“Soft Power” and Its Manifestations in International Diplomacy

Kamran Hooshmand is one of the ten 2015 Milton Wolf Emerging Scholar Fellows, an accomplished group of doctoral and advanced MA candidates selected to attend the 2015 Milton Wolf Seminar. Their posts highlight the critical themes and on-going debates raised during the 2015 Seminar discussions.

In April 2015, scholars, journalists, academic professionals and a group  “emerging scholars” (select graduate students from around the globe) gathered in Vienna, Austria at the annual Milton Wolf Seminar on Media and Diplomacy. This year’s seminar theme, “Triumphs and Tragedies: Media and Global Events in 2014,” generated interesting and thoughtful discussions for both panelists and participants alike. Although the term “soft power” was rarely used, many Seminar participants implicitly highlighted the different forms of soft power at play in contemporary diplomacy. In the case of Iranian nuclear negotiations, the mere use of social media networks by state officials could be considered a form of soft power. Soft power can also be utilized to limit expression without the overt use of force or coercion especially in domestic media policies as in the cases of Turkey and Russia. Seminar discussions about the conflict over Crimea also demonstrated how the creation and propagation of rumors and myths to influence policy and public opinion serve as a form of soft power. Finally the closing panel of the seminar highlighted another form of soft power, the digital tools and approaches used by non-state actors to present alternative narratives to official state ideologies.

Joseph Nye defines power as “the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes you want” (2008:333) and soft power as a type of power that “co-opts people rather than coerces them” (ibid). Nye initially developed his concept of “soft power” as a means of describing how Western governments influence adversaries through attraction or coercion as an alternative to “hard power” military or economic responses. According to Nye: “We have entered an age where information is power. Attention rather than information becomes the scarce resource, and those who can distinguish valuable information from background clutter gain power” (ibid: 337).

Nye also raises the notion of “competitive credibility:” “the world of traditional power politics is typically about whose military or economy wins. Politics in an information age may ultimately be about whose story wins” (ibid). Nye sees the internet as an alternative venue for utilizing soft power. In comparing traditional broadcasting with the internet, he posits that “broadcasting is important, but it has to be supplemented by effective ‘narrowcasting’ via the internet” (ibid: 339). In other words, since post-modern publics are generally skeptical of authority and governments are often mistrusted, other channels of communication need to be used besides the unidirectional “authoritative” voice of traditional media (ibid: 341).

Soft power, however, is not always a top-down tool used by and between governments for diplomacy. Civil resistance movements and other non-state actors also use certain forms of soft power to express their political and ideological views and win hearts and minds. In my research on the role of music and musicians in alternative public spheres, I have argued that nowhere is this “bottom-up” form of soft power more apparent than in the cyberspace. Iranian musicians, for example, have been using digital media tools and online forums to voice their discontent with the artistic, cultural and political atmosphere in Iran, thereby contesting the official state narratives.

The notion of soft power as a diplomatic tool, especially the extensive use of digital mobile apps and social media by states and citizens alike, was an unspoken theme underlying most of the presentations. Soft power was especially a focus of the second panel of the seminar, “Mobilizing Public Opinion in the Fog of Diplomacy: Iran and the Nuclear Agreement,” a panel that was of particular interest to me and largely relevant as it took place just weeks before the deadline for Iran nuclear negotiations. (Follow this link to watch a shorter version of the participant presentations). Panelists discussed the Iranian government’s used social media and other communication strategies as a form of soft power to influence diplomacy. Discussions particularly highlighted representations of the Iranian negotiating team, specifically the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in both social and traditional media.


Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif

In Iranian political culture, smiling and joking during serious negotiations may be constituted as a sign of weakness. Some even frame this attitude within a feminist/gender discourse within Iranian politics. There has been, however, a shift in this perception in Iran in recent years. A quick comparison of images of historical and more recent political Islamic Republic of Iran figures makes this distinction clear. Early images of the revolution depict Ayatollah Khomeini with his infamous stern, serious facial expressions. With the election of President Mohammad Khatami in the 1990s this traditional demeanor changed notably. Khatami, nicknamed in Iran as “Seyed Khandan” (“the smiling cleric”), brought for the first time a softer image of a cleric to the global media. Even his more conservative successor President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with his fiery rhetoric, manifested the “smiling face” in many of his public media appearances. These two “faces” of Iran represent two different ideological approaches. As Milton Wolf panelist Hossein Bastani noted, in this context, Zarif’s “smiling face”—although it certainly presented a pleasant image of him and by extension of Iran in the international media—was subject to criticism by conservative elements within the country.

