Let's assume you have two neighbors. One has a large, overbuilt McMansion. He owns two large and aggressive dogs, his sons are both Marines, and he sports an extensive gun collection. Although he holds several lavish parties a year with top-name entertainment and catering, you don't particularly relish attending: they tend to be more a chance for him to flex his muscle and show off rather than to actually mingle. He treats his (second) wife and young daughter more like his boat, his car and his art collection than as human beings.
The other is an older woman living in a house that belonged to her parents. The place is a mix of antiques, heirlooms and completed craft projects, with an extensive garden. Going there, is always a treat, since she's an scintillating conversationalist, full of reminices yet up-to-date with news and fashions. She's also a great cook, and the fridge is always full of good things to eat. Despite her age, she dresses quite well, and you get the idea that a considerable amount of experience and taste go into her choices. She's involved in several church and civic groups, volunteers at everything worth volunteering for, and yet always has time to lend a sympathetic ear on the phone. She likes children, can handle babies, and if she has animals in the house, it's likely to be several different species, living in comparative harmony.
Both of these people are drowning. Who do you help?
Mark's economy is bare-bones: it feeds its people a sturdy, but monotonous diet determined by their Bureau of Health to be nutritious, they have functional, but unfashionable clothing, adequate shelter, and a good-enough education. What few luxuries are available are mostly thinly parceled out to a largely ornamental ruling class: outside of titles and (somewhat) better accommodations and clothing allowances, Mark is strongly egalitarian, and a two-bedroom apartment in town is considered soft living indeed. Life is dull but safe: the streets are clean, the crime rate is low, and, outside of a major holiday, social life centers around church, home life, parks, and cinema-cafes.
Its trade is centered around raw materials and armaments. What it does have, in abundance, is a strong and aggressive military, that takes up fully 50% of the economy, that includes one in three people of enlistment age, much of the industry, and almost all scientific research. Although much respected on the world stage, it commends no love, and diplomats consider it a hardship post. Tourism is limited to a trickle of businessmen and a few foreign apologists, who enthuse about how "unspoiled" everything is. CIA analysts call the place "Warhammer".
Crown's economy couldn't be more lively: walking down one of the crowded streets of the Capitol is a feast for the senses, with everything from stately architectural sites to spice and perfume markets to the lively rhythms of local music and the taste of native street food. What is true of the streets is also true of the gallery and concert hall: there are many fine artists, musicians, and dancers, and three-star chefs reinterpret local specialties for the burgeoning tourist trade. The entertainment industries are excellent, having produced several award-winning movies and a much-exported soap opera, Love of Life, that verges on a national obsession, along with the world-class soccer team. As for scientific and medical research, the National University is doing just fine, having scored its tenth Nobel. Its military is small, up-to-date, but mostly ceremonial, and largely involved in domestic rescues, keeping an eye out on Mark's various activities, and contributing to a budding regional space program.
While the chances of Crown independently fending off Mark are slight, its international ties are many, and it's a sure bet that any Markian aggression will be met by outrage and foreign intervention. As for aggression against Mark, the diplomat's joke goes that the Crown elite thought about it once, then decided that it would cut into cocktail hour.
Such is the world of soft power, one of the newest terms in foreign relations. While many still count international reputation in terms of arms and troops, what's more important, in the post-cold War world, is a different kind of power: that of cultural bonds, tourism, sports, design, science and environmental and ethnic awareness, that allows a country to have a much greater impact on the world stage than with arms and population alone.
For instance, take the example of Denmark: with only a few million in population, it's got little land, few natural resources, and an inconveniently cold and dull climate. What defenses it has are laughable when compared to the USSR, China, the US, or even its closest neighbor, Germany. Yet it punches way beyond its weight in international affairs: Danish ham and dairy products and sustainable fishing practices are widely held as the gold standard throughout the region and even abroad, The Niels Bohr Institute is one of the great centers for the physical sciences, its governance and social welfare systems are among the best in the world. On top of that is the 200-year old Danish Ballet, lacemaking and fine pastry, an ongoing interest in fine design, and a special emphasis placed on children and a cozy home life. (During the 1964 World's Fair, while other countries showcased industry and native arts, their pavilion was mostly taken over by a childcare facility that spotlighted the latest findings in behavior mod...and yes, the kids liked it, too.) Oh, and it also has cycle-friendly cities, state-of-the art media, and annually sends 2.2 billion dollars abroad in foreign aid.
As estimated this year, Denmark rates No. 9 in a soft-power survey, just ahead of Canada, and well above China, Russia, and Brazil. Not bad for six million people.
Not that this kind of power is the preserve of European countries alone: we find it in Asia, where Japan, South Korea, and Singapore lead China, in Oceania, and in South America, where Brazil, Argentina, and Chile outshine Peru and Uruguay. Africa is still outside the loop, but savvy viewers look to Morocco and Kenya as possible up-and-comers, while the Middle East is represented by Turkey.
While some might argue that soft power is a rich man's (or to be precise) rich country's game, it's interesting that soft power can often be a lot less expensive than the old-fashioned kind. Take, for instance, the Afghan National Institute of Music, underwritten by the US. Within a few years, its orchestra was able to book a spot at Carnegie Hall, thus cementing its place in the worldwide classical scene. Cost of sending one Marine to 'Stan for a year: one million dollars. Total accrued costs of the Institute, including fares and accommodations in NYC: $500,000. As MasterCard would say, forging Afghan-American relations to counter the Taliban and militarism, priceless.
Unfortunately, this kind of power is not fortold in anyone's holy scriptures, which tend towards wars and rumors of wars, and is unlikely to pass muster with certain Imams, and for that matter, certain Republican policymakers. Armageddon sells, defense sells, and the Kim dynasty is highly unlikely to set up a model nursery school in Manhattan. One nation having a kinder, softer nation is just not as final as one man killing, buggering, or otherwise disgracing another. Yet it's (apparently) the way of the future. Judge for yourselves.