London: If you flick through the 100 or so free-to-air TV channels on UK television, you’ll come across RT. Pause for a while and take a look at what’s on offer. You’ll discover there’s always a half-hour news programme on the hour, followed by a half-hour discussion or documentary programme. Most of the presenters in front of the cameras are attractive young ladies or well-groomed young men, speaking excellent English. The “expert” commentators are mostly Western academics and the discussion leaders are often ageing but respected Western celebrities such as Larry King from the US, or “sympathetic” politicians from the UK. So far, so normal. Listen carefully, however, over a period of a few hours and you’ll notice something rather interesting about the content. It’s ever-so-subtly critical of policies and activities of Western governments, especially the UK and US. When Russia is mentioned, however, there is never any criticism, only praise. But then RT used to be called Russia Today. Gone are the days of crude propaganda which nobody believed; this is the era of “soft power”.
Although the elements of soft power date back over the millennia, the term was coined by a Harvard academic, Joseph Nye, in the late 1980s and later published in his book Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. When a country uses soft power, it seeks to achieve objectives through attraction and persuasion. Instead of using the traditional carrot and stick as a tool of foreign policy, countries using soft power attempt to obtain influence by building networks, establishing international rules and drawing on resources that make a country naturally attractive to the world. Think of soft power in this way: “hard power is push, soft power is pull”. President Putin noted the absence of soft power in the Russian armoury when setting up the English language channel of Russia Today on 10 December 2005. The Arabic language channel followed in 2007 and the Spanish in 2009, when the name was changed to the less obvious “RT”. That the current budget is 19 billion roubles ($307 million) illustrates the importance Putin attaches to this form of soft power. On 7 December 2016, it was reported that Russian Parliament had voted for an additional $19 million in the RT budget to finance a new French language channel in time for the crucial French elections in April 2017. Just as Putin will have a self-proclaimed Russia-friendly President in the US, so he would be delighted to have the same in the form of Marine Le Pen or Francoise Fillon in France.
Soft power, however, is much more than just running a TV channel. Nye argued that soft power resources, namely its political values, culture and policies, give a country moral authority which co-opts others, rather than coerce them, to achieve the outcomes it wants. As the largest democracy in the world, India has an impressive advantage in soft power, giving it huge moral authority. In addition, the enormous diaspora of some 16-17 million Indians around the world adds a substantial number of “ambassadors” to spread Indian culture among the indigenous society. Pop down to Trafalgar Square in London to witness the huge outpouring of goodwill towards India during the annual Diwali festival. Go to the other side of the world and you’ll find that Diwali in Federation Square in Melbourne Australia is now attended by 60,000 people. India’s “yoga diplomacy” is also playing its part in soft power, with no less than 192 countries celebrating the Indian government sponsored UN International Day of Yoga, this year to be on 21 June. Add to this India’s ubiquitous cuisine (it is said that chicken tikka masala is now the UK national dish) and the popularity around the world of Bollywood films, it’s not difficult to understand how much Indian culture, an important element of soft power, has influence in so many countries. India also scores highly in digital diplomacy, seen as the new, progressive form of soft power. To quote a 2016 report on the Global Ranking of Soft Power, “India’s digital diplomacy puts many countries to shame. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the most tech-savvy leader the country has ever had, with his social media accounts followed by millions of people outside India.” India’s rise in the global ranking is seen to be attributed to Modi’s charisma and appeal, with some describing him as a “bonafide social phenomenon”. Modi has cultivated a rare Facebook presence that combines a good-humoured approach with a serious policy agenda. As the Pakistani commentator Huma Yusuf recently wrote, “One can only marvel at the display of our neighbour’s soft power.”
Although soft power is increasingly important and cost effective, it can only augment the more conventional forces of “hard power”. Weapon systems can be purchased in a short timescale, but soft power takes years to develop and become effective. However, the combination of soft power with hard power gives you “smart power”, a term introduced by Nye in 2003 to counter the misperception that soft power alone can produce effective foreign policy. So, no surprises that the term “smart power” is used more and more in government policy. Take a look at the 2015 UK “Strategic Defence and Security Review”, a document outlining the UK’s defence strategy to 2025, and you’ll find constant reference to the combination of hard and soft power strategies, in other words a “smart” approach. This sophisticated method of thinking about power is clearly the way ahead.
Former government employee John Dobson worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s Office between 1995 and 1998 and is presently a consultant in the private sector.