A Harder Look At Soft Power

Shashi Tharoor is undoubtedly one of the most eloquent and distinguished world figures today. But upon watching a video of a speech he delivered last year waxing lyrical about Indian “soft power”, I couldn’t help but question the spirit and substance of his argument.

According to Mr. Tharoor, India’s attraction to the rest of the globe today lay not in the fact that it was fifth largest world economy (in terms of GDP PPP) or the second most populous nation, but in the strength of its “idea” or “story” — in essence, its soft power. “In today’s world,” the former UN undersecretary general said, “it’s the country with the best story that wins, not the best army”. In other words, for Mr. Tharoor, Bollywood, Indian food, IITs and political pluralism mattered more in today’s world than the economy or military.


Mr. Tharoor’s notion of “soft power” is derived from Joseph Nye’s definition of the term, which is “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion and payments”, the sources of which are “the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals and policies”.

But even if we assume Mr. Tharoor meant in his remarks that the goal was winning hearts and minds, I’m not sure I’d agree. First off, I doubt that India’s soft power would matter nearly as much if it did not have its hard power – that is, if it were not a demographically, geopolitically, and economically relevant country. That’s not just unique to India either. Would the idea of the American Dream, for example, be such a strong exercise of “soft power” if it were not based on the attractiveness of the American economy and its preponderance of power? Would so many people be learning Chinese if that language was not so widely used today because of China’s growing might? Not really.

Soft power, then, is not really a power source independent of hard power, but rather an instrument used to increase the impact of more coercive methods in foreign policy. In that sense, the concept is not particularly new as other realists as early as Machiavelli, Morgantheau and Carr have emphasized the value of persuasion as a tool of statecraft.

Second, I’m not sure how many hearts and minds are actually won in terms of the India as a country just because people are watching Bollywood and eating Indian food. Most foreigners I know think less about the attractiveness of India as a country when they watch a Shahrukh Khan film; they are struck at much more superficial things like the colorful costumes or catchy tunes (nor am I sure what kind of ‘lessons’ they would draw about Indian society from these movies even if they were to do so). The same thing goes for Indian food. One should not conflate eating a serving of chicken tikka masala with a receptiveness to the “idea” of India – it’s just people (hopefully) eating good food and concluding that they had a good meal.

Even on the issue of political pluralism, I’m not sure I can entirely concede the point. Yes, one way to look at India is analyzing how it has been able to endure dizzying differences of caste, color, ethnicity and religion and still exist as a nation state – and those who adopt that view might succumb to the allure of Indian “soft power”. But there are others who may find this rather unattractive because in order to preserve this system, the Indian state has been supported by an unwieldy, chaotic bureaucracy and messy political process which, among other things, obscures progress on even basic needs. The trouble with “soft power” is that it assumes that one can project a certain image to a passive and receptive world audience, when in fact different nations and peoples have different interests or worldviews.

Lastly, I’m frankly quite perplexed by Mr. Tharoor’s suggestion that we somehow live in a new world where “stories”, “ideas” and “soft power” determine political outcomes rather than military or economic strength. The last time I checked, the world’s leading countries (including India and China), while concerned about their image, were also feverishly pursuing economic growth and military modernization, and were unabashedly using coercion and payments as tools of statecraft like actors have done throughout history.

Let me be clear: I’m not entirely dismissing the value of “soft power” instruments like movies, language or music. Rather, I’m arguing that they have some immeasurable and relatively insignificant role to play in foreign policy outcomes if we take a closer look.

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  1. Good piece, but I have also argued at length (please Google me) that hard power and soft power go together and that soft power without hard power would merely be an admission of impotence. The talk was necessarily an abbreviated version of a complex argument. I have pointed out several times that soft power offers no grounds for complacency: a jihadi who enjoys a Bollywood movie may have no compunctions in setting off a bomb in a Delhi marketplace. So your comments are valid, but they conjoin, rather than refute, my argument.

    1. I believe that the hard or the soft power matter in different contexts. And who the audience is.
      If India wasn’t as big in economy, population and geography as it is now, it would have hardly reached the envious green rooms of the WTO or other International organizations where it’s “aye’s and nay’s” matter. The audience here are the nations. and for them the money and military strength is the only criteria.
      On the other hand, if the Silicon Valley or our beloved Rajnikanth’s freestyles or the Chicken Tikka Masala weren’t known, people would have been still unaware and ignorant of its progress in diverse fields. The curiosity got built and foreigners as the audience have caught the attention towards India. I truly believe that this form of power has made me and others alike to travel to international destinations without explaining about the snake charmers, miracles etc. Thus, of course, these two powers are co-related and they must be so. But i would argue that the so called soft power is taking a lead in the race.(is it soft anymore?) Who really knows or cares about the GDP and the number of jets India has? I am not talking about the creme de la creme. I mean the masses who are the majority. So for them even if India goes bankrupt and its military strength is wiped out, they will still remember the delicious Tikka sauce and the pelvic moves of Rajnikanth and the Indian bugger who repaired their laptop.
      Once, a friend of mine commented that to know the true worth of a soft power you must look at how the Vatican or the TTD in India works. It is based on sentiments and how far it has penetrated the psyche of an individual!

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