In an Annie Hall moment at Foreign Policy, the inventor of the term “soft power” explains the shortcomings of Chinese and Russian efforts to cultivate it. From Joseph Nye:
Even China’s soft-power triumphs, such as the 2008 Beijing Olympics, have quickly turned stale. Not long after the last international athletes had departed, China’s domestic crackdown on human rights activists undercut its soft power gains. Again in 2009, the Shanghai Expo was a great success, but it was followed by the jailing of Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo and screens were dominated by scenes of an empty chair at the Oslo ceremonies. Putin might likewise count on a soft power boost from the Sochi Olympics, but if he continues to repress dissent, he, too, is likely to step on his own message.
China and Russia make the mistake of thinking that government is the main instrument of soft power. In today’s world, information is not scarce but attention is, and attention depends on credibility. Government propaganda is rarely credible. The best propaganda is not propaganda. For all the efforts to turn Xinhua and China Central Television into competitors to CNN and the BBC, there is little international audience for brittle propaganda. As the Economist noted about China, “the party has not bought into Mr. Nye’s view that soft power springs largely from individuals, the private sector, and civil society. So the government has taken to promoting ancient cultural icons whom it thinks might have global appeal.” But soft power doesn’t work that way. As Pang Zhongying of Renmin University put it, it highlights “a poverty of thought” among Chinese leaders.
Nye’s Economist quote is from a 2011 article on ‘Sun Tzu & The Art of Soft Power‘ which was previously featured, with additional commentary, on CDT.