Expanse of soft power - Ikram Sehgal - Thursday, March 10, 2011

Source : http://thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=35418&Cat=9

“Soft power” is the ability to make others do what you want, what they would otherwise not have done. Based on intangibles: i.e., less on what you own, and more on what you represent; others do what you want because of how they see you. What one wants can be done not just by states, but by all actors in international politics, such as NGOs or international institutions, through co-option and attraction. The currencies are values, culture, policies and institutions and to what extent these are able to attract others. Soft power has become increasingly important after 9/11. The US cannot fight terrorism on its own. Global stability can only be created with the cooperation of other states and international institutions.

Soft power is generated in international affairs partly by what the government does through its policies and public diplomacy. This affects both the general public and governing elites in other countries by a host of non-state actors within and outside the country, both in positive (and negative) ways. This creates an enabling or disabling environment for government policies. Soft power can enhance the probability of other elites adopting policies that allow one to achieve preferred outcomes, alternatively where being seen as friendly to another country is seen as a local political kiss of death, its decline or absence will prevent a government from obtaining particular goals. The interactions of civil societies and non-state actors may help to further goals such as democracy, liberty, and development.

The actor’s reputation and credibility within the international community as well as the flow of information between actors is the touchstone of success for soft power. Often associated with the rise of globalisation and neo-liberal international relations theory, popular culture, media and the spread of a national language are regularly identified as the sources. A nation with a large amount of soft power resources, and the goodwill that engenders it, inspires others to adopt the culture, avoiding the need for expensive hard-power outlays.

Exchange programmes, broadcasting, or teaching a country’s language and promoting the study of a country’s culture and society do not produce Soft Power directly but are seen as its tools to promote understanding. They nurture positive images and propagate myths in favour of the source country. They provide a first but important step in the translation of “benignity,” “beauty,” and “brilliance” into soft power. The major elements include (1) its culture, when it is pleasing to others and inspires admiration and respect – e.g., McDonald’s and Hollywood movies promotes US culture worldwide; (2) its values, when attractive and consistently practiced; (3) its policies, when seen as inclusive and legitimate. The US and China today lead the world in exercising soft power with great success. India has also been partly successful in perfecting and projecting it, led by the private sector this success is accentuated by the fact that its hard power initiatives in South Asia have failed badly.

Indian movies are now screened in places as diverse as Afghanistan, Egypt, Russia and Leicester Square in London. Indian curry houses stretch across the UK and are extremely popular. Indian food in Britain or the practice of yoga in the US have developed largely by default and by the initiatives of the private sector rather than by any concerted diplomatic effort. Even then, India lags far behind China in the projection of its soft power. In contrast, China’s Confucius Institute is a fascinating modern soft-power initiative that has made a significant impression around the world. Combining a certain practicality with culture and the arts, China’s formula of soft-peddling this initiative allowed it to expand the reach of the institutes quickly, beyond expectations. There are 322 Confucius Institutes of China and 369 Confucius Classrooms in 96 countries, with almost 400,000 students. These are a real topic of interest in a wide range of circles, academic as well as political. Beijing aims to have 1,000 such institutes up and running by 2020.

Governments use the media, especially the electronic media, as well as other arms of the mass media to conduct diplomacy and wage information warfare. Prominent political leaders, including heads of state and government, have been appearing on CNN and BBC to convey their positions and policies for world opinion. Smart executives in the business world know that leadership is not just a matter of issuing commands, it involves leading by example and attracting others to do what you want. Non-state actors, too, need to also exploit the global media to stage events – and sometimes to pull off publicity stunts – to attract attention to their causes. Similarly, contemporary practices of community-based policing, where practiced, rely on making the police sufficiently friendly and attractive for a community to want to help them achieve shared objectives.

The media was the privileged forum of global diplomacy and opinion shaping. Now a shift is very much evident from old media towards new media as effective platforms of global diplomacy, communication and opinion shaping – or a shift from “CNN effect” to the “YouTube effect.” The old media faces a formidable challenge with the rapid emergence of Web-based forms of journalism, information and propaganda. The explosion of online networks like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube has challenged the traditional function of established media by diffusing media power towards individuals. These networked Web platforms are powerfully effective tools for “digital activism” by non-state actors, including individuals; but are also being deployed by states to exert influence in the theatre of global diplomacy. This shift does not mean that old media, such as television news networks, are irrelevant, but that media power has shifted towards the Web. The successful revolution in Egypt is a classic example of how much the new media has contributed to the movement that led to the ouster of Hosni Mubarak.

While economic power is bracketed more with the concept of hard power in the form of sanctions, embargoes, etc., the economy of a country can be utilised to project soft power – i.e., through the provision of economic benefit to foreign countries in many ways like the opening up of trade routes, allowing imports without any restrictions, removing quotas, giving humanitarian assistance diplomatic support. The attractions of hard currency commerce played a dominant role in bringing down the Iron Curtain and shaping the post Cold War world. Where centuries of military conquest failed in Europe, soft power in the form of the European Common Market succeeded in pacifying and unifying the continent into the European Union (EU).

Since soft power stems from values, cultures, and institutions, and we are at a cultural cascade connecting South Asia, West Asia, the Middle East, Central Asia, and East Asia, Pakistan is at a distinct disadvantage in projecting soft power. The currents are there but Pakistan will have to make conscious efforts to rediscover and reuse its soft power. Pakistan would do well to learn from China’s example of how to effectively promote its soft power in the region and in the world.

(Acknowledgment is made with thanks to “soft power” Guru Joseph Nye, former dean of the Kennedy School of Government, for the extensive quotations from his two books on the subject.)

The writer is a defence and political analyst. Email: isehgal@pathfinder9.com

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