Soft power has emerged as a vital tool in international relations, moving away from traditional military and economic might. Both the U.S. and China have made considerable investments in crafting and projecting their soft power to shape the global narrative, attract allies, and establish their dominance in various spheres of influence. Soft power is best defined as the capacity to influence and shape the preferences of others without the use of force or coercion, but rather through attraction and persuasion. This form of power relies heavily on cultural influence, values, ideals, and policies that resonate with global audiences.
The U.S., historically known for its dominance in soft power, has built its influence on the universal appeal of its democratic values, cultural exports, higher education institutions, technological advancements, and diplomatic initiatives. For decades, the U.S. has positioned itself as the world’s leading beacon of freedom, democracy, and opportunity. Numerous platforms aid its soft power agenda such as Hollywood has long been a primary export, with movies and music shaping global culture. These media often convey ideals of freedom, resilience, and the American Dream. Prestigious institutions such as Harvard, MIT, and Stanford attract students globally, serving as hubs for sharing American values and fostering cross-cultural understanding.
Companies like Apple, Google, and Microsoft don’t just sell products; they disseminate American ingenuity and innovation, creating a fascination and reliance on U.S. technology.
China, as a rising global power, has been steering away from merely being an economic powerhouse to becoming a soft power juggernaut in the 21st century. Chinese efforts focus on projecting a harmonious global vision, rooted in its ancient history, Confucianism, and modern development model. The “China Model” has been perceived as a potential paradigm for developing countries, as it combines rapid economic growth with political stability. One of China’s key soft power tools has been its cultural diplomacy, which seeks to promote its history, values, and traditions to the wider world. Initiatives such as the Confucius Institutes, established worldwide to teach Mandarin and share Chinese culture, serve as a testament to this strategy. China has been assertive in carving out its place in the global soft power arena such as emphasizing its 5000-year history, China promotes its traditional arts, festivals, and Confucian values as a means to foster a deeper understanding of its civilization. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is not just an economic project. It’s a comprehensive soft power tool, demonstrating China’s commitment to global development and connectivity. China has been increasingly active in global institutions, championing multilateralism and often presenting itself as a stable alternative to the unpredictability of the West.
(Source: Syracuse University)
The global theatre has witnessed the U.S. and China vying for influence, especially in regions like Africa, Asia, and Latin America. While the U.S. often stresses democratic governance and human rights, China emphasizes non-interference and mutual economic growth. This difference in approach has led many nations, especially those wary of Western intervention, to view China as a more attractive partner. Yet, concerns about debt diplomacy and the sustainability of Chinese-led projects persist, offering the U.S. opportunities to present alternatives. Soft power’s efficacy largely hinges on perception. The U.S. faces challenges in maintaining its image due to controversial foreign policy decisions and domestic issues like political polarization. China, while economically admired, grapples with concerns over human rights and its assertiveness in regions like the South China Sea. Public diplomacy, thus, is paramount. The narratives both countries weave, the stories they tell, and the values they emphasize can sway global opinion. Herein lies the true battle for soft power: in the hearts and minds of the global populace.
Digital platforms, including social media, have emerged as modern battlegrounds for soft power. Both the U.S. and China are leveraging these platforms to extend their influence.
Platforms like Twitter and Facebook, rooted in American tech innovation, naturally grant the U.S. a foundational influence. These networks amplify American cultural exports, from memes to music, and promote the values of free speech and open dialogue, aligning with democratic principles. China, meanwhile, has pushed its platforms, such as TikTok and WeChat, as competitors in the global arena. By exporting its tech, China gets a say in shaping online cultures and norms. Additionally, its digital Silk Road Initiative aims to bolster digital infrastructure in other countries, embedding Chinese standards in global networks.
