In foreign affairs, don’t ignore “soft power”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during his 6 day visit to India (January 14-19, 2018), made some interesting points. While arguing in favor of the advantages of hard power over soft power, Netanyahu stated:

I like soft power, but hard power is usually better. You need F-35s (fighter jets), cyber, a lot of intelligence… Where does the power for hard power come from? It comes from economic power.

Interestingly, India in recent years, under current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has been focusing on promoting its Soft Power through a number of ways such as popularizing Yoga (The United Nations declared June 21st as International Yoga Day), Ayurveda, reaching out to its Diaspora, and rekindling Buddhist linkages with neighbours in South Asia as well as South East Asian and East Asian countries including China.

Modi has reiterated the relevance of “soft power” on more than one occasion. Even in the context of India-Israel relations, soft power has played a key role. There have been efforts toward renovating historical sites of Jews in India, and there has been an outreach towards Jews of Indian origin now settled in Israel. There have been efforts to strengthen educational linkages between both countries. During the visit of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in November 2016, MOU’s were signed between the Hafia University of Israel and the Welingkar Institute of Management (WeSchool), and IDC Herzliya, Israel with the SP Jain School of High Technology. The joint statement issued during Netanyahu’s visit to India also made references to the importance of people-to-people linkages, the opening of an Indian cultural centre in Israel in 2018, and an MOU in film co-production.

The point made by Netanyahu has been made by a number of realists. Joseph Nye, who first put forward the concept of “soft power” as being the ability to influence outcomes without the use of force, later on argued in favour of the right blend of “hard power” and “soft power,” dubbing it as “smart power”. Along with Richard Armitage, Nye even set up a Commission on Smart Power. The concept was of course popularized by Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who at the confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2009, stated:

We must use what has been called smart power, the full range of tools at our disposal—diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural—picking the right tool, or combination of tools, for each situation. With smart power, diplomacy will be the vanguard of our foreign policy.

While there is absolutely no doubt that economic and hard power does give an impetus to soft power, it is also a bit of a stretch to totally dismiss “soft power.” Many would argue for instance that apart from geopolitical factors, soft power did give an edge to the US over the USSR, and later on over China, for a very long time. In recent years, China has been trying to focus on “soft power,” so much so that in the past decade, a large number of Confucius Institutes have come up in different parts of the world (over 500 in around 140 countries) including roughly 100 in the US. Apart from this, China has been trying to attract foreign students, and also tourists from across the world. Even its ambitious connectivity project, One Belt One Road, which has clear economic motives, is being packaged as part of its “soft power.”

In conclusion, “soft power” cannot be a determining factor, but it does play a significant role in strengthening bilateral relations, as well as building a positive image for countries. While we live in an age where being transactional is confused with being a pragmatist/realist. US President Trump too has been dismissive of “soft power,” and by his insular approach towards immigration, and indifference towards democratic values he has given up on two of the essential components of American Soft Power. Dismissing “soft power” because it does not help in achieving any tangible outcomes is one of the shortcomings of such transactionalism, and is an excessively simplistic view of a very complex debate.

2 thoughts on “In foreign affairs, don’t ignore “soft power”

  1. It seems to me that there should be a threshold effect at work, or several. When you are a poor country like India, with fifty jet fighters (made up number I think realistic), the next jet fighter might do less for your security than spending the equivalent money on a cultural center in a friendly – and possibly well armed – country. For most of its history, Israel actually was a master at spreading its soft power through inexpensive educational programs for the Jewish Diaspora, and through a very few movies for the rest. If you are a very, very poor country(I mean with a minuscule GDP), like Malta, it might be better for your security to facilitate tourism for example, than to scramble to afford a single jet fighter. Ignoring he fact that it’s a military dependency of India, I imagine that the military potential of Nepal is quite low. If this is correct, the many friends of Nepal, gained through tourism, are worth every penny expanded on their comfort from a security standpoint.

    I am keenly aware as I write this that the immense popularity of the Dalai Lama has not done much good to the security of Tibet, next door. I imagine nevertheless that should a revolt begin in Tibet against the Chinese occupiers, the insurgents there would be more likely to receive Western support than would insurgents in most African countries, for example. There again, I suspect a threshold effect. Throwing rocks at Chinese soldiers will not tap the Western reservoir of goodwill. More severe violent actions on a big scale might. I am guessing (guessing) that the relative contributions of soft power and of hard power to security at the national level are neither random nor disorderly that they could be described as a complex function of each other and of a few other factors. Let me finish this obvious top of the head comment by pointing to small Switzerland. Nobody really messes with the Swiss although they live in a bad neighborhood! It might be because they have an optimal combination of soft power and of hard power (Yes, Switzerland has large, and well equipped, mostly conscript-based armed forces.)

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