We All Contribute to a Nation's Soft Power
AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
We All Contribute to a Nation's Soft Power
AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
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North Korea so wants to be unified with South Korea on the international stage that for a few weeks they hit the “pause” button on nuclear war. There could be no better example of the Olympics as a symbol of peace and no better illustration of the importance of soft power. 

Soft power in the international system usually contrasts with military power or economic power.  Soft power is about influence and attraction, not about economic leverage and military force. Who stands with us in a crisis? When disasters hit others, whom do we help? 

In my research, I have been thinking about how to measure soft power. Some people say the United States has a lot of soft power because we produce so many movies; others point to long lines at the visa window in U.S. embassies around the world, filled with people who want to come to our country.

Suppose soft power is present when foreigners think of us as we not they. This is the ultimate form of foreigners accepting our point of view. Such a projection suggests that a country does not so much have soft power over another country, but rather that countries have soft power relationships with each other. North Korea wants to stand with the South to be part of the we of Korea. 

Wu Rubric for Soft Power

When countries have a soft power relationships with each other, it means that there are times when they see themselves as partners, as members of a community together, as we. This suggests there is some level of interaction and integration of these societies, something that is measurable. 

Suppose you are interested in another country. The ultimate expression of your interest would be to move you and your family to that country – migration. A level below that, you could study in that country and commit to learning about it for a few years. If you are just curious, you could travel there for business or pleasure. If that still is too great an investment, you can just catch a movie or two for a quick taste of a society different from your own.

This is the basis for my rubric for soft power, a framework for understanding and measuring countries’ soft power relationships with each other.


Getting to we and with means that it is not so much how many movies the United States produces that counts for soft power, but how many foreigners are interested in watching those movies. U.S. soft power is about how many people want to visit, want to study here, and want to move here with their families.

Comparing Russia and China’s soft power

Using this rubric for soft power, my research shows that Russia and China’s soft power are comparable to each other in many ways today, but Russia has held this influence for longer, while China’s soft power has grown more quickly in recent years.

Immigrants: In 2015, 11.6 million immigrants from more than 140 countries lived in Russia; in China, there were about 1 million immigrants from 20 countries and regions, including Hong Kong and Macao. In 1995, 11.9 million immigrants from more than 140 countries lived in Russia; in China, about a half million immigrants from 19 countries. For the past 20 years, Russia has attracted and welcomed more immigrants from a broader range of countries than China.

Foreign students: Around 1990, there were more than 60,000 foreign students enrolled in Russian universities, while Chinese universities had fewer than 5000 foreign students, not including students from Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan. By 2015, there were 185,000 foreign students in China and 175,000 foreign students in Russia. Now, both countries attract a comparable number of foreign students, but China grew from a lower base 25 years ago.

Foreign visitors:  In 1990, Russia attracted 7 million visitors and China 2 million, excluding Hong Kong and Macao visitors. In 2015, Russia attracted 34 million visitors and China 31 million. Russia and China are roughly comparable in terms of attracting and welcoming foreign visitors — again, China grew from a lower base.

Foreign audience for movies: Today, movies co-produced by Chinese companies have a larger foreign audience than movies produced by Russian companies. In 2015, two movies co-produced by Chinese companies made the top 10 movies watched in 54 of 59 countries reporting data to the United Nations. That year, Kazakhstan was the only country outside Russia to report a Russian-produced movie in its top 10 list. This reflects a broader trend of Chinese companies investing more in movies for a global audience; the two hit movies in 2015 were Furious 7 and Pixels.  

This rubric for soft power brings nuance to our understanding of Russia and China’s social and cultural influence in the world. For decades, many people from many countries have migrated to Russia for a better life, and that continues today. China may grow as a destination for migrants but today is still in its early stages. Both countries attract foreign students and visitors. China reached today’s levels only through rapid growth in the last 25 years. Far more than their Russian counterparts, Chinese companies are co-investors in movies with broad global audiences. How that influences the kinds of stories told in these movies remains to be seen.

Why understanding soft power matters to everyone

In the past, many thought of soft power as a tool used by governments to influence other countries. Soft power was the responsibility of a country’s leadership. The president should present an appealing image, and the government should support public diplomacy programs that encourage positive cultural exchange. This is still true.

Governments inevitably affect whether people get to migrate, study abroad, travel, or watch a foreign movie, whether through visa policies or trade restrictions. However, my research shows that people also make decisions based on what they learn through their social network in the old-fashioned sense, not just from social media, but also from their friends and family who have migrated, studied abroad, and traveled before them.

The soft power rubric highlights that building a country’s soft power is not just the job of high officials and diplomats. A country’s soft power depends on whether immigrants find a better life in their new homes, whether foreign students find supportive friends amongst their classmates, and whether visitors have a good time when they come. The rubric shows that whatever our leaders do, in maintaining and growing our country’s soft power, we all have opportunity and responsibility.

Data are from UN Population Division, UNESCO, and Chinese Association for International Education. Irene Wu is a fellow at The Wilson Center. The views expressed here are the author's own.