Sunday, March 2, 2008

Soft power, hard truth

March 2, 2008

This abridged essay is taken from Shashi Tharoor's latest book, The Elephant, The Tiger And The Cell Phone. The writer, a former United Nations undersecretary-general and the author of several books, gave a speech on the same subject at the Nanyang Technological University last Tuesday

By Shashi Tharoor

'POWER,' wrote Harvard's Professor Joseph Nye, 'is the ability to alter the behaviour of others to get what you want, and there are three ways to do that: coercion (sticks), payments (carrots) and attraction (soft power). If you are able to attract others, you can economise on the sticks and carrots.'

It is increasingly axiomatic today that the old calculations of 'hard power' are no longer sufficient to guide a country's conduct in world affairs. Informed know-ledge about external threats to the nation, the fight against terrorism, a country's strategic outreach, its geopolitically derived sense of its national interest, and the way in which it articulates and projects its presence on the international stage are all intertwined and are also conjoined with its internal dynamics.

There can no longer be a foolproof separation of information management from policymaking, of external intelligence and internal reality, of foreign policy and domestic culture. A country's role on the world stage is seen more and more as a reflection of its society.

At the same time, states operate in an era of competition with others, seeking to promote their security by leveraging their assets. And this is where 'soft power' comes in. 'The soft power of a country,' Prof Nye explained, 'rests primarily on three resources: its culture (in places where it is attractive to others), its political values (when it lives up to them at home and abroad), and its foreign policies (when they are seen as legitimate and having moral authority)'.

As an Indian, I am a little concerned about those who speak of our country as a future 'world leader' or even as 'the next superpower'. Many Indian thinkers and writers I respect have spoken of India's geo-strategic advantages, its economic dynamism, political stability, proven military capabilities, its nuclear, space and missile programmes, the entrepreneurial energy of our people, and the growing pool of young and skilled manpower as assuring India 'great power' status as a 'world leader' in the new century.

The notion of 'world leadership' is a curiously archaic one; the very phrase is redolent of Kipling ballads and James Bondian adventures.

What makes a country a world leader? Is it population, in which case India is on course to top the charts, overtaking China as the world's most populous country by 2050? Is it military strength (India's is already the world's fourth-largest army) or nuclear capacity (India's status having been made clear, if not formally recognised, in 1998)?

Is it economic development? There, India has made extraordinary strides in recent years; it is already the world's fifth-largest economy in PPP (purchasing power parity) terms and continues to climb, though too many of its people still live in destitution, amid despair and disrepair.

Or could it be a combination of all these, allied to something altogether more difficult to define - the power of example?

In answering this question, India must determine where its strengths lie as it seeks to make the 21st century its own. Much of the conventional analyses of India's stature in the world relies on the all-too-familiar indices of GDP, impressive economic growth rates (7 per cent a year over the last five years, and talk of even 10 per cent in the next five), and our undoubted military power.

But if there is one attribute of independent India to which increasing attention is now being paid around the globe, it is the quality that we would do well to cherish and develop in today's world: our soft power.

The notion of 'soft power' is relatively new in international discourse. The term was coined by Prof Nye to describe the extraordinary strengths of the United States that went well beyond American military dominance. Traditionally, Prof Nye explains, power in world politics was seen in terms of military power: The side with the larger army was likely to win. But even in the past, this wasn't enough; after all, the US lost the Vietnam War, and the Soviet Union was defeated in Afghanistan. Enter soft power.

For Prof Nye, the US is the archetypal exponent of soft power. The US is the home of Boeing and Intel, GM and the iPod, Microsoft and MTV, Hollywood and Disneyland, McDonald's and Starbucks - in short, home of most of the major products that dominate daily life around our globe.

The attractiveness of these assets, and of the American lifestyle of which they are emblematic, is that they permit the US to maximise what Prof Nye called its soft power - the ability to attract and persuade others to adopt the US agenda, rather than relying purely on the dissuasive or coercive hard power of military force. Its subtly deployed soft power is therefore as important to the US as - perhaps more so than - its well-established hard power.

In his book, The Paradox Of American Power, Prof Nye took the analysis of soft power beyond the US; other nations, too, he suggested, could acquire it.

In today's information era, he wrote, three types of countries are likely to gain soft power and so succeed: 'Those whose dominant cultures and ideals are closer to prevailing global norms (which now emphasise liberalism, pluralism, autonomy); those with the most access to multiple channels of communication and thus more influence over how issues are framed; and those whose credibility is enhanced by their domestic and international performance.'

