In the past decade, the notion of “soft power” developed by Harvard University’s Joseph Nye has become the epitome of successful “conceptual entrepreneurship.” This is true not only in academia – in the sense that Nye has acquired considerable professional visibility through a series of publications in which he explained and defended the concept1 – but also among policy practitioners. The EU gleefully has taken ownership of a formulation that it believes precisely describes its foreign policy ethos – and also exonerates Europe for its relative military impotence. Meanwhile, the Obama administration also has embraced the concept to underline that it had made a radical break away from the neoconservative dogmas of its predecessor. Yet problems abound with the notions of “soft” or “smart power.” Highlighting these shortcomings is more than an academic exercise: if indeed the concept has now become a pillar of the Obama administration’s and the EU’s foreign policies, the price to pay for its analytical weaknesses might well be intolerably high. From a theoretical standpoint, the notion does not propose a convincing explanation of the mechanisms through which the “attractiveness” of a country’s culture, values, or policies actually produces desired results – without which, “soft power” devolves into mere “softness,” but does not in truth amount to power.2 In addition, the metrics of “attractiveness” (or “soft power resources”) have remained too vague, impressionistic, and self-centered. From a policy standpoint, interpretations of “soft power” among governments commonly exhibit a simplistic understanding of the means through which “attractiveness” can be asserted and leveraged in today’s complex cultural environment. In addition, the West’s belief in the supposed self-evidence of its own “attractiveness” has failed to take sufficient account of the dark side of Western history. America and Europe mistakenly have assumed that they are uniquely equipped to project “soft power,” when the rest of the world commonly looks up to bodies of values originating elsewhere, and is quick to assail Western hypocrisy and double standards. Meanwhile, the foreign policies of the EU and the Obama

administration all too often have fallen short of their own, lofty standards – and therefore have undermined, rather than built up Western “soft power potential.” Furthermore, the very success of the theory has sown the seeds of its own demise. Far from shifting the instincts of foreign policy establishments, “soft power” has been disfigured into yet another tool of zero-sum competition among great powers. It has also compounded the problematic conflation between “value-based” policy portfolios (such as development aid) and narrow national interests. Rarely has an analytical concept born in the ivory tower been more successful than “soft power” in percolating through to the vernacular of policy-makers. In September 2009, José Manuel Barroso, newly reappointed as president of the EU Commission, outlined his “vision of Europe” and “political guidelines” for the next five years.3 Barroso notably explained that the EU “needed to join up the different strands of our external policy much better to use our ‘soft power’ leverage.” In February 2011, High Representative Ashton resorted to the same language when she explained that “the strength of the EU lies, paradoxically, in its inability to throw its weight around. . . . [It] is gaining in influence because it is gaining in trust. In short, the EU has soft power with a hard edge.”4 The adoption of the concept by EU policy-makers, alongside “civilian power Europe”5 or “normative power Europe”6 was not surprising: it seemingly allowed the Union to say exactly what it wished to say about itself. The path of the “soft power” mantra among US policy-makers was more tortuous. In part, its success was made possible by Joseph Nye’s concerted effort to re-craft the concept into “smart power” – defined as the balanced combination of “hard” and “soft” components of national power into a coherent whole. In 2006, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) – at the interface of academia and policy planning – convened a “Smart Power Initiative” co-chaired by Nye and former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.7 In 2007, Secretary of Defense Gates became a counter-intuitive champion of the concept, when he called upon the US “to integrate and apply all the elements of national power to problems and challenges abroad,” which would require “strengthening our capacity to use ‘soft’ power and better integrating it with ‘hard’ power.”8 Yet the triumph of the notion only came with the transition from the Bush to the Obama administration. “Smart power” now turned into the battle-cry of the Department of State under Hillary Clinton, who mentioned it several times in the course of her nomination hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Clinton emphasized that “we must use what has been called ‘smart power’: the full range of tools at our disposal – diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural – picking the right tool, or combination of tools, for each situation.”9