In his book, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, Nye identifies three broad categories of soft power: “culture,” “political values,” and “policies.” The projection of the smiling face of Zarif is a good example of the cultural aspect of soft power designed to counter stereotypical representations of Iranian politicians as stern, angry, and non-accommodating individuals, instead putting forth a softer image of Iran to the global media.

The use of social media by Iranian officials—another form of applying soft power—was also discussed in the Milton Wolf session on Iran (although the words “soft power” were never spoken). Panelist Reza Marashi emphasized that both Iranian president Rouhani and foreign minister Zarif were on “top of social media use” and a “one-man show” when it comes to Iran’s PR efforts surrounding the negotiations, pointing to why a great deal rides on the character and personality of individual actors in the negotiation process in the context of Iranian political culture. Marashi also highlighted several roles that these new uses of media play in Iranian politics and diplomacy. First, social media diplomacy helps to “reframe the diplomacy of Iran post-Ahmadinejad” by revising the old rhetoric into one that is more flexible diplomatically, something that has been labeled by certain elements in Iran as a “heroic flexibility.”  Second, while many Iranians inside Iran understand and can communicate well in English, the use of social media in English opened up communication to a broader global audience. A Milton Wolf participant questioned whether the negotiations to this point could be considered a win for Iran. Panelists agreed that the negotiation process is in itself a success in light of decades of non-communication between Iran and the West, nevertheless, if talks do not succeed, there will be serious consequences and the “ink needs to dry” on the agreement for negotiations to be considered a complete triumph.

The Iranian panel was not the only one at Milton Wolf to highlight the fact that there are many different types of soft power that play different roles in diplomacy. As emphasized by the fourth session of the seminar, “The Diplomacy of Domestic Media and Information Policy,” states often use soft power rather than overt force or coercion to limit expression. One particular example of this form of soft power is domestic surveillance and media censorship policies: instead of mass arrests of or violence against activists (although this is still a prevalent occurrence in many countries), states modify laws to limit the range of political expression online. Examples of these laws include limiting access to social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter and using tactics such as filtering techniques designed to limit the reach of online activists and bloggers.

Panelist Maria Repnikova pointed to new policies that are limiting the use of the internet in Russia, including new child protection laws, anti-extremism laws, a new internet “black list” with over 4000 sites blocked, and new Russian new blogger laws limiting the scope of expression for Russian bloggers. Repnikova outlined common ground between internet policies in Russia and China which have utilized a combination of harsher legal measures and coercive tactics against potential offenders. Diplomatic responses to these activities in both countries have been complicated by the complicity of Western non-governmental actors such as Google in online censorship activities and the fact that domestic public opinion in China and Russia appears to favor media regulation.

Because soft power has appeared as an alternative to raw power politics, it is often embraced by ethically-minded scholars and policymakers. But soft power is a descriptive rather than a normative concept. Like any form of power, it can be wielded for good or bad. Turkey, for example, has been expanding its authoritarian uses of soft power, as elaborated by panelist Dr. Erik Nisbet. He pointed out that as a country located “at a fork in the road of democracy,” Turkey has had to deal with the pros and cons of social media. Especially after the Gezi Park protests, Turkey has been tightening its restrictions on the use of the social media and making efforts to limit Twitter use. In 2014 Turkey was responsible for 60 percent of all Twitter removal requests globally. Nisbet recounted the rhetoric that the Turkish government had been using to tighten its control: the internet harms family values, promotes suicide, harms internal political stability, is used by foreign countries against Turkey, increases the threat of terrorism inside Turkey, and is being used to spread false rumors and lies about public figures.

Creation and propagation of rumors and myths to influence policy and public opinion can be considered another form of using false propaganda to promote soft power. The fifth panel, “Ukraine and the Superpowers: An Update in the Revival of Cold War Rhetoric,” examined the rhetoric and the reality behind the media war surrounding the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia. Yevhen Fedchenko, co-founder of the fact-checking website StopFake.org, talked about some of the rumors and myths that were used in the Ukraine-Russia war to influence public opinion in the West. One particularly interesting rumor that Fedchenko mentioned, which was never confirmed or substantiated, was that Obama allegedly banned the use of the Russian folk instrument, the balalaika, in the U.S. as a means of protesting Russian behavior towards Ukraine.