Culture plays a pivotal role in projecting soft power, as it fosters connections beyond borders, resonates with global audiences, and enhances mutual understanding. The United States’ cultural contributions are expansive. From Jazz to Hollywood, and from literature to the global spread of English, America’s cultural exports have long played a vital role in shaping global perceptions and preferences. The allure of American pop culture, epitomized by icons like Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, and Taylor Swift, transcends national boundaries and shapes global cultural norms. China, with its rich history spanning thousands of years, offers a vast cultural canvas. From the teachings of Confucius and Laozi to traditional arts like calligraphy, and from the Great Wall to its traditional festivals, China’s culture blends ancient traditions and modern adaptations. Efforts like the Confucius Institutes worldwide showcase China’s commitment to sharing its culture and language.
Influence of Chinese Culture
U.S. Cultural Influence
(Source: Syracuse University)
Fostering mutual understanding and forging ties through cultural exchanges is an essential aspect of soft power. The Fulbright Program, initiated by the U.S., exemplifies cultural diplomacy. By promoting bilateral exchanges in education, culture, and science, it has nurtured mutual understanding between the U.S. and other countries. Additionally, events like the American film festivals abroad help spread U.S. culture and values. China has emphasized cultural festivals, exhibitions, and student exchange programs. Chinese New Year celebrations worldwide, facilitated by its embassies, have become major cultural events, enhancing China’s cultural reach.
Arts and literature are potent tools in the arsenal of soft power, offering nuanced reflections of a nation’s psyche and history.
American literature, ranging from the works of Mark Twain to Toni Morrison, offers a window into American life and its evolution. Moreover, art forms like Broadway musicals and American modern dance have found audiences worldwide, reflecting America’s innovative spirit. Chinese literature, both classical and modern, like the works of Mo Yan and Amy Tan, provides insights into the Chinese way of life. Traditional art forms like Peking Opera and Chinese ballet tell tales of China’s historical and cultural journey. The global appeal of sports makes it a significant soft power tool, fostering camaraderie and understanding. Sports like basketball and baseball, with leagues like the NBA and MLB, have global followings. Athletes like Michael Jordan and Serena Williams have become cultural icons, representing the spirit of American excellence and competitiveness. China’s emphasis on sports is evident in its impressive performances in the Olympics. Sports like table tennis, where China dominates, have become synonymous with Chinese excellence. Moreover, the country’s investments in football, including hosting global tournaments, signal its ambitions in the sporting world.
Economic power often translates to soft power. Both nations have sought to cement economic ties as a way to ensure diplomatic influence. Through initiatives like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the U.S. attempts to create a cooperative economic sphere that also stands as a counterbalance to Chinese influence in the Asia-Pacific. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the previously mentioned BRI are Chinese-led economic ventures aiming to create interdependencies that naturally extend China’s diplomatic reach. Aid and infrastructure development in other countries have become tools of soft power. The U.S. has a long history of providing aid through programs like USAID. Such efforts not only address global challenges but also enhance U.S. influence.
The BRI is a massive infrastructure project connecting China to Europe and Africa. While it enhances trade routes for China, it also deepens China’s ties with participating countries, expanding its influence.
Despite the vast potential of soft power, both countries face unique challenges. America’s political polarization and recent social challenges have raised questions about its model of democracy. Such internal challenges can impact its global image. China’s approach to issues like Hong Kong and the South China Sea raises concerns about its respect for international norms. Its aggressive stances can sometimes overshadow its soft power efforts.
Soft power will remain a central aspect of international relations. As global challenges like climate change and pandemics necessitate collaboration, soft power can be a bridge to foster mutual understanding and cooperation. For both the U.S. and China, the goal will be to find a balance between asserting their interests and building collaborative global relationships. In this evolving dynamic, both nations will need to be agile, innovative, and sensitive to global sentiments. Finally, the U.S. and China, with their distinct histories, cultures, and strengths, are in a continuous dance of influence in the global arena. While competition is inherent, collaboration for global good remains a shared goal. As the 21st century unfolds, the soft power strategies of these giants will significantly shape the global narrative.
is a member of the Association for Asian Studies (Ann Arbor), of The author is a member of the Association of Extra-European Studies (Pisa) and of the Italian Society of International History (Padua). His current research interests include the foreign policy of the People’s Republic of China and Western imperialism in China of the last Qing.