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Soft Power: Talking to the People

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

East Germans gathering in front of the "Erfurter Hof" to see West German Chancellor Willy BrandtWatching current international events unfold, we increasingly see how foreign policy acknowledges the role of the public in politics. Since the 1990s scholars have used the term "soft power" to describe a certain kind of international diplomacy, and it seems that this kind of cooperative diplomacy gains more and more weight on the international stage. The term "soft power" was coined by Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye in his 1990 book Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power and he developed his concept further in Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, published in 2004.

Soft diplomacy is an approach that focuses on building coalitions on the ground of commonalities: countries that share similar values, policies, goals. At the core of soft power are strategic communication, foreign aid, civic action, empowerment, and economic reconstruction and development. In essence (and simplified) it's about working with the people in country A to make them support country B and demand from government A to work with government B. It involves talking to the people:engaging foreign publics, winning public opinion.

Soft power has proven to be effective in the past, although sometimes the work may have lasted decades. As proud East-German the politics of former German Chancellor Willy Brandt come to my mind. Brandt was elected in 1969, the first social democrat to lead Western Germany more than 20 years after the Nazis had been defeated. The Chancellors before him had insisted to not accept the sovereignty of the former GDR and to not attempt any communication that could further the hope that Germany would be united again one day. Brandt took another stance: he used soft power. He didn't recognize East Germany as independent state, but he talked to the people. He was the first Chancellor to meet with his East German counterpart, Willi Stoph, in 1970 in Erfurt, in the eastern state of Thuringia. I don't know if this was the beginning of the end of divided Germany, but there's a picture that will always be close to my heart: Willy Brandt stepping out on a balcony in an Erfurt hotel and a huge crowd of East Germans chanting "Willy, Willy!" They didn't mean Willi Stoph. Almost 20 years before the Berlin Wall came down, the people had cast their vote, and they had cast it in favor of soft power. Brandt was awarded the Peace Nobel Prize for his politics in 1971, and in 1990 both Germanys came together as one country.

With the rise of soft power, development gains even more meaning as diplomatic tool. Successful development is a means to gain people's trust and to empower them to demand better services from their government. I suppose there's a lot that remains to be improved in order to make development effective, but working toward good governance and accountability seems to be a promising path.

Photo credit: German Federal Archives


Important to remember that soft power is not always about dialogue or finding common ground. It is not about helping a people find the solutions to their problems themselves – it is about having a single-minded agenda and using means of influence to achieve your aim, in short “A belief of one person’s perspective over another". For me, although preferable to power by military might it's not the only answer.

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