At first glance this seems to be a prescription for reaffirming today's reality of US dominance, since it is clear that no country scores more highly on all three categories than the US. But Prof Nye himself admitted this is not so: Soft power has been pursued with success by other countries over the years.

When France lost the war of 1870 to Prussia, one of its most important steps to rebuild the nation's shattered morale and enhance its prestige was to create the Alliance Francaise to promote French language and literature throughout the world. French culture has remained a major selling point for French diplomacy ever since.

The United Kingdom has the British Council, the Swiss have Pro Helvetia, and Germany, Spain, Italy and Portugal have, respectively, institutes named for Goethe, Cervantes, Dante Alighieri and Camoes. Today, China has started establishing 'Confucius institutes' to promote Chinese culture internationally.

But soft power does not rely merely on governmental action: Hollywood and MTV have done more to promote the idea of America as a desirable and admirable society than the Voice of America or the Fulbright scholarships. 'Soft power,' Prof Nye says, 'is created partly by governments and partly in spite of them'.

Sense-surround effect

WHAT does this mean for India? It means giving attention, encouragement, and active support to the aspects and products of our society that the world would find attractive - not in order to directly persuade others to support India, but rather to enhance our country's intangible standing in their eyes.

Bollywood is already doing this by bringing its brand of glitzy entertainment not just to the Indian diaspora in the US or UK but to the screens of Syrians and Senegalese - who may not understand the Hindi dialogue but catch the spirit of the films, and look at India with stars in their eyes as a result.

Indian art, classical music and dance have the same effect. So does the work of Indian fashion designers, which not long ago dominated the show windows of New York's chic Lord and Taylor department store. Indian cuisine, spreading around the world, raises our culture higher in people's reckoning; the way to foreigners' hearts is through their palates.

When India's cricket team triumphs or its tennis players claim grand slams; when a bhangra beat is infused into a Western pop record or an Indian choreographer invents a fusion of kathak and ballet; when Indian women sweep the Miss World and Miss Universe contests, or when Monsoon Wedding wows the critics and Lagaan claims an Oscar nomination; when Indian writers win the Booker or Pulitzer prizes; when each of these things happens, our country's soft power is enhanced. (Ask yourself how many Chinese novelists the typical literate American reader can name. Indeed, how many non- Western countries can claim a presence in the Occidental mind comparable to India's?)

And when Americans speak of the Indian Institutes of Technology with the same reverence they used to accord to Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Cal-tech, and the Indianness of engineers and software developers is taken as synonymous with mathematical and scientific excellence, it is India that gains in respect.

In the information age, Prof Nye has argued, it is often the side that has the better story that wins. India must remain the 'land of the better story'. As a society with a free press and a thriving mass media, and with a people whose creative energies are daily encouraged to express themselves in a variety of appealing ways, India has an extraordinary ability to tell stories that are more persuasive and attractive than those of its rivals. This is not about propaganda; indeed, it will not work if it is directed from above, least of all by government. But its impact, though intangible, can be huge.

To take one example: Afghanistan is clearly a crucial country for our national security. Our foreign policy mandarins have their work cut out for them there, and I would be surprised if Afghanistan isn't a priority for the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). But the most interesting asset for India in Afghanistan doesn't come out of one of our famous consulates in the border regions. It comes, instead, from one simple fact: Don't try to telephone an Afghan at 8.30 in the evening.

That's when the Indian TV soap opera Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, dubbed into Dari, is telecast on Tolo TV, and no one wishes to miss it. It's the most popular television show in Afghan history, considered directly responsible for a spike in the sale of generator sets and even for absences from religious functions that clash with its broadcast times. Saas has so thoroughly captured the public imagination in Afghanistan that, in this deeply conservative Islamic country where family problems are usually hidden behind the veil, it's an Indian TV show that has come to dominate society's discussion of family issues.

That's soft power, and India does not have to thank the government or charge the taxpayer for its exercise.

Of course, official government policy can also play a role. Mr Pavan Varma, the current head of the Indian Council on Cultural Relations (ICCR), has argued that 'culturally India is a superpower' and that cultural diplomacy must be pursued for political ends, 'keeping in mind our priorities on a global scale'.

