The battle for global domination

The hard fight for soft power

The ability to convince people to want what you want - to wield soft power - is a powerful tool on the world stage. Both China and America have seen their reputations badly damaged by their handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and the unrest that's followed in its aftermath. Only through careful management of their reputations will either superpower be able to dominate geopolitics. 

Power is the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes you want. You can affect their behavior in three main ways: threats of coercion (‘sticks’); inducements or payments (‘carrots’); and attraction and persuasion that makes others want what you want (soft power). While many real-world situations involve all three types of power, and soft power alone is rarely sufficient, its presence can make a difference. It is important to be able to set the agenda and attract others, and not just force them to change through the threat or use of coercion or payment. This soft power — getting others to want the outcomes that you want — co-opts people rather than coerces them. If you have soft power, you can economize on your use of carrots and sticks.

Of course, soft power has its limitations. Much of a country’s soft power is produced by its civil society, and that makes it more difficult for governments to wield. Policy-makers can give orders to their military forces but, at least in democracies, it is harder for them to direct artists, universities and foundations. Moreover, soft power usually takes longer to show results. Swords are swifter than words, but over the long term, words can change the minds behind the swords. The Berlin Wall collapsed not under an artillery barrage, but from hammers and bulldozers wielded by people whose minds had been affected by ideas that had penetrated the Iron Curtain over the preceding decades. The Roman Empire rested on the success of its legions, but its longevity also depended on the attraction of its culture.

Swords are swifter than words, but over the long term, words can change the minds behind the swords.

Soft power rests on the ability to shape the preferences of others, and it is not the possession of any one country, nor only of countries. For example, companies invest heavily in their brands, and non-governmental activists often attack company brands to press them to change their practices. Non-profit organizations manage their images to increase their soft power. In international politics, the soft power of a country rests primarily on three resources: its culture (in places where it is attractive to others); its political values (when it lives up to them at home and abroad); and its foreign policies (when they are seen as legitimate and having moral authority.) Soft power is ubiquitous at all levels of human behavior from individuals to nations, and it is likely to become increasingly important because of the information revolution that we are living through.

Information provides power, and more people have access to more information than ever before — for good and for ill. That power can be used not only by governments, but also by non-state actors ranging from large corporations to non-profits to criminals to terrorists to informal ad-hoc groups. This role of non-state actors does not mean the end of the nation-state. Governments remain the most powerful actors on the global stage, but the stage has become more crowded. Moreover, many of those other actors can compete effectively in the realm of soft power. A powerful navy is important in controlling sea lanes, but it does not provide much help on the internet.

Reputation becomes even more important than in the past, and political struggles occur over the creation and destruction of credibility, which is affected by social and political affinities. Armies still matter, but narratives are becoming increasingly important. Reputation has always mattered in world politics, but the role of credibility becomes an even more important power resource. Information that appears to be propaganda may not only be scorned; it may also turn out to be counter- productive if it undermines a country’s reputation for credibility.

In July 2015,  Portland, a London consultancy, released the first of what has become an annual product  -- The Soft Power 30: A Global Ranking of Soft Power. It surveyed objective indicators of various countries enterprise structure, culture, digital development, government, international engagement, and education resources. The report then combined these indicators with the results of public opinion polls that provided subjective measures of countries livability, foreign policy, luxury goods, culture, friendliness, tech products and cuisine.  Based on these measures, Britain ranked first followed closely by Germany, the United States, France and Canada. Since 2017, however, the United States has slipped to fifth place. The US ranks strongly in culture, education, and digital development but falls behind in government. The questions about culture, where the U.S. ranked in first place, included such measures as films, tourism, top five albums in foreign countries, creative goods exports, Olympic gold medals, and annual attendance at the Global Top 100 Museums.

