Soft power, hard reality

On the prospects for public diplomacy

Instead of coercing them, advocates of soft power contend, co-opt them. Using culture, ideas and values to attract other nations and ‘make them want what you want’ is far more preferable, they argue, than threatening them with a military stick or pay them with economic carrots. Even if the term soft power has been used rather loosely in the popular media, it is hard to disagree with the theory of soft power. In practice, though, soft power is tricky business. So with the Indian government about to announce the setting up of a public diplomacy division under the Ministry of External Affairs, it is pertinent to consider soft power and its prospects.

It goes without question that culture, ideas and values increase a country’s esteem in the eyes of the world. In these respects, India is certainly incredible. But while yoga, tandoori chicken and Bollywood may help India occupy a part of the international mindshare, it is a totally different question if this will actually translate to support for India’s domestic and foreign policies in places that count. This is not peculiar to India. America and Japan, by far the world’s top ‘soft-powers’ have not been able to translate their cultural exports into support for their policies. America continues to worry about waning popularity, while Japan’s ‘national cool’ has failed to triumph over bad Asian memories six decades after the Second World War. France spends the most per capita to promote its culture worldwide, yet it’s not the most well-liked of countries.

This seeming paradox arises primarily because of the way politics works within and among states. Policies are the outcome of a balance of interests (and interest groups). Unless the cultural export is ideologically totalitarian in nature — communism or religion, for example — Indian soft power abroad is unlikely to swing this balance in India’s favour. Indian movies may be popular in Pakistan. Even if they really co-opt ordinary Pakistanis (a tall order), it is hard to see how this will lead to change in government policy. Remember, they’ve been watching Bollywood for a long time. The situation is not limited to Pakistan or even authoritarian states in general. It happens even in democracies. Consider America’s cold war disposition towards India (and vice versa). Or consider the row over the US-India nuclear accord.

A key goal of public diplomacy is to bring around other countries to support India. It may be possible in a general sense. But if it is defined as convincing governments of other countries to support the positions and policies of the government of India, it is a different ball game altogether. That requires the creation, cultivation, engagement and use of interest groups which can bear upon foreign governments. Bollywood and Bharatanatyam are of marginal significance in this respect. An international television channel — an Indian CNN (which is not the same as an international Doordarshan) — will be more useful.

Rather than hard and soft, it makes more sense to think of power along a continuum from coercion, at one end, to persuasion or attraction at the other, with bribery or economic inducements perhaps in the middle. State power is the power to coerce with threats, to induce with payments, or to attract or co-opt to do what the persuader wants. [Treverton & Jones/RAND]

That India is considering soft power as an instrument of foreign policy is a good sign. And given India’s obvious strengths and potential for soft power it is easy, especially for the popular Indian media, to get carried away by its prospects. It is important to remember that putting that soft power to use will be rather hard.

4 thoughts on “Soft power, hard reality”

  1. Am reminded of a recent incident at NYC’s grand central station where Shah Rukh was shooting for a movie and the city in response to a request for security sent in a few cops to hang around. Within 30 minutes of the shoot opening, the crowds got unmanageble. All manners of desis and africans and some asians and mideasterners were jostling for a glimpse of the khan. The cops were shocked out. The shoot had to be cancelled ultimately.

    Of course, part of the reason our cultural exports succeed are because they’re devoid of overt messages. We focus on being ourselves in our songs and movies and do well. Whenever wew try to reach across audiences consciously, it never really takes off so well.

    As for geopolitical and policy significance, the more we create markets for cultural export, the greater our trade clout. Apart from that, there may be a few economoc spinoffs such as tourism inflows. But connecting political significance to such culture exports is a stretch, IMHO.

    Have a nice day.

  2. As long as the military holds its sway in Pakistan, the eventual Indianisation of Pakistan will not give us any political benefits.
    BTW, dont forget the mullahas.

  3. I actually think there is something to this. Soft power is not so much about getting the foreign policy bureaucrats to look your way or even to make better deal with a foreign government, but it is about creating a favorable disposition of the general public in countries of interest towards you.

    I think we can see that when majority of Australians thought it was okay to export uranium to India and not to China. It didn’t change John Howard’s position towards China, but it softened his NPT rhetoric with respect to India. Similarly if Gallup Poll took a poll of US public as to whether US should set nuclear reactors to China or India, I would bet India would be favorably disposed than China. This won’t change the stance of NPAs who are perfectly happy with Chinese proliferation while immensely unhappy with India’s non-proliferation. Also, the way US congress was able to torpedo Dubai’s take over of US ports, although security was a non-issue, was because of the disposition of Americans towards governments in Arab world.

  4. Soft Power comprises a mixture of culture, tradition, customs, practices and philosophical ideals. India has a civilisation of more than 5ooo years which has influenced the entire Asia and rest of the world. Four major religions took birth in India- Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and four major interantional religions came from West-Asia, viz; religion of Zarathustra, Religion of Moses, Religion of Jesus, Relgion of Mohammad. They are quite a multicutural bon here and have got their own flavour which is uniquely Indian in character. India has to cash in from these historical developments and centuries of confluence of ideas and practices.

    India can create good will at the neighbourhood by spreading the message of good will and good neighbourliness (remember Gujral Doctrine). Bhasa, Bhusa, Bhojan,Bhavan and Bhajan can be the five major components of creating cultural bonds amongst other nations and it is time to provide and receive.

    Happy give and take but must be in a nobel and novel way.

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