Originally published on 24 November 2011
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
As I sit typing this post in the waiting room at Shrewsbury train station this adage has never held more true. Sat in front of me is a young man in a soldier’s uniform, an institutionalised killer, while a monotonous and gender-neutral voice threatens my luggage with ‘damage or destruction’ if left unattended. I wonder, should I be afraid of this tag-team of potential violence? Is power over an individual (namely me) inherently dependent upon fear?
This is the question which successive concepts of power have been developed to answer. From the ancient worship of conquering gods resulting in the ripping, tearing and eating of live animals; to the Machiavellian, amoral power struggle between Italian princes; to the modern day concepts of state tyranny and liberalism; fear and violence have been alternately worshipped and reviled as tools to change another’s choices to one’s own. In these traditional senses, and to simplify massively, the soldier I share a room with is a physical manifestation of the violence threatened upon me and my property by the mischievous-yet-dull station tannoy. Were I to leave my luggage alone, or run away from the soldier, my choices would be strictly sanctioned to the will of another.
Yet the traditional sense of power as a fear of retribution is wholly incomplete. If traditional concepts of power and violence held sway, why was the Catholic Church able to reduce Kings and Emperors to the bended knee of the Holy See? Bertrand Russell, in his introduction to a ‘History of Western Philosophy’, summarises this succinctly:
’All the armed force was on the side of kings, and yet the Church was victorious… mainly because, with very few exceptions, rulers and people alike profoundly believed that the Church possessed the power of the keys… [namely] whether a king should spend eternity In heaven or in hell.’ 
For the kings and emperors remained not in fear of hell but in want of heaven; while those noble churchmen (where they are to be found) remained pious enough to want all of humanity to attend the seat of God in heaven – or impious enough to want them to attend the seat of the Vatican in Rome. Thus the ability to shape the context in which power is wielded, wars are fought and politics won, is a powerful way of ensuring that the objectives of all actors are broadly the same as one’s own.
Joseph Nye Jr. characterises this as ‘getting others to want what you want’,  a subtle and nuanced method of shaping the agenda, objectives, choices and actions of an actor which complements the traditional ‘command’ methods of coercion and inducement (simply put, war and bribery). In the world of the pre-renaissance church, values were upheld as Bertrand Russell puts it above – through education and faith. The norms and values of the Church were engaging and attractive in that time; who, faced with a world without scientific development, rhyme or reason, would not want a seat with God?
Strong values and attractive norms are ever-present in the modern world also. While the Catholic Church is no longer an international power (reduced to mere observer status at the largely ineffectual United Nations), newer values and norms have arisen with a similar desirability. Democracy, Human Rights and the Rule of Law; Sustainable Development; Free Trade; all of these values would be negated if they were enforced through coercion or inducement, and yet require ”promotion“ by nations to other nations. A more subtle approach, ‘co-optive’ (or ‘soft’ power) is proposed by Nye as a concept which complements traditional command approaches and completes the so-called ‘foreign policy toolkit’. Culture, economic interdependence and the ability to act decisively on the world stage are integral features of this concept.
Soft power has several features. There is a doctrine of example-setting – so-called directional leadership – by which an actor demonstrates the feasibility, value and superiority of values, ideas and norms to others. This is coupled with the conditioning of rules and historical transformations by identifying problems and solving them – so-called idea-based leadership. In setting examples, and proving the efficacy of particular values and structures of governance, the will of one can be ”bent“ to another with the result that actors begin to want what others want – eliminating a significant hurdle to achieving particular goals in co-operation with others.
This work is then replicated across international relations, either voluntarily by states (such as Georgia’s President Saakashvili slavishly embracing the EU despite his conflict with Russia and democratic freedoms) or structurally through the creation of international institutions such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and the European Union which spread their structures through membership, partnership and enhanced discourse creation. The Catholic Church in the pre-Renaissance wielded both weapons effectively; the secular kings were bent to admire or defy (and thus define themselves against) the Holy Roman Empire of old, while the self-same Empire represented both a creation and creator of church-orientated governance and discourse.
I now return to the initial questions posed. While I should ostensibly be afraid of any violence threatened against me or my property, it is impossible to take the threat of an unseen, mechanical voice seriously. Yet, it would be a rare situation for me to leave my luggage unattended for a long enough time for that violence to be realised. The principal reason for this is that I am attached to my luggage, and I don’t want to leave it alone. I want what the tannoy wants (albeit for different reasons) – the malevolent voice need not induce fear in me nor leverage me, because I already do what it wants. The strongest power is the power that never reveals itself.
 1946, Abingdon: Routledge
 Joseph Nye: Global Power Shifts (2010). Oxford, UK: TED.