Value of soft power in foreign policy

Sabena Siddiqui
Sabena Siddiqui
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Under-estimating the value of “soft power” is the worst mistake any nation can make in this age of constant communication and connectivity. Defined as ‘the ability of a country to persuade others to do what it wants without force or coercion’, this term was first introduced by Joseph. S, Nye in the 80’s decade.

Since then, the term is often used with reference to international relations and foreign policy. Emphasizing that successful nations need to employ both soft power and hard power, Nye explained in his book ‘Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics’ that the ability to enforce or ‘coerce others’ is not enough.

According to him, shaping perceptions, attitudes and preferences is as important for a nation’s security as other defense. Being an important power source that cannot be safely ignored, views and opinions can be formed globally with the efficient projection of “soft power” tools such as culture, ideals and values.

In this bracket, books, movies and media play the main role along with the background support of universities, companies, foundations and other such institutions of civil society.

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Hollywood movies played a significant role in introducing the United States to the world, and entire generations of children grew up idolizing cowboy heroes and the “American Dream”.

As a result, the global majority is more comfortable with the American way of life and is drawn magnetically towards its fashion trends, food, culture and traditions.

Where movies, books or media is concerned, China has not made much headway as Mandarin remains focused in the same regions where it is spoken and has not become a bridge across continents like English

Sabena Siddiqui

American phenomenon

Even the English language has been a useful vehicle in furthering the American phenomena as it is the second most widely spoken language after Mandarin and is considered the world’s ‘lingua franca’. Consequently, the US is not just a superpower because it is rich and powerful, it is the soft power giant of the world.

In comparison, China is gradually building up its soft power skills as it tries to build up its presence with Confucius institutes world-wide. Promoting Chinese culture and language, these centers have been a great success. Even the ubiquitous Chinatowns that can be found in big cities across the world play an important role as they introduce Chinese food, festivities and culture.

Perceptibly, the main handicap in China’s way has been language as Mandarin is not as widely spoken across nations worldwide as English which also the favored medium of instruction in educational institutions and used most for syllabi.

Thus, China’s soft-power journey has been an arduous one beset by many hurdles though Chinese culture, food, dress and architecture has its own charm. Making efforts, even the Beijing 2008 Olympic games were structured and planned by the Chinese to market their culture and identity.

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But where movies, books or media is concerned, China has not made much headway as Mandarin remains focused in the same regions where it is spoken and has not become a bridge across continents like English. Mostly, even the products China sells abroad are tailor-made for Western consumers and no spill-over soft power effect can be expected as such.

According to the 2017 Soft Power 30 survey from the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy, the US, UK, France and Germany held the top slots while China ranked 27th out of the 30 countries analyzed. Dropping two places, even though it had improved in the 2015 survey, there is room for improvement in China’s soft power.

However, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has grown to be China’s best- known brand today and once completed, it can be an effective means of global soft power and leverage.

Chinese Diasporas

Chinese Diasporas can also play an active role by spreading Confucian wisdom and values based on the concept of ‘ren yi’, translated as benevolence, humanity and love which exemplify the ideal Chinese attitude towards life.

Meanwhile, the US fell to 3rd place but it remains top of the education index with highest amount of universities in global rankings, international students as well as science journals published. As per the Soft Power 30 report, “The country is still unrivalled in higher education, cultural production, and technological innovation.”

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Having unlimited dimensions, soft power is a critical part of the equation even in economic and political alliances. Even tourists, students and migrants across borders play an important role as informal ambassadors and most of all, it is positive people to people inter-actions that help build up lasting goodwill and trust.

Though “soft power” does have limits and cannot deliver specific results, it is not wise to deny the influence the US has over global opinion due to successful implementation of these methods.

At the end of the day, winning hearts and minds is much more important than winning wars and can be said to be the real victory as in this age of internet and constant flow of information and narratives, perceptions are all that matter.
Sabena Siddiqui is a foreign affairs journalist and geopolitical analyst with special focus on the Belt and Road Initiative, CPEC and South Asia. She tweets @sabena_siddiqi.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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