Neglected soft power
IN international relations, the word ‘power’ signifies military might, buttressed by economic clout — in short, the play of force whether by its use as a calculated threat or deployed in action.
However, a new concept has come in vogue. It is ‘soft power’. It was first developed in 1990 by Prof Joseph S. Nye Jr. in his book Bound to Lead and fully elaborated on in a book published in 2004 entitled Soft Power.
‘Soft power’ really means, according to Nye, “the ability to attract”. It is diametrically opposed to the power to compel. Its author is no naive idealist. He has served as the US assistant secretary of defence. Military might does not confer legitimacy.
Soft power can. Stalin’s famous question “how many divisions does the Pope have?” overlooks the fact the pontiff wields considerable influence and appeal, or soft power.
A country’s culture is a vital component of this power. Nye, a respected teacher at Harvard, is concerned with the US but he also reflects on the considerable appeal of Europe and some older states. No two countries have such an enormous reservoir of the power to attract each other as Pakistan and India. Sadly, the power remains neglected and unused quite illogically because of the issues that divide them.Before one considers how soft power can be invoked precisely in such a situation, one must bear in mind some caveats which Nye delivers. A state whose policies repel the people of another state cannot expect to attract them. “The United States cannot meet the new threat identified in the national security strategy without the cooperation of other countries. They will cooperate up to a point out of mere self-interest, but their degree of cooperation is also affected by the attractiveness of the United States.”
He cites Pakistan’s example when the then president Gen Musharraf faced a dilemma of cooperating with the US in the war on terrorism while managing a significant anti-American constituency at home. “If the US war is more attractive to the Pakistani populace, we would see more concessions in the mix.”
A state’s attractiveness will depend on the values it espouses through its foreign policy which is why the US appeal to the people of the Arab world will always remain limited because of its blind spot — Israel. It is both arrogant and unrealistic to seek to undermine another democratic state’s policies by appealing to the people over the head of their government. The deployment of soft power to achieve narrow political ends is therefore a wasteful exercise. People are not deceived so easily.
If the limitation is borne in mind, a sincere wielding of soft power can help a lot. Its purpose is not to wipe out differences but to create an ambience which contains them within limits and thus facilitates their resolution. This process is parallel to the diplomatic process. It provides a cushion to the resentments which disputes tend to arouse. To repeat, no two countries locked in disputes possess such a vast reservoir of soft power as do India and Pakistan. This was brought home to me strikingly at the Karachi Literary Festival where, last month, The Oxford Companion to Pakistani History, edited by the distinguished historian Ayesha Jalal, was launched.
That it puts paid to the belief common in some quarters in India and the US that Pakistan has no sense of its identity is the least of its achievements. Entries more than one reflect the strength and richness of the consciousness of that identity. The one on Mohenjodaro and a discussion among experts on Mohenjodaro the next day revealed how wildly wrong are notions that Pakistan neglects its ‘non-Muslim’ treasures.
But like counterfeit coins, false notions gain easy currency. On Feb 24, the International Herald Tribune published a moving article by the famous author Kamila Shamsie entitled The Softer Side of Pakistan Uncovered in Peshawar. She wrote: “If there’s one city in Pakistan that could do with more projecting of its soft image, it’s Peshawar. The place has long turned the imagination feverish. To Rudyard Kipling, it was a ‘city of evil countenances’. To journalists stationed here during the Afghan-Soviet war of the 1980s, it was a ‘hotbed of spies’.
More recently it has become famous for accommodating militants … But talk about the city to archaeologists and historians, and an entirely different kind of fever might take hold of you. One of South Asia’s oldest living cities, Peshawar is renowned for the Gandhara art excavated nearby — pieces that reveal an astonishing syncretism: Buddhist sculptures showing Hindu gods, Greek mythological figures (Atlas is a favourite), Persian columns and other influences besides. And the Peshawar Museum has the world’s largest and most breathtaking collection of Gandhara art.”
That is very true of Pakistan itself and, indeed, of India as well. They have a lot to give each other to mutual gain — provided they see each other’s soft side through the lens of this culture; through music, art, literature and host of other matters.
If Bollywood is much liked in Pakistan, the drama serials on Pakistan TV have enjoyed a large, admiring viewership in India.
Urdu, which is very much on the resurgence in India now, is a vital common bond. The same is true of ghazal gayaki and classical music, of traditional arts and crafts and folk music, of books and sports. The committed conservators of the Margalla Hills in Islamabad can teach and learn from their counterparts in Delhi committed to the preservation of the Ridge there. By far, the most potent soft power is youth power. The young in both countries are eager to know what there is on ‘the other side’.
None of this affects the disputes that exist. But soft power will open new avenues and new ways of thinking and make peace easier to establish.
The writer is an author and a lawyer.