Confronting the Myth of Soft Power in U.S. Foreign Policy

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Confronting the Myth of Soft Power in U.S. Foreign Policy by Brent A. Lawniczak. Rowman & Littlefield, 2022, 163 pp. 

In his book, Dr. Brent Lawniczak, a retired Marine officer, provides an updated monograph of his earlier doctoral dissertation on the influence, effectiveness, and measurement of a popular international state relations concept—soft power.

Many authors have written about the importance and usefulness of soft power since Joseph S. Nye, a Harvard University professor, first coined the phrase in 1990. Nye described how a state (e.g., US), using the swaying attraction of its intangible values, culture, policies, and institutions can positively influence or co-opt other states. Hard Power is more coercive and threatening, such as using the military or economic tangible means to influence. 

Lawniczak explores a less traveled discourse path by asserting the existence of a lack of empirical evidence that soft power is an effective force and allure in international relations. He examines in detail two foreign policy international happenings—the US-led military interventions in Kosovo in 1999 concerning France and Germany’s participation and the same two countries’ decision factoring to assist the United States against ISIS in 2014. He concluded “balancing” and “state identity” were more important influences than soft power. The most interesting influence measurement presented by Lawniczak was investigating the state leader’s dialogue to accurately gauge US soft-power influence in foreign policy.

Acknowledging the popularity of soft power as a concept, Lawniczak says, “Nye has not been clear how soft power works other than examples of its significance.” Nye does not offer a reliable way to measure attractiveness directly. Lawniczak stated that “there is no operationalization of variables to determine if soft power decisively translates to policy success.” The concept has too many meanings. Public opinion polls toward the United States has been the primary measurement. He suggests an alternative method for the examination of soft power that does not depend on public opinion polls.

For instance, other authors have measured soft-power influence using target state voting in the United Nations (UN). Besides the problem that votes and agenda changes yearly, the voting may be based on its own security conditions vice the US influence. Lawniczak presents his method to test soft power using key leader’s elite conversations. He asserts his examination of “elite discourse” in the target state provides a more reliable method to judge its influence. It provides a direct path for testing soft power. “To be considered legitimate in terms of soft power influence, the U.S. foreign policy is required to be aligned with the U.S. values in the eyes of French and German policymakers.”

Regarding Kosovo, Lawniczak communicates the evidence does not support US soft-power influence over France or Germany. Using government statements, parliament debates, and news sources, no elite discourse of key foreign policy makers suggested American influence. State identity was the key influence. Lawniczak highlights the “Gaullist belief in the historical role of France as the originator of universal human rights.” The United States wanted a swift response to Milosevic, but France wanted more diplomacy first. The United States used Secretary of State Albright and UN Ambassador Holbrooke to vigorously attempt to convince France to intervene in Kosovo sooner. They called Milosevic an evil psychopath and coldblooded animal, but France was still undeterred. Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs Vedrine, speaking to its national assembly, cited France as the human rights leader, not the US (soft-power] influence.

The US view was to punish a dictator bent on domination, but France’s decision was based on human rights protection and French responsibility in saving lives. Similarly, there was no trace of elite discourse of key German policymakers, according to Lawniczak. Germany drew on its identity vice US policy legitimacy being the reason as Nye would suggest. German leaders made policy statements linking to “laws of war, and German integration into Europe to prevent past horrors repeated.” Lawniczak emphasizes the United States is almost entirely absent from the discourse of key foreign policy decision makers. “There was no reference to the attractiveness of U.S. values and policies.”

Regarding ISIS, France participated in the US-led intervention due to the “balance” concern of its national security from a constructivist international relation paradigm. Lawniczak stressed a national assembly address, “The fear of terror attacks or intentions to its nation, as well as its ability to export violence directly to France was the main concern.” National security and the security of the world was at stake. France even tried to distance itself from US policy—rather than refer to the United States, they emphasized its commitment to influence other states and its role as the birthplace of human rights. Germany also intervened due to its own defense of terrorist attacks. Both balancing and state identity were the explanations. When the United States sought increased participation in German airstrikes, its chancellor, Angela Merkel replied—“it was doing enough of its part.” Lawniczak indicated this statement “reflects a strong disconfirmation of U.S. soft power.”

Lawniczak cited multiple analysts and written works throughout the book. His strongest point was the use of elite leaders’ comments over the traditional public opinion polls as his justification for soft-power empirical evidence not being the prominent foreign policy tool. Its popularity and use by academia, military, and political analysts since 1990 suggest otherwise. It is in many capstone military doctrinal publications. Election officials use public opinion polls during elections so they should still have some validity in foreign policy influences, but his point that opinion polls of high-level elite leaders are rare is valid. It is equally rare that state leaders would speak to the US desires over their own nationalism focused presentations to the public.

The United States could still be a strong influence behind the curtain.  Lawniczak admits both France and Germany had strong national interests guiding them and threats to their security arguably outweighed US foreign policy soft power. He selected France and Germany as target states because “they are balanced across several features with complex relationships across multiple characteristics, traditions, and history. If the states are too close in multiple categories, it would be difficult to discern values, preferences determined by soft-power influence.” ISIS may also have been a less effective choice since both France and Germany opposed the US invasion of Iraq and the American departure of Iraq was a root cause of ISIS.

Lastly, it may have been better if Lawniczak had viewed other or more states. China or Russia would have been more current and interesting comparisons. Though he briefly mentions smart power as the combination of soft and hard power, including a discussion of “sharp power,” the manipulation one country uses to influence a target country would have enriched his soft power influence discussion.1 would have enriched his soft-power influence discussion. Notwithstanding, this book is worth reading and referencing, particularly for political and military professionals evaluating soft-power influences for policy implications.

Colonel Joe Judge, USA, Retired

1 Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig, “The Meaning of Sharp Power: How Authoritarian States Project Influence,” Foreign Affairs, November 16, 2017, archived from the original on September 12, 2018.

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."