Recent years have witnessed an increase in the number of scholarly studies on the idea of soft power in foreign policy. Though Joseph Nye popularized this concept in the early years of the post-Cold war era in the context of the American foreign policy, the late 1990s saw scholars begin to use this concept frequently in relation to the European Union. It was argued that the EU was a distinctive international actor repudiating hard power practices in the materialization of European security and foreign policy interests. The EU's ability to set global standards as well as its normative capacity to help transform would-be members constituted the main source of its soft power.
Early literature mainly compared the U.S., a traditional hard power actor, with the EU, a genuine soft power. Even some prominent international relations thinkers, like Robert Kagan, argued that the EU relies on soft power because it is weak in terms of hard power capabilities. The reason why the U.S. does not hesitate to rely on coercive power instruments is that it has the ability to impose its terms on others forcefully. From this perspective, soft power is the strategy of the weak.
Discussions on soft power gained a new dimension at the turn of the new century. Following the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a number of scholars began to examine the growing salience of the so-called rising powers in international politics.
While uncovering the differences between the foreign policy strategies of the well-established existing powers on the one hand and the rising powers on the other, the concept of soft power has been increasingly mentioned in the context of explaining China’s "peaceful rise/peaceful development" strategy. As a prominent rising power, China has invested heavily in soft-power strategies in an attempt to challenge the primacy of the U.S. and West in the international community.
Chinese leadership has taken great pains to improve China’s material power and capitalized on projects which radiate a positive Chinese image across the globe. Today many believe China offers a non-Western model of economic development and international order. Similarly, many have concluded that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on the one hand and the particular foreign policy understandings of the administrations of George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump on the other have eaten away the soft power potential of the U.S.
Discussions on soft power have adopted a new dimension as the relationship between the U.S. and China has increasingly begun reflecting the elements of a normative contestation as to how the new international order should be designed in the post-COVID-19 era. The adoption of sharp power instruments alongside this process seems to have led some to argue that the innocence of soft power has now been increasingly replaced by the wickedness of sharp power.
Turkey is one of those countries coming into the limelight over the last two decades in part owing to its foreign policy understanding. Many argued that the soft power turn in Turkish foreign policy during the first 10 years of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) governments has gradually eroded with hard power practices coming back since the onset of the Arab Spring.
It was believed that Turkey had become a soft power foreign policy actor in its region that prioritized the adoption of a transformative, trade-based, civilian, normative and diplomatic foreign policy understanding. Some of the factors that accounted for such a soft power turn in Turkish foreign policy were the continuation of the EU accession process, the concomitant demand on Turkey to prove that it has good relations with its neighbors and the need to lessen the negative consequences of the growing instability in the Middle East on Turkey’s economic development and political maturation processes. Many believed that Turkey would be able to deal with the challenges to its security and assert its primacy only through the adoption of soft power tools and strategies.
The primacy of Western powers in global politics and the lack of a serious normative contestation as regards the constitutive norms of the liberal international order have simultaneously enabled Turkey to act as a soft power in its neighborhoods. Its ability to combine Islam with liberal democracy as well as success in radiating liberal democratic norms to non-Western regions added on to Turkey's soft power identity. That Turkey was considered a role model by Western powers in the context of the post 9/11 international environment also shored up Turkey's soft power image.
As opposed to such descriptions of Turkish foreign policy, the last decade has seen that hard power practices have gradually returned. The onset of Arab Spring, Turkey’s growing penchant to help midwife a Turkey-friendly Middle East, the use of brute military power to defend territorial borders and shape the internal developments in neighboring countries and the adoption of a survival-first mentality in shaping national interests in the aftermath of the infamous coup attempt in July 2016 can all be seen as factors that could partially explain the revival of hard power thinking in Turkish foreign policy. The transition toward a multipolar international environment and the erosion of Western primacy in global politics seems to have also eased Turkey's gradual shift toward becoming a hard power actor.
Despite a surge in the number of studies on the idea and implementation of soft power strategies, the ambiguity still persists as to how to define soft power. While some analysts assert that power is the ability to get what one wants from others, they are still far away from offering a non-contested definition of this particular phenomenon. While some scholars define soft power in the context of foreign policy instruments and capabilities by highlighting the nature of tools used in the implementation of foreign policy interests, some others point out to the fact that soft power, as well as hard power, denotes the existence of a power relationship between two particular countries. The latter argue that ascertaining whether or not there exists a soft power relationship requires a more detailed analysis than merely examining the tools employed in the process of implementation. A country might possess a great sum of hard and soft power capabilities, yet it might be unable to have an influence on foreign policy strategies and the behaviors of other actors. Capabilities do not automatically translate into influence.
Soft power defined as a relationship suggests that power is relational and contextual. An implicit assumption of the scholars who are predisposed to define soft power as a relationship is that for a state to be recognized as a soft power, analysts need to answer if other states, being the target of the state that claims to act as soft power, change their behaviors in line with the expectations of the first state out of fear, interests or identity-related motivations. Without uncovering the motivations of the countries at the receiving end of this relationship, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to claim that the particular country at the sending end of this relationship holds soft power. That said, the conceptual difference between soft power as the sum of capabilities or soft power as a particular relationship should be underlined as unambiguously as possible.
The issue of whether or not Turkey has become a soft power actor boils down to two questions. First, to what extent is Turkey relying on soft power tools and capabilities to influence the identity, preferences and behaviors of other states? Second, is it possible to discuss the existence of a soft power-based relationship between Turkey on the one hand and the countries that stand at the receiving end of Turkey’s messages on the other? Answering the second question is a far more complicated business than handling the first question because it requires an extensive study of the main reasons as to why other states might want to change their preferences and behaviors in line with Turkey’s priorities. Would they act out of fear, profit/interest or identity/legitimacy concerns?
For a pure soft power-based relationship to exist between two particular countries, two preconditions need to be fulfilled simultaneously. First, the country that stands at the sending end of the spectrum should utilize soft power strategies and tools, meaning "power of persuasion" and "power of attraction." The goal on the part of this state should be to convince the target country by offering a source of aspiration and engaging in deliberate argumentation and persuasion. Second, the state that stands at the receiving end of this relationship should change its strategies and behaviors mainly out of identity-related considerations, rather than fear or pure cost-benefit calculations. Complying with the terms of the sending state should be found legitimate and appropriate. Stated somewhat differently, an ideal soft power-based relationship would arise if the sending state got what it wants from the receiving state through the power of attraction and persuasion, rather than the power of coercion or temptation.
* Professor at the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Antalya Bilim University
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