This panel problematizes and historicizes "soft power." Rather than taking soft power as a self-evident social good, the panel seeks to critically examine the political imaginaries that authorize soft power projects and evaluate the broader social and political consequences of these projects.
In 1989, Joseph Nye coined the term "soft power" to describe "the power to get what you want," not through coercion or money, but attraction and persuasion. The concept authorized a new approach to transnational relations, one that went beyond government elites to appeal directly to foreign publics in order to cultivate and instrumentalize goodwill. The concept now exerts enormous influence on international statecraft: governments and state authorities world-wide dedicate sizable resources toward public diplomacy; develop "strategic communication" policies to coordinate national representation; invest in international aid projects, broadcasting services, and educational programs; and hire "nation branding" consultancies. If critics of soft power charge the concept with vagueness, initiatives as these concretize the concept across worlds of transnational diplomacy, media production, and commerce. Rather than taking soft power as a self-evident social good, this panel critically examines the history and the political imaginaries that authorize soft power projects, and interrogates the broader social and political consequences of these projects. In what ways do soft power projects articulate a fantasy of the "attention economy" and of the power of PR, and to what effect? How do technologies of inscription, evaluation, and measurement make "soft power" legible in policy worlds? How do we reconcile policies of promotion and openness with hardening migration policies and border control? How might emphasis on national image abroad undermine care for current residents? How can a study of soft power sharpen our understandings of the rationalities and inequalities that propel processes of staying, moving and settling?