Soft Power Revisited: What Attraction Is in International Relations

Dissertation, University of Milan (2018)
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Abstract
This thesis problematises the bases of soft power, that is, causal mechanisms connecting the agent (A) and the subject (B) of a power relationship. As the literature review reveals, their underspecification by neoliberal IR scholars, the leading proponents of the soft power concept, has caused a great deal of scholarly confusion over such questions as how to clearly differentiate between hard and soft power, how attraction (soft power’s primary mechanism) works and what roles structural and relational forces play in hard/soft power. In an effort to ascertain the bases, I address this issue not from the viewpoint of A’s policies or resources, like do IR neoliberal scholars, but in terms of B’s psychological perception of A. Employing social psychological accounts, I argue that attraction can be produced in three distinct ways, namely 1) through B’s identification with A (“emotional” attraction), 2) via B’s appreciation of A’s competence/knowledge in a particular field (“rational” attraction) and 3) by means of the activation of B’s internalised values which contextually prescribe B to act in A’s favour (“social” attraction). Importantly, depending upon the way attraction is produced, it is peculiar in a number of characteristics, the main of which are power scope, weight and durability. Insights from social psychology also show that unlike soft power, hard power requires not only B’s relevant perception of the A-B relationship (as coercive or rewarding), but also A’s capability to actualise a threat of punishment and/or a promise of reward. I argue this difference can be fairly treated as definitional rather than empirical, which implies that coercion and reward necessarily have both relational and structural dimensions, whereas for attraction, a structural one alone suffices, while a relational one may or may not be present. Having explicated the soft power bases, I illustrate each of them using three “most likely” case studies, namely Serbia’s policies towards Russia (emotional attraction), Kazakhstan’s approach to relations with the EU (rational attraction) and Germany’s policies vis-à-vis Israel (social attraction).
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