Harvard Professor and International relations guru, Joseph Nye, coined the term to coincide with the fall of Soviet Union providing the United States a vision of power projection that did not necessarily demand the hard power concentration that it needed to contain the Soviet Union during the Cold war. The term became resurgent after 9/11 attacks, in the disastrous aftermath of the Bush Doctrine, which advocated kinetic force to quell terrorism.
Soft power has slowly but steadily reached the political mainstream typologies in understanding global politics and has become an essential framework of explaining key foreign policy articulations from America’s Pivot to Asia under Obama Administration rebranded later as ‘Rebalancing’ and sustained by Trump administration, China’s Belt and Road Policy (OBOR), France’s expansive global engagement and India’s East and West march policies.
These foreign policy shifts are clearly strategic in nature, yet they rely heavily on Soft Power resources when deployed.
What Joseph Nye, originally meant as soft power was a State’s, ’ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion’ and relies on ‘the attractiveness of the country’s cultural, political ideals and policies’. The 21st century world order is fraught with global fault lines, conflicts, chaos and internal political upheavals. Thus many International relations scholars are framing contemporary times as a ‘return to geopolitics’. Where hard power contestation is on the rise because of a receding America and emergence of many new powers vying to fill in the global power vacuum.
"In 2015, the UK was ranked number one with the USA at second place. In 2016, the US grabbed the top position. While in 2017, France is the winner"
From Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Indonesia, Japan, North and South Korea, Australia to India there is clear sign of increase in military spending, appetite of military modernization, increasing military exercises such as the recently concluded Malabar exercises which saw some of the largest naval platforms of India, Japan and United States conduct maritime exercises in the Indian Ocean.
This week a Chinese flotilla of ships led by the State of the art Chinese guided missile destroyer ‘Yinchuan’ commissioned just two years ago is heading for the Baltic Sea to rendezvous with the Russian navy to hold a joint exercise. All these naval deployments are signs of an unprecedented rise in hard power constellations among states and expanding strategic alliances.
The global political currents illuminate mixed signals, especially in a system where the central arc of power is receding generating broad power diffusion among a plethora of state and non state actors. It is in this context the Portland Group, the British based communications consultancy group’s ‘Soft Power 30’ needs careful attention. As it is the only research and policy analysis that covers the Soft power capabilities of States and rank accordingly based on an extensive evaluation of State power.
The group’s first report came out in 2015 and drew global attention as they use a variety of matrixes, formulations and narrative analysis to rank global power, according to an overall score that is derived from the final calculations of their analysis. In 2015, the United Kingdom was ranked number one with the United States at second place. In 2016, the US grabbed the top position. While in 2017 France is the winner while the US has dropped to the third position.
The rankings do carry certain structural biases; the rise of France and the American recession are significant. While the report clearly claims that the ranking does not denote a fixed global position in terms of soft power, instead it signifies the country with the highest capability to influence global affairs through its soft power reach. President Macron did make a few blunders especially that exposed some of his own biases, he was put into the spotlight of racist and imperial attitudes for a comment he made about Africa in the recently concluded G20 summit.
"While France tops the list, China has gained significantly from previous years, but still sits at number 25 in the overall ranking of the top 30"
In a conversation surrounding the reluctance of the West to provide proper aid packages for Africa, Macron identified the problems in Africa as ‘Civilizational’ which is an inherently racist and imperial form of analysis and it came in the backdrop of the infamous ‘Civilizational conflict’ speech made by President Trump in Poland prior to his participation at the G20 forum, which drew a firestorm of criticism.
Yet despite such setbacks Macron seems to have earned a very positive global image and appeal, similar to what the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gained. Leadership perceptions have become strong indicators of soft power.
While Macron is embroiled in a spat with senior defence and military officials over his proposed budget cuts, he seems to be keen in pushing France for more global engagements from cultural, education to investment. In Sri Lanka alone The French embassy’s cultural division along with Alliance Francois in Sri Lanka has done a series of cinema screening, a francophone film festival, one month long Spring Festival which are all forms of soft power resources that France has started deploying in a major expansion of its public diplomacy.
While France tops the list, China has gained significantly from previous years, but still sits at number 25 in the overall ranking of the top 30. China is yet another example of a state which has made a series of strategic moves that seem to unnerve global leaders and analysts alike. In the past few weeks, India analysts and policy makers were growing extremely wary of Chinese presence and massive military deployments and exercises across the Jammu Kashmir border and in the Doklam plateau, bordering Bhutan, India and China.
"The global political currents illuminate mixed signals, especially in a system where the central arc of power is receding generating broad power diffusion among a plethora of state and non state actors"
China’s signature foreign policy framework, the ‘Road and the Belt initiative’ is endows a major soft power connotation. It is about cultural connectivity, the civilizational linkages across Asia spanning Africa and Europe across central Asia and the Indian Ocean. China has intensified its cultural exchanges, scholarly exchanges.
While many analysts focus on the $60 billion investments it has all over Africa, they overlook the burgeoning Confucius centres in Africa reaching 50 in total and the Chinese investment in media and entertainment. The 2012 December, launch of Africa edition of the Chinese Daily in Kenya is a classic example of this push.
China has understood the importance of think tanks and generating think tanks forums that it can link back with Beijing all such connections and connectivity are consolidation of soft power resources. Australia is another emerging great power which is in a nation branding process positioning itself as the ‘South Hemisphere’s Soft Power’. Southern hemisphere’s geographical parameters include most of Africa, South America, Antarctica and a sea-scope that covers Indian and Pacific Oceans. Such ambitious power projects that are not hard power centred still remain strategic in nature and driven by soft power deployment.
Sri Lanka’s geo strategic position has almost become cliché in the current geo political analyses in the back drop of hard power projections among rival great powers. Yet there is minimal analyses of how Sri Lanka can deal with Soft Power deployments among these competing states, how can we utilize such resources without undermining our national interests. Dealing with hard power competition in some cases are straightforward, recently the Sri Lanka government said no to any more Chinese submarine dockings, yet can it deal with Soft power deployment from China or India in the same unambiguous terms?
The writer is the Director, Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS)