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.

Complex interdependence turned around

An interesting analysis in one of the Dutch quality papers today. The analysis was about Russia’s power politics, and especially how it used all kinds of formal and informal tactics in different areas, for example traditional diplomatic canals, covert military action, media, energy politics, espionage, et cetera. Special attention was drawn to the economic aspect. Not so much the economic sanctions, which are mainly making life more expensive for the Russian population, are a nuisance to the people in power, yet lack any pacifying effect.

More interesting was the point that the entanglement between the Russian en European economies actually allows the Russian leaders to be more belligerent, and to make use of the Ukraine crisis to prolong the life of their rule. This is due to the fear of Western governments to lose Russian investments, gas supplies and capital. President Putin and his followers know this too well, and are therefore prepared to take more risks in the Ukraine crisis. Sure there are other factors important as well, yet this economic factor is significant in their power game.

For liberal theory in international relations this is complex interdependence turned around. In 1978 Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye published their influential book Power and Interdependence, which focused on the importance of the multiple ways societies and countries are interconnected. Although a lot can, and has been, said about their analysis, as well as the broader discussion following the book, many liberals read the book as a confirmation of their belief in the pacifying effects of economic interdependence. However, this was not the actual position of Keohane and Nye, who emphasized that interdependence would not necessarily lead to international cooperation, nor did they assume any other automatic benign effects (see page 249 of the second edition, 1989).

If anything, the current situation in the crisis between Russia, Ukraine and the West shows the truth of these careful theoretical remarks. The political effect of economic ties is not automatically benign or peace enhancing.