Why nations should pursue soft power

India has it to an extent, but govt should make concerted efforts to develop it

antara-desai

Antara Desai | January 7, 2014



Every country has to safeguard its national interest and in the process of doing so, one state’s interest often comes in conflict with that of another. In such a situation both can either decide to compromise or trod on a path of altercation and conflict. Historically, it can be said that ‘war’ or the ‘threat of war’ has been the dominantly used tool for persuading the other player to act in a manner favourable to the dominant player. So, in a way, it can be said that war was the tool used to shape the other party’s preferences (may not be in a manner that befits the other or by choice but the end objective is to persuade the other to forgo its priorities).

One must understand that while war is one of the ways to achieve this end goal; there are other means to achieve the same. There are several layers of power: hard power forms the base and is probably the most important component of the equation. Economic power, which is another important layer, can be used to achieve both hard and soft power ends. The ‘will’ to exercise power and ‘lead’ (a country’s attitude towards international affairs) is another layer. A country can possess both hard power and considerable economic might but yet choose to be reticent in international affairs and thereby its prowess in the above mentioned will not translate to systemic influence.

Soft power, which includes tools like diplomacy, tact, the power to attract, is another important layer of power. It encompasses every other conceivable dimension of statecraft barring the war machine and works in subtle but obvious ways. Soft power is the ability of a country to shape the other’s preferences and to make them ‘like what you like’ or ‘want what you want’.

Realists and Hyperrealists frown at the very mention of soft power and often argue that the concept of soft power is vague and should not be pursued as it does not translate into tangible results. They also argue that it is wasteful expenditure in pursuit of frivolous objectives and the same money would be better spent if utilised to increase the country’s hard power. Discussions on soft power often turn into debates about ‘hard power vs. soft power’. In this context it should be noted that soft power is not a substitute for hard power, it merely complements it. A state cannot rise to power merely augmenting one dimension or layer of power; it has to be a gregarious mix of all. It is also not to be understood that soft power is to be pursued at the expense of hard power.

Critics also dub soft power to be the velvet glove that covers an iron fist which is not completely erroneous. One of the benefits of yielding soft power is that it helps the country mask its misdeeds. Consider the example of America’s soft power: the US is a country that has made numerous foreign policy blunders; it is the only state to have used nuclear weapons and has fomented instability in many parts of the world. American adventurism all over the globe, in pursuit of the ‘greater good’, is probably responsible for more destruction and turmoil that what has been caused by so called rogue and irresponsible states like North Korea and Iran. Despite this, America continues to be the state that every other state aspires to be. American way of life has been a major attraction for citizens of many countries.

Many orthodox societies wear a purdah of restraint justifying it by religion or tradition while secretly desiring and indulging in a lifestyle that contradicts it. China, on the other hand, a state that is half as aggressive as the US, is suffering because of the lack of goodwill and a prevalent sense of mistrust of its citizens and products. It is to be noted that China is a country that fares well on the hard power and economic power index but the lack of soft power inhibits it from growing to its full potential. China cannot afford to make the mistakes that the US made because the same would be judged much more harshly.

In today’s multi-polar world where asymmetrical tactics are empowering small states to challenge to even the most seasoned of powers, hard power cannot be the one cure for all problems.

Soft power has its own limitations which can be understood by the example given by American political scientist Joseph Nye in an interview. He highlights that “One cannot use soft power to dissuade or combat Bin Laden: the hard types have to be dealt the hard way but soft power and attractiveness can be used to ensure that the majority of moderates in the Islamic world cannot be easily recruited by Bin Laden.”

India enjoys soft power in several countries due to its culture, religion, its citizens and the productivity associated with them etc. This has come about naturally and not because of purposeful efforts of the government. However, the government can build on this and utilize this to its advantage by pushing for causes that will serve its national interest.

Diaspora is an effective lobbying tool as is proven in the case of the US. The same can be extended for other countries like Canada, the UK and Several Gulf countries. It is to be seen if the India lobby in the US can be used to shape the US policy towards South Asia and particularly Pakistan. Lobbying can also be used to gain concessions in the energy, mining sector from resource rich countries like Canada and Australia. Having influence in key policymaking circles in countries like the US and UK can yield tremendous benefits for India – particularly in negotiations in trans-governmental bodies. The Indian government must actively take up the task of promoting such lobbies and not rely on them developing eventually over a long period of time. India, so far, has not actively pursued development of such influence but should do so in the future.

In today's world, where war is unfashionable, uneconomical and a PR disaster, a balance of hard power and soft power is the best way to forward a country's national interests.
 

 

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