Why soft power is pivotal

April 06, 2020

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The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

WHY write about soft power at a time of the Covid-19 crisis?

Because the global health emergency helps to illustrate its significance and impact. It also makes sense to evaluate the importance of soft power for Pakistan’s diplomacy in the post-pandemic world.

If soft power is understood as a country’s attributes or behaviour that appeals to others and creates positive perceptions, then consider the case of China in the midst of the ongoing coronavirus crisis. China’s remarkably successful fight to contain the virus and then extend help to over 80 countries set an example admired the world over, notwithstanding the stigmatising rhetoric from its detractors.

What does that mean?

It means that by its example and subsequent actions for the collective good, China created a soft power effect. In other words, by earning respect from its conduct, China managed to elevate its global position. This underlines how soft power can be instrumental in enhancing a country’s influence and international standing.

Turning now to consideration of the utility of soft power, the evidence is overwhelming. When soft power is deployed as a pivotal part of a country’s diplomatic strategy it pays rich dividends, enabling that country to build trust and influence and thus more effectively promote its foreign policy goals.

Pakistan needs to step up its diplomatic game and act strategically.

We have long known that perceptions are consequential to a country’s standing in global affairs. Soft power can be an indispensable, cost-effective tool to shape perceptions that can encourage cooperation from the international community.

As others have also pointed out, the international standing of a country today depends as much on perceptions of it and its reputation as its military and economic power. The growing shift in recent decades from hard power to the importance of soft power means that being ‘liked’ helps nations to increase their clout in international affairs.

The term soft power is used rather imprecisely in Pakistan. It is conceived in a limited way by policymakers and often misinterpreted in popular discourse.

The term and notion are owed of course to the American scholar Joseph Nye, who in a seminal work in 1990 described soft power as the ability to shape the preferences of others and secure outcomes through “attraction rather than coercion or payments”. He counterposed soft power, “the power of persuasion and co-option”, to the “power of coercion” represented by the hard power of military and economic strength. And he identified culture, political values and foreign policy as the principal sources of soft power. Subsequent literature expanded on the concept. A prolific debate ensued on the diverse sources, dimensions and measures by which to assess soft power. Much of this remained West-centric, but there were lessons for the ‘rest’ to draw on.

A Soft Power Summit, organised recently by Brand Finance in London, where I was also invited to speak, attracted participants from 100 countries, reflecting the wide interest the subject attracts. The keynote from former UN secretary general Ban-Ki Moon set the tone: “Soft power is an essential ingredient in international diplomacy now more important than ever.”

Speakers generated a rich debate especially around the Global Soft Power Index 2020 report launched by Brand Finance. This identifies seven Soft Power Pillars and ranks 60 countries according to measures that include performance on these pillars, reputation, awareness, familiarity and overall influence. It is based on responses to these of over 55,000 people from around 100 countries. The seven pillars are business and trade, governance, international relations, culture and heritage, media and communication, education and science, people and values.

Western countries are among the top five in the ranking index, with Japan and China at four and five. Pakistan figures among the bottom 10, at 53 out of 60. India at 27 is described as underperforming. Singapore is the top Southeast Asian nation at 20, drawing soft power from its perception as a leader in education and science. One can debate the measures used and question the methodology of such surveys, but there is much to learn from them.

I experienced firsthand the critical role soft power can play in achieving a specific diplomatic goal when I served as Pakistan’s envoy at the UN in New York. With 193 countries represented at the UN, it is an ideal global platform to execute soft power strategies. Many countries do that on a sustained basis.

In Pakistan’s case, we had to win election to a key UN body two years ago. Competition was tough. So was the challenge, as the electorate was the 193-member General Assembly. In Africa and Latin America, we have few diplomatic missions and little or no representation in the 38 Small Island Deve­loping States (SIDS). All have a vote and every vote counts.

What did we do in addition to traditional lobbying and making reciprocal arrangements? We deployed soft power resources in two ways. We undertook intense cultural diplomacy by hosting events that showcased our rich heritage and we projected Pakistan’s international role as a force for good by our contribution to UN Peacekeeping (critical for Africa). Cultural diplomacy involved a packed concert in the prestigious General Assembly hall, a Pakistani ‘street food’ event, and a colourful (first-ever) celebration of Eid at the UN. Our peacekeeping role was showcased in different ways including a photo exhibition at the UN. All this aimed to appeal to ‘voters’ by projection of the soft power of our culture and our policies that contribute to global peace and security. Pakistan won the election, polling 151 votes — much more than were needed. Soft power efforts had played a key role in this outcome.

Looking ahead, Pakistan needs to step up its diplomatic game and act strategically. There seems to be a reluctance to change how we conduct our diplomacy when a hyperconnected and multipolar world offers unprecedented opportunities to influence multiple actors across the globe. Today, ‘nation branding’ is essential. Policymakers should identify and imaginatively incorporate our soft power resources into our foreign policy, engaging more vigorously in public diplomacy to shape the narrative abroad. There is no reason why Pakistan should remain at the bottom of the Global Soft Power League.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

Published in Dawn, April 6th, 2020