I read Joseph Nye's Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (2004), a book I had been meaning to read for some time. Very often, diplomacy or negotiation (as opposed to force) is popularly referred to as "soft power" but that is a misuse of Nye, who first coined the term almost 2o years ago. His definition is the following:
It is the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payment. It arises from the attractiveness of a country's culture, political ideals, and policies (p. x).
The idea is quite interesting. But the analysis is, well, soft. He argues that soft power rests on three resources: "its culture (in places where it is attractive to others), its political values (when it lives up to them at home and abroad) and its foreign policies (when they are seen as legitimate and having moral authority)" (p. 11). This certainly describes the problems the U.S. has had in Latin America in recent years, where for example the message of democracy is combined with policies that have serve to undermine it. It is also problematic, as Nye himself notes, that the U.S. pushes free trade in places like Latin America while maintaining agricultural subsidies.
But beyond that simple argument, Nye never lays out how these three variables interact, and what outcomes we should expect as a result. Instead, he offers fairly generic assertions like "To the extent that official policies at home and abroad are consistent with democracy, human rights, openness, and respect for the opinions of others, America will benefit from the trends of this global information age" (p. 32). Or that Yao Ming "could become another Michael Jordan" (p. 88) and this could mean something, though I never quite understood what.
The overall policy message is that the U.S. government needs to keep soft power in mind when dealing with other countries and not to pretend it doesn't matter. Nye's analysis is bland but that message bears repeating. In the case of Latin America, the current U.S. response in Honduras may well be squandering the small reserves of goodwill President Obama had generated. Soft power cannot be created quickly, but it can be negated easily. In Latin America, the U.S. government tends not to understand (or care much about) that.