Why Just Military Power Is Not Enough

The case for soft power in today’s world

From cannonballs and battleships to stealth fighters and pilotless drones, the essence of power has always been the same since almost the beginning of time. Bigger the better. Because might, whether we like it or not, is right.

Not really surprising, then, that the language everyone understood was war. Disputes were settled over wars. Territories and wealth were acquired over wars. And over periods of time, reputations, power blocs and alliances came to be. Anchored always in power. Very hard power.

Slowly but surely, things have changed.

Traditionally, war was the playground to estimate the relative power of a nation — with the progression of time, and the evolution of technologies, the sources of power have shifted. The emphasis once given for military dominance has diminished slowly but surely. The massive economic drain and regional instability caused by war and coercive action made hard power unfavorable. And speeding the process along has been the evolving characteristics of the contemporary world order that has weakened the effectiveness of hard power strategies — a globalization-driven economic interdependence, the rise of transnational actors, the resurgence of nationalism in weak states, the spread of military technology, wide spread access to information and finally the growth of democracy globally.

War remains a serious possibility and a recurring threat too on a daily basis, but it is much less acceptable now than it was even half a century ago.

Enter Soft Power[1] .

It’s is a concept invented by Joseph Nye, which in simple terms states that it is the ability of a country to attract others because of its Culture, Political Values and Foreign Policy. Soft power can also be defined as the ability to modify other states preferences because of their perception of you. If a country has an attractive culture, it may make the other countries more willing to hear its views or sympathize with them. If I can get you to want to do what I want, then I do not have to force you to do what you do not want to do, simply put.

Soft power is not simply the reflection of hard power. Countries like Canada, the Netherlands, and the Scandinavian states have political clout that is greater than their military and economic might sheerly because of their support for international aid and global peace-keeping efforts.

A case in point closer home — Music, Dance, Art, Ayurveda, Yoga and Indian Cuisine have done more for India’s soft power than any government propaganda. All these elements of India’s soft power has contributed largely to the existing image of India on the global stage. Governments don’t say stories well, but the people see the society for what it is.

Soft power due to its cultural, historical and diplomatic influence has the potential to multiply the efforts of the nation’s foreign relations. Hard power evokes compelled action, whereas soft power induces volunteerism.

Which explains why soft power solutions tend to last longer than hard power solutions. In such a variegated world, all three sources of power — military, economic, and soft — remain relevant. However, if current economic and social trends continue, leadership in the information, revolution and soft power will become more important in the mix.

Let me illustrate soft power from an Indian perspective — India’s soft power is as diverse as films and Bollywood, yoga, Ayurveda, political pluralism, religious diversity and openness to global influences. While the successful export of cultural products such as “Bollywood” has helped in shaping the views of Indian culture and modified existing stereotypes, other soft power elements such as the institutional model of a long lasting democratic and plural political system have also inspired societies abroad.

Indian culture and ideas have impacted and influenced countries far and near.

The spread of Buddhism from India to China and beyond, leading to a sustained exchange of ideas since ancient tim[2] es, the later spread of Islam from India across Asia to Singapore and Malaysia and even the recent proposal made by India to rebuild the internationally famous Nalanda Buddhist University in partnership with China, Japan, South Korea and Singapore serves as testament to those historic cultural ties. Evoking pre-colonial commercial routes as well as centuries-old cultural and religious linkages is as an important tool and a sure-fire method for India to re-establish economic relations with the Gulf countries as well.

A similar story can said about Indian diplomats who have always built upon such historical, cultural and religious ties to improve strained relations with other countries. A case in point — the ‘Look East’ policy of the early 1990s, where India was seen emphasizing in particular the religious influences of Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as the spread of language (especially Sanskrit), art and architecture throughout Southeast Asia.

To be honest, we have many advantages going for us. The Indian culture has always looked attractive and been seen as an antidote to the seemingly shallow Western culture and values.

India’s film Industry, “Bollywood”, is the world’s largest film industry, surpassing Hollywood with an annual output of over 1000 movies. Satellite Television and Internet have amplified the reach of Indian soap opera and Bollywood movies making Indian culture more familiar and attractive to a global audience.

Indian cuisine, with its distinctive use of spices, and vibrantly coloured dishes has become the rage worldwide.

India’s most successful and long-lasting export, yoga, is seen as a powerful symbol of peace and stability, followed ardently by millions as a form of exercise and more importantly, as a way of life.

Keeping this soft power growing, alive and as vibrant as ever, is India’s large diaspora, rightly considered to be a major asset for Indian diplomacy. The millions of Indians spread worldwide, from Fiji and Mauritius to South Africa and Canada and everywhere in between, displays the global presence, the economic might and the political capital that India has. These Indian immigrants have come to play major roles in India’s relationship with the rest of the world as these Indian communities are the source for positive imageries and glorification of the Indian culture.

The stability that India’s democracy has come to wield over the region, over more than 60 years, especially in a neighborhood rife with ethnic conflicts, has demonstrated that unity in diversity is a successful possibility, and that within a democratic format, there could be a workable alternative to some of the Western political systems. Indeed, India’s democratic, federal and secular political model could be considered as an institutional model for various decolonized and developing countries all over the world.

The global success of the Information Technology giants such as Wipro and Infosys and the and the achievements of multinational companies like the Tata’s and the Reliance have contributed to the development of a new image of India as an economic powerhouse. The quality of education offered by the IIT’s and the IIM’s have been compared with, and arguably considered better than great institutions of the West such as Harvard and oxford.

The stereotypical image of the underdeveloped, impoverished India is now long gone. What the world now is seeing and looking up to is a modern, dynamic economy that attracts foreign investments and a skilled work force from different parts of the world. And the biggest catalyst for this has been the might of the soft power that India has come to wield.

1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EiTrl0W1QrM

2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UB0CXXsG9ew&t=999s

3. https://www.chanakyaiasacademy.com/blog/item/332-rise-of-india-as-a-soft-power

4. https://thewire.in/175595/why-is-indias-soft-power-still-untapped/

5. https://www.diplomacy.edu/resources/books/reviews/soft-power-means-success-world-politics

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