What gives rise to soft power, and what doesn’t

December 28, 2021 09:13
Photo: Reuters

How does one accrue soft power?

It’s an ever-pertinent question. At an age where Captain America, Harry Potter, and Doctor Who are pitted against movies glamourising revolutionary history and brandishing emphatic, exuberant confidence on the other, it is apparent that the escalating pseudo-cold war between the East and West have an oft-overlooked yet equally vital dimension: on soft power.

There exists a plethora of Chinese terms for it – discursive power, smart power, telling an emphatic story for the country, and, of course soft power. On the other hand, in more conventional International Relations (IR) parlance, we could also term it rhetoric, spin, image construction, and the propagation of a mellower, softer, alternative facet to China as a global power.

I’ve always wanted to offer my two cents of worth concerning what gives rise to soft power – and what doesn’t. The emphasis here, notably, is on the fostering of benign soft power, as opposed to the coercive, manipulative, and misinformative manifestations of malign influences that certain actors have come to be known for internationally: the kind of imagery projection that culminates at the exclusion of, as opposed to inclusion of, disenfranchised voices.

What works with regard to soft power generation? Well, for starters, one needs to be likeable and amenable to a wide range of audience, irrespective of the origins of both oneself and one’s audience. There must be a wide array of appealing stories – or, in lieu of and short of that, a multitude of narratives that can appeal to different audiences. This could play out in the form of values that are transferable and resonant with peoples from lands far and distant; or the construction of symbols of affability (think pandas, see pandas) with which apolitical individuals could develop tentative ties of affection. Alternatively, this could also be accomplished through genuine, open, and forthcoming dialogue that emphasises similarities, as opposed to differences.

Additionally, if a country is to cultivate soft – and not sharp (cf. Joseph Nye’s critique) – power, it needs to shift away from coercive and imposing mechanisms in its foreign policy, and turn instead to paying greater attention to a voluntarist, autonomy-driven approach to diplomacy. That is to say, economic coercion, sanctions, and harsh rebuking do not and cannot work in establishing soft power – flexing soft power muscles requires tact and subtlety, as well as the acceptance that other states can and should be allowed to say No. Compelling others to accept everything and all does not make for an effective means of delivering soft power – perhaps it gets things done through hard power and brute force, but the means employed is anything but soft; we need to be cognizant of this fact.

Finally, soft power is best harnessed through cultivating greater tolerance for pluralism and diversity within the civil society. A country’s ordinary citizens serve not just as its critical supporters and participants, but also as – arguably – its most effective ambassadors overseas, and in conversations or interactions with their counterparts at large. International diplomacy and ties behoove civil society relationships – and such relationships cannot be established or maintained in the absence of a genuinely vibrant, flourishing, and open-ended space for civil discourse.

What doesn’t give rise to soft power, then? Threats, accusations, and acrimonious rhetoric may do well in appealing to particular audiences domestically – yet do not aid with the development of affection and appeal with international audiences. Obviously, soft power should not be equated with no power (or, worse yet, capitulatory power) – yet it is imperative that actors seeking to groom a more positive and constructive image, do so not via means that can be easily interpreted and recognised as destructive, fricative, or, worse yet, transgressive upon international norms.

Furthermore, a monolithic and singular-minded civil society – with a solitary voice that echoes exclusively state dogma – is equally unlikely to give rise to real soft power. Sure, smaller or medium states may respond to such seeming unity in both awe and fear, yet such reactions cannot and do not bring about profound and sustainable economic synergy between and across different economies. Soft power should not be conflated with intimidation – indeed, the latter often undercuts the prospects and room for the growth in the former. It is this strict tradeoff that ought to undergird the decision-making processes of those who in fact call the shots.

Of course, soft power may not be all there is to seek and desire on the part of diplomats and foreign policymakers. Yet to the extent that the ruling administration deems soft power to be of relative importance (which they should), it would benefit from remembering that the best means of winning friends is rarely via blunt, unbridled force – indeed, too much “Yang” and too little “Yin” rarely do any good.

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HKEJ contributor