Well, here is the definition of the phrase from Wikipedia: soft power is a term used in international relations theory to describe the ability of a political body, such as a state, to indirectly influence the behavior or interests of other political bodies through cultural or ideological means.
The term was first coined by Harvard University professor Joseph Nye, who remains its most prominent proponent, in a 1990 book, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power. He further developed the concept in his 2004 book, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. Its usefulness as a descriptive theory has been challenged often, but soft power is still being used as a term that distinguishes the subtle effects of culture, values, and ideas on others' behavior from more direct coercive measures called hard power such as military action (hard power) or economic incentives.
Soft power, according to Nye, is the ability to obtain the outcomes one wants through attraction rather than using the carrots and sticks of payment or coercion (hard power).
Doesn't this sound familiar? Behaviorists could tell us a lot about such concepts. They've been using them for centuries, so have parents and school teachers. There is even a quote:
"You can catch more bees with honey rather than vinegar."
Which translates into - you can affect people's behavior by your kindness, understanding, sympathy, and honesty.
"In nations, it rests upon culture (where it is attractive to others), values (when they are applied without hypocrisy), and policies (when they are inclusive and seen as legitimate in the eyes of others.) (Joseph Nye)
The United States has lost much of its influence in the world since it decided to exercise hard power by invading Iraq in 2003.
Polls show that American soft power has declined quite dramatically in much of the world over the past eight years. Some say this is structural, and resentment is the price we pay for being the biggest kid on the block. But it matters greatly whether the big kid is seen as a friend or a bully. In much of the world we have been seen as a bully as a result of the Bush Administration policies. (Joseph Nye)
According to Nye, if Obama wins the presidential election in November, some time between November 4 and January 20, he will need to indicate a new tone in foreign policy which shows that we will once again export hope rather than fear. This could take several forms: announcement of an intent to close Guantanamo; dropping the term "global war on terror;" creation of a special bipartisan group to formulate a new policy on climate change; a "listening trip" to Asia, and so forth. Electing Obama will greatly help restore America's soft power as a nation that can recreate itself, but the election alone will not be sufficient. It is not too soon to start thinking about symbols and policies for the days immediately after the election.