December 5, 2023


Kenya’s increasing sophistication in its use of both hard and soft power in interaction to achieve ‘smart’ power is timely

More by Kenya Forum Somalia Correspondent

Is Kenya about to become Africa’s soft power superpower?

Is Kenya about to become Africa’s soft power superpower?

President Ruto’s ambition to make Kenya visa free for all Africans is the latest example of the country’s ‘soft power’

Every year the trendy international magazine, Monocle, publishes its Soft Power survey of the greatest nation practitioners of persuasive influence. Kenya gets a mention this year – although only as a rising star, not making it onto the actual ‘Top Twenty’. (No African country does and the nearest country geographically is the United Arab Emirates, which just scrapes in at 20.)

Here in Kenya you can occasionally find Monocle magazine in a bookshop or on a newsstand. Its glossy spreads on architecture and fashion and its deep probes into current affairs or ethical and sustainable business practices usually cost you 4,000 Kenyan shillings or more (it sells for £14 in the United Kingdom, where Monocle is based). It occasionally has stories on countries in Africa and it even had a feature on eating out in Nairobi a few years ago. So why is Kenya suddenly back on the map for this epitome of western-liberal, modish print media?

Visa free entry

What has attracted Monocle magazine’s Naveena Kotoor (who is based in Nairobi) are events like the hosting of the climate change conference in September, ‘Plant a Tree Day’ on November 13th and President Ruto’s announcement in October, during a state visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo, that Kenya aims to become visa free for all African citizens.

As the article points out, this is not a new idea – the Seychelles, the Gambia and Benin already offer visa free entry. But it is significant that a major player like Kenya on the continent is entertaining the idea. It is, Kotoor writes, a sign of Kenya’s increasing understanding of ‘soft power’.

Hard Power + Soft Power

But what is ‘soft power’ anyway? Tree-hugging? Not quite.

In 1990, John S Nye, who invented the idea of ‘soft power’, said: ‘Power is one’s ability to affect the behaviour of others to get what one wants. There are three basic ways to do this: coercion, payment and attraction. Hard power is the use of coercion and payment. Soft power is the ability to obtain preferred outcomes through attraction.’

So ‘hard power’ would be tools of government such as its military power, economic pressure, diplomatic sanctions, legal measures and so on – elements of power that involve force or inducement. ‘Soft power’, on the other hand, are the elements of a nation’s international profile such as its tourism, its education system, its culture, and so on – elements of power that are persuasive. Seems simple enough?

Hard Power + Soft Power = Smart Power

No, no that simple, actually. Nye himself fiddled around with the concept in response to criticism that his concepts were too focused on his home country, the US, and then developed it after further the turn of the millennium. He introduced a third element, ‘smart power’, the combination of both hard and soft power, which is in reality how most countries – except autocracies – engage with their neighbours and those further afield.

Nye also noted that the broad, umbrella headings such as ‘military power’ aren’t quite as one-dimensional as they at might first seem. Soldiers can, of course, attack and kill enemies – but they can also deliver in disaster relief during a flood, support more routine security activities when required and mentor other country’s security forces as well. (Which is partly why nearly a thousand Kenyan police officers are currently in Haiti.)

At the other end of the spectrum, a country’s communications, such as its television and radio stations and its news media as well as its literature, songs and so on, might seem to be a very ‘soft’ way of influencing others. But a state broadcaster that airs constant propaganda and stokes hatred isn’t soft in the slightest, as the population of Rwanda found in the 1990s when Radio Milles Collines saturated the airwaves with hate-speech. As many of 800,000 people may have died in the subsequent genocide. So sometimes ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ are slightly limited terms, concealing activities across the spectrum of hard-to-soft, rather than pure ‘hard’ on one side and pure ‘soft’ on the other.

Kenya as Africa’s smart superpower

Kenya’s increasing sophistication in its use of both hard and soft power in interaction to achieve ‘smart’ power is timely, as other big players on the continent struggle with security and infrastructure challenges. Yes, Kenya is by no means Switzerland yet (notably in its financial stability) – nor would it want to be – but it does seem to have mastered the art of using both carrots and sticks to coax the geopolitical donkey forward.


Related Articles