Cultural Goods as Soft Power: A Worthwhile Investment?

CSPS Fellow Caroline Wesson writes about the use of soft power and discusses the effectiveness of developing cultural soft power.

Power, desired almost universally by individuals, companies, organizations, and countries, can be defined as the ability to get others to behave in ways that they otherwise would not. There is much to be said on the topic of power due to the nature of the concept and the way that power influences and permeates all aspects of politics, domestic and international. The concept of soft power – a topic of great interest in international relations that was first developed by scholar Joseph Nye – is defined as “the ability to get what you want through attraction” as opposed to other means such as coercion or payments. Meanwhile, hard power is a more traditional conception of power defined as either military or economic might. The difference between soft and hard power has brought about new scholarship as well as new approaches from states and policymakers.

Soft power has become, over time, an attractive set of tools for states to influence through building relationships, communicating values and identity, and ultimately engaging constructively in international institutions to establish rules and order. Even so, sometimes it is hard to distinguish when soft power is being used and measuring a state’s soft power capability is nearly impossible. Nye has distinguished three types of soft power, cultural, ideological, and institutional. It can be difficult to separate the three, and these categories alone offer little understanding of how soft power is created, deployed, or in some cases countered. Cultural soft power has gained interest over time as the digital age has increased access to cultural goods around the globe. One can simply utilize their smartphone to access content produced anywhere around the world, with subtitles in nearly every major language.

Are states implementing cultural soft power strategies and if so, how? The answer is complicated. There are examples of states actively implementing policies to build soft power. However, in some cases, soft power is a by-product of other initiatives to catalyze economic growth, maintain involvement in international institutions, or implement governance reforms. For instance, it is true that American cultural and entertainment goods are not made with soft power implications in mind, yet these goods are consumed globally and have profound impacts on the way societies perceive the U.S. In other cases, countries such as China have actively utilized entertainment to increase soft power through partnerships with international (particularly U.S.) film industries to create films that allow China to project a positive image for international audiences. China is not alone. Many countries are making moves to create their own cultural soft power. Given the turn towards soft power creation, students of international politics should work to understand not only the impacts of soft power, but also the strategies states are employing to create it.

There is significant diversity within the term ‘cultural soft power,’ including everything from entertainment goods such as film and music to technology and innovation. The U.S. technology sector attracts global attention because of its cutting-edge nature, culture of openness, risk-taking, and incorporation of aesthetics. This is not different from the way entertainment goods capture our interest. Other parts of cultural soft power can include history, cultural heritage sites, educational tradition, food, values and lifestyle.

In terms of entertainment goods, some strategies stand out above others in frequency of use. Investment in entertainment industries and the creation of creative cities have been popular policy interventions to create soft power. South Korea offers a famous example, since the first Korean (Hallyu) wave of the late 1990s, the South Korean government has financially supported entertainment firms and encouraged corporate investment. These financial supports allowed for creatives to take more risks and eventually birthed extremely successful pop music and drama industries that continue to grow in international popularity today. Japan has taken a similar direction with their “Cool Japan” initiative, which has an associated fund to help entertainment and cultural businesses expand abroad. While South Korea and Japan have certainly seen success exporting their cultural goods – simply look at the popularity of K-Pop group BTS and the spread of popular Anime to streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu – it is still hard to say whether Japan and South Korea can leverage this cultural clout to achieve favorable diplomatic outcomes in international politics. Nevertheless, these strategies have had real impact on economic growth through growing the consumer base abroad and increasing the volume of tourism.

So, should countries look to support cultural industries to increase their soft power? It appears there are still mixed results about the real impacts of these programs in terms of soft power. This is due to the inability to measure soft power capabilities and to draw causal links between cultural products and their level of internationalization and diplomatic outcomes. What can be said though is that many of these policies have real impacts for developing national economies. The cultural and entertainment sector, for some countries, has a huge impact on GDP and thus is meaningful for this reason alone – but in terms of power, the added economic value contributes to a nation’s hard power as an economic asset. Therefore, it may be ultimately worthwhile for some states to consider policy interventions to develop their cultural and entertainment industries when considering state power capabilities.

Caroline Wesson is a third year PhD student studying Political Science at George Mason University where she is a President’s Scholar and a graduate research assistant. She also holds a bachelor’s and master’s in International Affairs from the Georgia Institute of Technology. Caroline is currently working on research related to the intersection of culture, technology, and economic development. In the security realm Caroline produces research on national innovation systems, strategic trade, and emerging technology. Caroline was a research intern with Center of Strategic and International Studies in 2019 and worked on their China Power Project. In the summer of 2020 Caroline was a Summer Associate at RAND working on issues related to the international scientific research community and security. Caroline also serves as the Managing Editor for the Arts and International Affairs journal.

Photo can be found here.