Joseph Nye at the 2023 Aspen Security Forum (Dan Bayer/Aspen Security Forum)

Joseph Nye on Soft Power Competition Between China and the United States

The Aspen Security Forum last week was a target rich environment for collecting excellent interviews for the podcast. This is one of the more high profile international security conferences and it tends to attract some big names, both inside government and from academia, media and civil society. Fortunately for you and I, several attendees agreed to sit down for a Global Dispatches interview.

My guest today, Joseph Nye, hardly needs an introduction. He’s the legendary international relations scholar and former head of the Harvard Kennedy School who coined the term “Soft Power.” (If hard power is getting others to do what you want through coercion, soft power is the ability to get others to do what you want through attraction.)

I was most interested in having Joe describe the state-of-play of Soft Power competition between the USA and China. You should listen to our entire conversation, but I would flag his succinct summary of the sources of China’s soft power today — and its limitations.

Mark Leon Goldberg: What do you perceive to be the key sources of Chinese soft power today?

Joseph Nye: Well, China is attractive to others because of its economic performance. As the frequent phrase goes, it has raised hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and that attracts others to China. China’s also attractive because of its traditional culture. It is an ancient culture with many interesting and attractive features. And so this is what you get when you have Confucius Institutes that are established by Beijing and various universities around the world. Those are probably its two strong sources of soft power.

But on the other hand, it’s got some weaknesses — and the weaknesses are two big weaknesses. One is there’s a lot of territorial conflicts with its neighbors. It’s very hard to attract, let’s say, Indians with a Confucius Institute, New Delhi, if at the same time you’re killing Indian soldiers on the Himalayan border. And China has probably a half a dozen neighbors with whom it has territorial disputes. So that limits China’s soft power. The other thing that limits China’s soft power is the tight insistence on detailed party control. The fact that that it limits freedom of speech, limits civil society. You get things like a great Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, who is essentially thrown out or locked up. And that affects not just China’s neighbors, but affects people in Europe, Japan, Australia and the US. So those are the two limits on Chinese soft power, which I think more than balances the two assets.

To get the episode on your favorite player, go here.