Soft Power: What is it and why is it important?

Soft Power: What is it and why is it important?

As Xi Jinping was getting ready to take over power from Hu Jintao, he was also bringing about another change to the entire geopolitical strategy that China was to follow.  The focus on soft power.

The 17th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party devoted a whole plenary session to the issue of culture.  The session concluded with a goal to “build our country into a socialist cultural superpower”.  Soft power was to be an important instrument of geopolitical strategy for China in Xi Jinping’s China.  Today, China spends $10 billion a year on soft power initiatives.  There was a time when Indian soft power influence shaped the entire social norms and culture of China and most of far east.

Chinese soft power initiatives include youth culture, media, and art events in the US. In Africa, however, China invested heavily in communications infrastructure.  It also offered inexpensive access to Chinese-backed news outlets.

Ideas are a serious ingredient of any society.  And art is a transformative element of manifesting and shaping ideas.  In the amazing book, “Who Paid the Piper: CIA and the Cultural Cold War“, Francis Stoner Sanders argues howa secret campaign was created by America’s secret service, in which some of the most vocal exponents of intellectual freedom in the West were instruments – whether they knew it or not, whether they liked it or not.

What is Soft Power?

Soft power has always been an important part of every major global power’s toolkit.  Soft power is the ability to impact others to engineer outcomes one desires through attraction, as opposed to coercion or payment.  To that end, a country’s agencies use resources of culture, values, and policies.

Someone asked the British Council handle on Twitter as to what soft power is.  This is how they answered it.

Soft power is expensive and takes longer to implement, but its impact is long-lasting and can impact areas and populations that very few military or other hard initiatives can penetrate.

CIA has used the American musicians very effectively, specifically during the Cold War to make inroads into the Soviet bloc countries and in the newsly independent African countries.  CIA used soft power to make American life as a desirable goal.

As this amazing podcast suggests, CIA used performers who sometimes knew what they were doing, for whom and why.  But sometimes, some of the performers – who had an aspirational impact – were ‘tricked’ to perform as well!

Many Black performers – including Nina Simone and Louis Armstrong – were used in Africa and Europe.

The American Society of American Culture (AMSAC) was created for the reason of creating bonds between the Black Americans and the African nations.  The tours were backed by the State Department and the CIA.

In December 1961 the American Society of African Culture (AMSAC) organised a large music festival in Lagos, Nigeria. American celebrities such as Nina Simone, Langston Hughes, and Lionel Hampton went on AMSAC’s fully sponsored trip to strengthen African-American/African connections. The performances and AMSAC’s image-building will be examined through photographs of the Lagos festival. These photographs are records of staged acts – acts that were meant to generate positive images of Black America and to reinforce (unequal) power relations between Nigerians and (Black) Americans. The visit of the group provides an interesting case study on the intersecting histories of the Cold War, the American Civil Rights Movement, and the decolonisation of the African continent.

The AMSAC organizers would select certain people from the society to be treated as ambassadors.  These people who were conceived as folks who could help mold public opinions and were “wined and dined accordingly” (Source)

On a side note, unfortunately, the AMSAC used these events to stage-manage superiority of the American culture, while derogatively positioning the “primitive, backward African culture”.  Here is

Here is a local newspaper announcement for the musical programme of the festival. (Courtesy: Sunday Express [Lagos], 12 October 1961. Courtesy of Moorland–Spingarn Research Center (MSRC), Howard University, American Society of African Culture (AMSAC) Manuscript Collection)

You can notice Nina Simone’s name in the American performers.  The Nigerian “guest stars” include Alum War Dancers, for example.

These dancers were called as ‘a most ludicrous group’ while they were presented in monkey skins and skulls’.  In fact, one reviewer wrote, ‘these fellows hopped about the stage…like a horde of mad boy scouts’.

Africa was presented as a distorted image of a people and culture from an American viewpoint.  It was an American vision of Africa that was presented, rather than a truly ‘African’ image.

This was an example of cultural soft power outreach done badly.  But, soft power events, if used properly can achieve a lot.

Using Magazines and Non-Profits

CIA has always used organizations and things in ‘plain sight’ to help wield their soft power.

Magazines like Der Monat and English-American literary-political journal Encounter were not the only activities supported by nonprofit pass-throughs such as the Farfield Foundation and the Ford Foundation. The CIA-backed Congress for Cultural Freedom brought the Boston Symphony to Europe (at the cost of $166,359.84, according to Saunders) and sprang for publication and distribution of “at least a thousand books,” according to a 1977 report in the New York Times. The books included translations of T.S. Eliot’s poems, Boris Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago” and Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” according to Saunders.Washington Post

NGOs like Ford Foundations were used as “pass throughs” by the CIA for its motives.  In fact, Ford Foundation has been used by CIA to infiltrate many societies via its NGO facade.

Between 1947 and 1966 the Ford Foundation played a key role in the network of US interference in Europe through the subvention of magazines, scientific programs and non-communist left-wing organizations. The largest philanthropic organization in the world was in fact providing a respectful facade for CIA financial and contact operations. This role was even more possible by the fact that the same persons designed and directed both organizations.Source

Interestingly, non-communist left wing organizations as a way to push the American agenda was a novel way to co opt many agendas that were being pushed by the Soviets.

Why is Soft power important?

Soft power not only extends a country’s influence to make things happen where hard power or coercion won’t work, but it also has a tangible impact in economic terms.  Andrew Rose (Professor of International Business, in the Economic Analysis and Policy Group, Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley) has studied and found a positive correlation.

In recent research, I have taken advantage of a quantitative measure of soft power to show that a country sells more exports to other countries which perceive it to be a force for good, holding other factors constant (Rose 2015).Source

In fact, Rose found that a 1% net increase in soft power raises exports by around 0.8%, holding other things constant.  Being perceived as a “force for good” is an important factor for the growth of a country in many ways.  These charts explain his assertions.

Soft power

The importance of soft power as part of the national narrative has increased and now, USC Center on Public Diplomacy also has a ranking of the countries in Soft Power 30 Index“.

Soft Power Index and the new world

As the geopolitical uncertainty increased and international order is eroded, soft power as a foreign policy tool is central to every nation’s survival and thriving ability.

We are in an era that is multi-polar and inter-dependent.  The old rules and norms are no longer effective or even valid in certain cases.  The power is shifting from West to East and from Governments to non-State actors.

In fact, one can say that in the post-COVID world, new power structures will be brought to bear and they will test the flexibility and agility of most governance systems in the larger countries.  How ready a nation is to exert power, while not overtly pushing it, will be the key.

In short, clear and deeply penetrative, yet subtle and embracing soft power will become the key.

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