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.
India’s voters chose a Hindu-nationalist, pro-business politician to be their next prime minister—tossing out the party that has led the country for most of the past 67 years in a historic political realignment.
Riding a wave of voter discontent with the incumbent [and hard Left-wing] Congress party and a sharply slowing economy, the Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP], led by Narendra Modi, was on track Friday evening to win 282 of the 545 seats in the lower house of Parliament[…]
If so, it would be the first time in three decades that a single party has won so decisively and captured an outright legislative majority, something that would give the BJP a strong position from which to push its governing agenda.
And what, exactly, is the Hindu nationalist and pro-business BJP’s governing agenda?
Mr. Modi hasn’t detailed his economic plan, but in a country with a strong legacy of state economic control, his slogans for small government, private enterprise and reduced bureaucracy have excited pro-market economists and given Mr. Modi a right-of-center image.
Still, Mr. Modi and his party’s economic agenda is far from clear. The BJP, for instance, is unlikely to roll back expensive food subsidies and opposed foreign investment in the retail industry […] But economists and analysts expect Mr. Modi will try to rein in India’s famed bureaucracy, and stimulate international trade and investment in other areas. On the campaign trail he has talked about rolling out a “red carpet” for business rather than “red tape.”
I think Prime Minister Modi will probably not be able to get through India’s massive parliament as easily as his supporters hope. On foreign policy Mandhana reports:
On the world stage, Indians have also grown frustrated with a foreign policy that some saw as too soft on rival neighbors Pakistan and China. Mr. Modi is expected to build a more robust one based on trade, particularly with countries in South and Southeast Asia.
Analysts generally view Mr. Modi as more hawkish than his predecessors from Congress, a reputation some say gives Mr. Modi a better shot at making peace with Pakistan.
This, I think, is the most troubling aspect of Modi’s election victory. The BJP is, as the article states, a Hindu nationalist party (nevermind for the moment that Hinduism is a religion, not a nation) and its nuclear-armed neighbor (Pakistan) is basically a “Muslim nationalist” (again, bear with me in the horrible terminology) state.
If Modi lets the radicals in his party take the lead on foreign policy, and Mamnoon Hussain (a member of the center-right – for Pakistan – Pakistan Muslim League) in Pakistan lets the radicals dictate foreign policy in Islamabad, the world could suddenly get a lot hotter in South Asia.
Still, I think Modi’s election is a good thing overall for India (and South Asia). The Left-wing Congress Party has been impoverishing India for half a century now, so even if the BJP is pro-business rather than pro-market I think prosperity will increase slightly and the potential for better foreign policy decisions is definitely there.
Addendum 5/17: Here is Geeta Anand and Gordon Fairclough with more on India (also in the Wall Street Journal).