China only squeezed in at number 30, which is at first surprising since China has been spending billions of dollars each year after 2007 to increase its soft power, and has particularly stressed the cultural resources that underlie it. China has always had an attractive traditional culture, but now it has created hundreds of Confucius Institutes around the world to teach its language and culture, and China is increasing its international radio and television broadcasting. Moreover, China’s economic success has attracted others, and it has used aid programs to curry favor in other parts of the world. But polls confirm what the index concluded: China has not reaped a good return on its investment. This reflects the limitations in China’s strategy which neglects civil society and the damage done by nationalistic policies.

Governments remain the most powerful actors on the global stage, but the stage has become more crowded.

China does not yet have global cultural industries on the scale of  Hollywood, and its universities are not yet the equal of America’s, but more important, it lacks the many non-governmental organizations that generate much of America’s soft power. Chinese officials seem to think that soft power is generated primarily by government policies and public diplomacy, but much of America’s soft power is generated by its civil society – from entertainment to universities to foundations  – rather than its government. Great powers try to use culture and narrative to create soft power that promotes their advantage, but it is not an easy sell when it is inconsistent with their domestic realities.

For example, the 2008 Beijing Olympics was a great successes, but China’s domestic crackdown in Tibet, Xianjiang, and on human rights activists undercut its soft power gains in many countries. In the world of advertising, that is called “stepping on your own message.” 

Given a political system that relies on tight party control, it is difficult to tolerate dissent and diversity. Moreover, as the party has based its legitimacy on a high rate of economic growth and appeals to nationalism, it not only reduces the universal appeal of “the Chinese Dream”, but it encourages policies in the South China Sea and elsewhere that antagonize its neighbors.  As China’s economic success story weakens, nationalism increases as a source of legitimacy for the Communist Party.

Both China and the United States reacted poorly to the COVID 19 pandemic. Both countries had leaders who initially responded with denial which cost lives, and then turned to blame-shifting. China mounted an aggressive medical assistance and soft power campaign to change the narrative about its initial failures, and the US tried to shift blame for its failures to China, the World Health Organization, and others. Both  countries lost soft power as a result of their failures.  Both suffered economic recession, and in addition the US faces racial unrest and protests.

Firms, universities, foundations, churches, and protest movements develop soft power of their own which may reinforce or be at odds with official foreign policy goals.

Even before the current crises — President Trump had reversed attractive American policies, and international polls showed a decline in American attractiveness. Some analysts wondered if America could ever recover its soft power.  Fortunately, America is more than the government. Unlike hard-power assets (such as armed forces), many soft-power resources are separate from the government and are only partly responsive to its purposes. Hollywood movies which showcase independent women or protesting minorities can attract others. So, too, does the charitable work of U.S. foundations and the freedom of inquiry at American universities. Firms, universities, foundations, churches, and protest movements develop soft power of their own which may reinforce or be at odds with official foreign policy goals.

Peaceful protests over long standing racial injustice can actually generate soft power. Domestic or foreign policies that appear hypocritical, arrogant, indifferent to others’ views — or based on a narrow conception of national interests — can undermine soft power. When President Trump says, “America First,” the question is not whether the president tries to defend the national interest. All leaders do. As I argue in my book, Do Morals Matter?, it is how a leader defines that interest that makes the moral difference. In the period after 1945, American presidents took a broad approach as exemplified by the Marshall Plan which was good for the United States and Europeans at the same time. That approach boosted American soft power. That has been missing during the current crisis.

In the 1960s, when crowds marched through the world’s streets protesting American government policies in Vietnam, it is worth noting that the protesters did not sing the communist “Internationale.” Instead, they sang Martin Luther King’s “We Shall Overcome.” An anthem from the civil rights protest movement illustrated that America’s power to attract rested in large part on its civil society and our capacity to reform. How a government behaves at home (for example, protecting a free press and the right to protest), in international institutions (consulting others and multilateralism), and in foreign policy (promoting development and human rights) can affect others by the influence of example. That attraction produces soft power. The US recovered from the loss of soft power in the past; it may still do so in the future.

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