LAST week, Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf asked the impossible of our Foreign Office — project a soft image of Pakistan abroad through public diplomacy, cultural exchange, trade and people-to-people contacts.

The request was sandwiched between news of another brutal sectarian attack against Shia pilgrims in Balochistan, renewed Indian accusations that the terrorists who launched the 2008 Mumbai attacks had state support and further judicial strong-arming in the letter-writing saga — in other words, business as usual for Pakistan. Cultivating a soft image in such hard times may be a bit too much to ask.

For all its absurdity, one can understand the motivations behind Ashraf’s directive. Pakistan’s image has never been as tarnished as it is now. In a BBC World Service poll published in May, the country ranked second, after Iran, in a list of the most negatively rated countries.

The ongoing showdown with the US has refined an international narrative about Pakistan: the country is a launching pad for global terrorism; it was the preferred sanctuary of Osama bin Laden; Pakistan’s by-all-means-necessary approach to ensuring a ‘friendly’ government in Kabul explains why the Afghan conflict has been such an enduring fiasco.

Writing in the Financial Times last week, Gideon Rachman argued that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is a “much more worrying” menace than Iran’s nuclear aspirations. Given the endless litany of complaints against Pakistan, some good PR couldn’t hurt.

Indeed, the utility of an international soft image is undeniable. Joseph Nye, the Harvard academic who articulated the concept of soft power, described it as one means to alter the behaviour of others to get what you want (other means are coercion and payments). As such, Nye equates soft power with military might and a strong economy. He elaborates that a country’s soft power derives from its cultural appeal, political values and foreign policies, when they are seen as legitimate. By this conception, Pakistan currently has the antithesis of soft power — hard weaknesses, perhaps?

There was a time, not so long ago, when Pakistan’s soft power was growing. The list of positive trends in Pakistan came easily to locals and foreigners alike: the free media, the newly independent judiciary, the natural beauty of the land, the growing emancipation of Pakistani women as reflected in everything from increased political participation to raunchy fashion shows, and, of course, Coke Studio as an emblem of the richness and diversity of Pakistani culture.

In recent times, all these positives have turned to negatives. The media and judiciary stand exposed. Pakistan’s stunning landscapes are now more frequently associated with devastating climate change, natural disasters and the ravages of hasty Chinese construction.

For their part, Pakistani women as diverse as Sherry Rehman, Bilquis Edhi, Asma Jehangir and Veena Malik have challenged international stereotypes meriting a list in a magazine last year of the ‘100 women who shake Pakistan’. But the horrifying abuses that Pakistani women still endure — from gang rape to honour killings and acid attacks — continue to dominate headlines.

It is a uniquely Pakistani irony that one of Pakistan’s most prominent female role models, Oscar-winning filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, earned her coveted prize for highlighting the brutal treatment meted out to disenfranchised women. And the sad turn of affairs whereby Obaid-Chinoy has been sued by one of her documentary subjects on the basis of odd accusations offers a hint at the prospects of a soft power strategy for Pakistan. That leaves Coke Studio to pick up the flak — a tall order for a televised pop fusion show.

Truth be told, this is not the time to pursue a soft power strategy—not because the obstacles to such a strategy succeeding are insurmountable, but because it does not serve the country’s interests to gloss over its faults. Now more than ever, Pakistanis need to accept the horrific realities about their country’s trajectory and work together towards sustainable solutions. We have sought comfort in conspiracy theories and blamed ‘foreign actors’ for problems of our own making for too long — this is the time for hard truths, not soft spin.

Desperate attempts to highlight positive aspects of Pakistan can actually be counterproductive at this juncture. Such attempts inevitably focus on exceptional individuals — the schoolteacher who mobilised his community to repair a bridge or irrigation canal; the environmental activist who lobbied to save a park. Such achievements are spectacular, and examples of them abound.

But highlighting them is also problematic: exemplars create a false sense of complacency; they also perpetuate the saviour complex, which leaves too many Pakistanis fatalistically awaiting someone to rescue them. Moreover, the good work of individuals operating outside the system takes the onus of service delivery off the government, and further lowers the public’s expectations of the state.

Speaking about India’s soaring soft power in 2009, Shashi Tharoor made the astute point that “the message that really gets through is that of who we are, not what we want to show”. He pointed to Indian successes — Bollywood, the Indian Institutes of Technology, a pluralistic society — as the basis on which the world formed its perceptions of the country. His point was that society, rather than government, generates a country’s soft power. The same can be said about the US, which exercises immense soft power, not through its state-mandated Voice of America broadcasts, but through Hollywood and Facebook.

In other words, Ashraf’s call to project Pakistan’s soft image should have been directed at his cabinet rather than the Foreign Office. The only way to increase our soft power is to make Pakistan more prosperous, progressive, tolerant and culturally enriched. Without that, our image in the global consciousness will continue to be informed by hard truths.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

huma.yusuf@gmail.com

Twitter: @humayusuf

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