That's all very well. But I would argue that soft power is not just what we can deliberately and consciously exhibit or put on display; it is rather how others see what we are, whether or not we are trying to show it to the world.

So it is not just material accomplishments that enhance our soft power. Even more important are the values and principles for which India stands. After all, Mahatma Gandhi won us our independence through the use of soft power - because non-violence and satyagraha were indeed classic uses of soft power before the term was even coined. Pandit Nehru was also a skilled exponent of soft power: He developed a role for India in the world based entirely on its civilisational history and its moral standing, making India the voice of the oppressed and the marginalised against the big power hegemons of the day. This gave the country enormous standing and prestige across the world for some years, and strengthened our own self-respect as we stood, proud and independent, on the world stage.

The might beneath

BUT the great flaw in Nehru's approach was that his soft power was unrelated to any acquisition of hard power; as the humiliation of 1962 demonstrated, soft power has crippling limitations. Instead of (former US president) Theodore Roosevelt's maxim 'Speak softly and carry a big stick', we spoke loudly but had no stick at all. Soft power becomes credible when there is hard power behind it; that is why the US has been able to make so much of its soft power. Let us be clear: Soft power by itself is no guarantee of security.

As Prof Nye himself has admitted: 'Drinking Coke or watching a Bollywood film does not automatically convey power for the US or India. Whether the possession of soft power resources actually produces favourable outcomes depends upon the context.'

That context is often one of hard geopolitics. Soft power is one arrow in a nation's security quiver. It is not an all-purpose panacea.

So I have little patience for those who would naively suggest that soft power can solve all our security challenges. That is absurd: A jihadi who enjoys a Bollywood movie will still have no compunction about setting off a bomb in Mumbai, and the US has already learnt that the perpetrators of 9/11 ate their last dinner at a McDonald's. To counter the terrorist threat there is no substitute for hard power. But there can be a complement to it. Where soft power works is in attracting enough goodwill from ordinary people to reduce the sources of support and succour that the terrorists enjoy, and without which they cannot function.

But this means we also need to solve our internal problems. When Prof Nye wrote of the prospects for India developing its soft power, he observed that our country 'still faces challenges of poverty with 260 million people surviving on less than one dollar a day, inequality tied to a caste system, and corruption and inefficiency in the provision of public services'.

In other words, until we can tackle and eliminate such problems, the negative perceptions they generate will continue to undermine our appeal.

So as we speak of leveraging our soft power, we must also look within. We must ensure that we do enough to keep our people healthy, well-fed and secure, not just from jihadi terrorism but from the daily terror of poverty, hunger and ill health.

Progress is being made: We can take satisfaction from India's success in carrying out three kinds of revolutions in feeding our people - the 'green revolution' in food grains, the 'white revolution' in milk production, and, at least to some degree, a 'blue revolution' in the development of our fisheries. But the benefits of these revolutions have not yet reached the third of our population still living below the poverty line. We must ensure they do, or our soft power will ring hollow, at home and abroad.

At the same time, if we want to be a source of attraction to others, it is not enough to attend to these basic needs. We must preserve the precious pluralism that is such a civilisational asset in our globalising world. Our democracy, our thriving free media, our contentious NGOs, our energetic human rights groups, and the repeated spectacle of our remarkable general elections have all made of India a rare example of the successful management of diversity in the developing world.

But every time there is a Babri Masjid or a pogrom like the savagery in Gujarat in 2002, India suffers a huge setback to our soft power. Those who condoned the killings in Gujarat have done more damage to India's national security than they can even begin to realise. India must reclaim its true heritage in the eyes of the world.

India's civilisational ethos has been an immeasurable asset for our country. Let us not allow the spectre of religious intolerance and political opportunism to undermine the soft power that is India's greatest asset in the world of the 21st century. Maintain that, and true world leadership in promoting global security - the kind that has to do with principles, values and standards - will follow.

[Comment: Singapore's soft power: food? When we speak of Singapore punching above its weight, is it soft power? It can't be hard power.

The 3 ways to project soft power is thru the three C's a dominant culture, control over media & communication, and credibility from achievements and performance.

In terms of communication, we have Channel News Asia that helps to frame issues "from an Asian perspective" as CNA likes to say.

In terms of credibility, the govt has been able to silence its critics with Singapore's achievement.

That leaves only culture, but 2 out of 3 ain't bad, as Meatloaf would say.]

No comments: