April 1, 2006Foreign Affairs

Soft power, hard reality

On the prospects for public diplomacy

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

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.

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