, in Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, Princeton University Press, 1986, pp. 871-872.


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