Does Soft Power Really matter ?

Last week, the missus and I were cooling our heels off in Thailand on a long anticipated vacation in the middle of what has been a really hectic year. No, this is not a travel blog and I havent written one till now. However, I will talk about the definitive image that has stayed in my mind ever since ( close second was the image of lustful, pot bellied Indian uncles in Pattaya but let’s save that for a later day ! ) and then go off on a tangential, talking about soft power and how much it matters.

Just outside of Bangkok is a national park which runs a plethora of activities designed to engage the eager tourist (especially the children) for a good half day. We Indians are quite familiar with most animals which form part of the park and its safaris (in my opinion, the Mysore Zoo is the best in India. Go check it out if you haven’t). And, completely out of the cue, was what the good park folks had named as the Cowboy Stunt show. This, I had to see. An enactment of stunts from the Wild Wild West, from another continent and another century. To top this, with Thai accents which are by themselves hard to understand and impossible when they are trying to imitate an american drawl.

Why does a South East Asian country have a Wild Wild West show and expect it to draw huge audiences ? Why is the American way of life an aspiration partly realized by replicating typically American manifestations of food, music, fashion or entertainment activities in other parts of the world ? Mind you, Thailand is not a closed iron country but a free, bustling kingdom with democratically elected representatives. Isn’t this an example of soft power being exercised by one country over another, if any ?

My simple argument about the exercise of soft power is this; it impacts the citizens of countries a lot and doesnt matter at all to the powers that are. I will elaborate below on both these facets:

  1. Citizen impact :
    • Soft power helps citizens of one country travel easily and feel welcome in another. Visa on arrival is one of the most direct illustrations of soft power. There are countless tales of Indians travelling in middle eastern countries and in Russia being welcomed and provided unprecedented hospitality because people in those countries had watched Sholay or admired Gandhi
    • Soft power helps the flourishing of trade, if it already exists between two countries. There is a very popular theory that many Pakistani artists get an opportunity to work in Bollywood movies because their presence opens up the entire Pakistan market to movie distributors.
    • Soft power provides an opportunity for citizens across borders to bond through authentic or perceived commonalities, like a love for Mika Singh because he is a popular singer in both the Punjabs or an often talked about fantasy of an United India-Pakistan cricket team with such greats like Sachin Tendulkar or Wasim Akram sporting the same colors or the shared grief about the Partition as it was captured by Khushwant Singh in his famous novel.
    • Soft power helps to create a favorable narrative about the other country. How can the Land of the Free and the home of the brave (and of Ronald McDonald) have any sinister ideas in mind when it goes about preaching democracy and the american way of life around the world ?
  2. State Impact:
    • States do not formulate their foreign and security policies based on the soft power of another country or the amount of goodwill that exists between the two; I believe that these are driven first and foremost by supreme self interest. Despite all the goodwill that exists between the people of India and Pakistan, trade cannot happen if the authorities wish so.
    • Likewise, states cannot bear influence over one another on the basis of soft power but on harder elements like military might, trade restriction tactics or the nature and influence of their alliances.
    • The pecking order of countries also does not change based on soft power. At best, it might create a marginal improvement in the nature of trade and balance of payments by creating an environment where the aspirations of one country’s citizens towards leading a lifestyle like the citizens of another might create a higher demand and a willingness to pay premium prices for goods, services and experiences (like the Cowboy Stunt Show).

As a case in point, foreign travellers are welcomed with open (wink) arms in Thailand and get to ‘enjoy’ during their stay there. However, err on the wrong side of the law in Thailand (specially when it comes to cases related to narcotics) and the authorities can show you a very different experience. Thailand incarcerates quite a lot more foreigners when compared to other countries (For data, See link here ). And, in spite of all the fame and notoriety, tourism is the fourth largest contributor to the Thai economy at 6%, eclipsed by auto and auto components (11%), financial services (9%) and electrical appliances and components (8%) . This would leave us with reason to believe that Japan would have more favorable relations with the Siamese than the Indians or Chinese, whose people constitute the largest number of tourists.

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