Soft power, the ability to indirectly influence others’ behavior without resorting to force, is now omnipresent in academic debates and widely invoked in foreign policy discussions. During the past century, economic globalization and growing interdependence seem to have increased the importance of soft power resources as “the everyday currency of world politics.”

As exemplified by international events since 2001, it is becoming more and more difficult to pursue security by relying exclusively on brute force or classic military deterrence. Other sources of power, now referred to as soft power, are gaining or regaining popularity among researchers, strategists and policy makers.

However, despite the growing interest in soft power and its policy applications, an important issue remains unanswered: that of its measurement or evaluation. Most of the literature focuses on quantification of economic and military activities, but little attention is paid to the measurement of soft power and soft power policies such as public diplomacy (PD) and other branches of strategic communications.

The problem tackled herein addresses the urgency of the many deficiencies currently affecting the evaluation of soft power policies. In spite of these important shortcomings, our central argument is that it is not only vital to improve ways to characterize and measure soft power but that it is also possible. It can be done through a multidisciplinary approach, using indirect means. Although soft power is inherently difficult to measure, a trail or footprint is left behind; cause and effects, or national objectives can be partially inferred.

Classical influence
Though it could seem paradoxical given today’s marriage of some of realism’s heirs to hard materialism, thinkers in the realist tradition have long debated the nature of the links between political power and ideological influence. In antiquity, Thucydides did not doubt that the relations between nations were shaped and governed by conceptional factors rather than solely by bare statedness. Echoing the Chinese thinker Sun Tzu, Machiavelli also developed the idea that permanent conquest of a nation must necessarily be achieved with the “support of one’s fellow-citizens.” Conquest must include the seduction of the conquered masses along with the exercise of military and economic power.

Though soft power enjoyed a golden age as one of the most important weapons in the ideological clash between Moscow and Washington, research on the subject has paradoxically been sidelined by emphasis on other issues. Unfortunately, the military and nuclear confrontation between the two blocs consumed the bulk of attention and impeded the development of more complete theoretical considerations of the diplomacy of mass persuasion. In the sixties and seventies, most scholarly attention shifted towards hard power issues associated with tangible and easily measurable resources such as military and economic strength.

The work of Joseph S. Nye constitutes an important contribution by presenting culture and information as sources of soft power. Coined in Nye’s prescient 1990 study, Bound to Lead, the term “soft power” – the ability of a country to persuade others to do what it wants without force or coercion – is now widely invoked in foreign policy debates. Nye’s merit has been to draw attention once again to the strategic dimension of culture and information, allowing for a better understanding of the advantages that they can represent for diplomacy.

Nye’s most recent book, Soft Power, re-introduces the idea and argues for its relevance in forming post-September 11 foreign policy. Though it may suggest in a seductive way that information and culture now constitute unavoidable auxiliaries of modern policy, Nye’s theory remains incomplete. More importantly, Nye offers no tools to measure soft power.

Military and economic influences are easier to measure: strategic atlases are used to visualize spheres of influence, and economic metrics are well documented. Although spheres of influence are coarsely represented, they still do not offer metrics or tools to quantify soft power effects.

New public diplomacy programs developed over the past few years tried to increase countries’ cultural and information influence overseas. Here again, governments are still unable to determine to what extent their PD initiatives are able to influence foreign audiences or contribute to the achievement of their foreign policy goals. There is a strong temptation to rely upon the growing number of multinational opinion surveys to deduce an estimate of a country’s soft power. Surveys such as the Pew Research Center or the Program on International Policy Attitude have stronger logistical and financial means than many governments.

Although tracking attitudes and trends allows for an understanding of national sentiment and support, conventional surveys say little if anything about the specific effect of public diplomacy programs on foreign opinions. Some public policies such as the program of issuing visas and the outcome of controlling legal entry of immigrants and non-immigrants are relatively easy to appraise. But many specialists acknowledge such relationships are more problematic when applied to most other goals. Their outcomes depend generally on external factors and contingent elements that are particularly difficult to appraise.

Though there are problems and difficulties to overcome, the enterprise is not futile. Efforts are currently being made to develop evaluation techniques that are for the most part inspired by those used in the private sphere for gauging the success of persuasive actions and public relations campaigns. The work done in the field of strategic public relations is the most promising that we are likely to see in the next few years.

However, it appears that classical concepts and conventional methods exemplified thus far offer incomplete tools to measure soft power. Concepts of influence as perceived by political scientists such as Joseph Nye offer a good starting point but provide a limited framework for the systematic measurement of a nation’s influence. In spite of the fact that their analyses are useful, a holistic approach is needed to characterize the true complexity of influence.

Complex influence
Consider the following reasonable hypothesis: national influence and soft power are governed by the rules of complexity. Therefore, in spite of the intrinsic limits to the measurement of human activities, nations can be treated as complex networks, subject to modeling and measurement.

Recent progresses in chaos science and complexity have changed our understanding of nature. Complexity sciences have shown that organic and multivariable systems cannot be studied solely with deterministic methods. Complex systems exhibit different properties as a function of scale; they are subject to instability, show adaptability and memory, hysteresis, emergence of collective properties, and non-linearity, to name a few. An approach based on “human or cognitive networks” as complex systems could offer an alternative view of soft power modeling.

Modeling political organizations as networks may be interpreted as an “atomist” view of political science, but a holistic approach taking advantage of multiple disciplines ranging from information sciences, simulation, forensic methodologies, the science of geomatics, etc., may contribute to a more complete view of influence.

Simulations of complex systems have also shown the fundamental role that information and complexity play in economics. The more sophisticated a society is, the more information and complexity (or entropy) it generates in the form of products and knowledge. The work that the Santa Fe Institute is doing in that regard is exemplary.

Even if complexity provides a new understanding and ideas about the nature of social sciences, there is no unified model nor proven analysis method. Caution is therefore required to avoid simple analogies and false metaphors between social and pure sciences. At the origin of this problem is the lack of a unified theory of human groups. To do this properly, multiple disciplines integrating geography, mapping, forensics methodology, complexity, and information sciences should contribute to a more unified framework to soft power measurement. Research on modeling and simulation of human groups as complex networks would complement a multidisciplinary approach.

Our current period of globalization and growing national inter-dependencies necessitates that more attention be paid towards the notion of influence and soft power however elusive they may appear to be. Since the measure of a nation’s physical capacities can be quantified, current methods principally cover the coercive forms of power, i.e. military and economic. Aspects of soft power are nevertheless measurable indirectly, through proxies, but the task remains ambitious. Military and economic influences are much easier to measure: strategic atlases are used to visualize spheres of influence, and economic metrics are well documented. These opportunities should not be regarded as limitations but as points of departure for the evaluation of more intangible forms of influence.

An approach integrating all effects a posteriori as in a forensics-type research with multiple disciplines contributing to the development of a unified framework is proposed. Agent-based simulation, modeling of human networks, are emerging tools from the social sciences that can also be applied to the field of influence. Centers of excellence such as the Santa Fe Institute, using collaborative projects between national institutes and industry, can tackle such a task. Cyberspace and the Internet are potential laboratories for the study of human groups and their interactions. A unified model based on human group and a “physics of societies” approach provides a new prism through which scientists and researchers may shed light on the measurement of soft power and influence.

LCol Jean-François Simard is with Department of National Defence and Dr. Pierre C. Pahlavi is with the Canadian Forces College.

A more complete version of this article, originally presented at the annual convention of the International Studies Association in March 2008, is available at