The last session of the seminar, “Non-Traditional Uses of Media in Foreign Policy Debates,” highlighted how actors working within and outside the boundaries of government are seeking to shape foreign policy narratives and outcomes. Panelists provided many examples of how the information age has also led to the rise of soft power resources for non-state actors. Rob Bole discussed how jazz and the “American Cool” of the earlier decades opened doors for public diplomacy.[i] In contrast, in much of the world today, American culture has become a cancer, representing moral decay. Both state and non-state foreign policy actors now use media as a means to precondition the audience through “reflexive control.” As a remedy, he suggested that journalists and media professionals need to: 1) focus on media literacy in assisting the audience to navigate the 21st Century media environment; 2) be story-tellers (he used Ken Burns as an example) to build a narrative, rather than just be purveyors of facts; and 3) put the audience first by creating content that they will value and from which they can derive a material advantage to improve their lives.

Primarily, through the use of global media, and to a greater extent the internet, non-state actors are attempting to increase their soft power and put pressure on governments to ultimately affect policy outcomes. Global Voices Central and Eastern European editor, Danica Radisic provided a good example of this trend as she discussed her personal experiences with online censorship in Serbia.

Non-state actors can also create cyber advocacy organizations (Steele 2002) to recruit members and project their voice on the global stage. Amelia Arsenault’s closing presentation entitled “Information Warrior$” demonstrated well this aspect of the use of soft power. She juxtaposed traditional political communication with various new methods of “gaming the system.” She showed several websites and digital tools such as Yatterbox, Fiverr, and ZunZuneo that are used to bypass official state narratives and present alternative narratives that are non-existent in traditional media.

Although initially Nye considered soft power as a state-to-state tool to shape diplomacy without the use of overt force or money, its definition and application must be revised to fit the online mediascape. Meanwhile, the application of soft power by non-state actors, whether artists, activists, or non-governmental organizations, can indeed empower these groups in developing the means necessary to express themselves globally and provide alternative narratives to the official state ideological lines.

Overall, the 2015 Milton Wolf Seminar was an intriguing and informative seminar that covered many of the important media-related events of 2014. There were many voices present from a wide variety of countries and backgrounds, which added to the richness of the debates. For my own research on the role of music and musicians in the digital public sphere in Iran, the seminar provided particularly useful background on how state and non-state actors alike use the internet and social media as hegemonic tools to impose a sort of diplomatic soft power. It certainly re-ignited my interest in further exploring the theme of “music and art diplomacy”— the deliberate use of music and art to achieve superiority in the public relations battle vis-à-vis official state media. Qualitatively, leaving the conference with a broad but concise knowledge of the recent global media events was certainly valuable to me. Perhaps my most valuable take-away from the Seminar was learning about new research on topics such as internet penetration, digital literacy, and how state and non state actors use social media to present particular alternative narratives.



Davenport, Lisa E. (2009) Jazz Diplomacy: Promoting America in the Cold War Era. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi,. 219 pp.

Nye, Joseph. (2004) Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. New York : Public Affairs

Nye, Joseph. (2008) “Public Diplomacy and Soft Power,” in Daya Kishan Thussu (ed.), International Communication: A Reader. New York: Routledge.

Steele, Robert D. (2002) The New Craft of Intelligence: Personal, Public, & Political: Citizen’s Action Handbook for Fighting Terrorism, Genocide, Disease, Toxic Bombs and Corruption. Oakton, Virginia: OSS International Press.

[i] One rarely discussed use of soft power is in the form of music and music diplomacy. In the Cold War era, many claim that American jazz as an instrument of global diplomacy transformed superpower relations and reshaped democracy’s image worldwide. In her book, Jazz Diplomacy: Promoting America in the Cold War, Lisa E. Davenport (2009) tells the story of America’s program of jazz diplomacy practiced in the Soviet Union and other regions of the world from 1954 to 1968. Jazz music and jazz musicians seemed an ideal card to play in diminishing the credibility and appeal of Soviet communism in the Eastern bloc and beyond.


About the Author

1234Kamran Hooshmand received his bachelor’s degree in Anthropology from Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State University) and his MA in Middle Eastern Studies with substantial coursework in ethnomusicology from the University of Texas at Austin. His master’s thesis discussed tradition, technology, change and the role of radio and the recording industry in Twentieth century Iranian music. He is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in the Department of Radio-Television-Film’s Media Studies program at UT-Austin. His research focuses on religious chants, globalization, sound and music analysis on film, satellite television broadcasts, and social media particularly related to Iran and Iranian Diaspora.







Featured Photo Credit: AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by dobrych

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