What Do We Mean When We Talk About Indian Soft Power?

The following remarks were made at the 2021 Namaste Conference on Indian Soft Power

In his renowned article from 1990, Joseph Nye sought to imagine how America would exercise power in the post- Cold War era.  Power, asserted Nye, rests on the ability to change the behavior of other states. This can be achieved through co-opetive Soft Power, or coercive Hard Power. While Soft Power rests on alerting states’ behavior through attraction, norms and ideals, Hard Power rests on coercing states through the threat of military force or the use of financial leverages. Nye thus distinguished between two policies that could guide America’s ascent as a global hegemon- unilateralism and sticks, or multi-literalism and carrots. 

Nye’s thesis rests on three arguments. First, in the 21st century military power will be less transferable than it once was. This is already visible as military power alone cannot reverse the effects of climate change or halt the spread of pandemics. Meeting these challenges requires global collaborations, fostered through dialogue and understanding. Second, Nye argued that the use of financial leverages would be limited as the world transitions towards greater economic integration. In an inter-dependent world, US financial sanctions against China might actually harm US manufacturers. Third, new non-state actors will shape the international environment, be it multi-national corporations that render borders meaningless or civils society groups that address global challenges that supersede the nation state.

For Nye, norms, values and ideals are as indispensable to foreign policy as nuclear arsenals and hedge funds. Soft Power rests on articulating the norms and values that should govern state action, and creating institutions that promote these norms. In Nye’s eyes, the IMF and the WTO are both examples of US Soft Power as participant nations are required to adopt the American ideals of free market capitalism.

This clear dichotomy between Soft and Hard power is representative of the blasé attitude of the 1990’s in which Nye formulated his concept. The Soviet Union had collapsed; the world of mutually-assured destruction would be replaced by a democratized world in which America’s leadership would go unchallenged. Nye argued, however, that acting like a hegemon could actually be counter-productive to US power. Rather, the US should embrace Soft Power as its main foreign policy tool. Multilateralism would be the order of the day. Through Soft Power institutions such as the WTO, America could make the world American.

The question that now comes to the fore is what do we mean we talk about Indian Soft Power? India is not a hegemon and thus does not face the dilemma that Nye sought to address- how can a hegemon best obtain its foreign policy goals? Perhaps when we say Soft Power in India’s context we are talking about normative power or the power of norms and values? For instance, nations associated with positive norms, such as human rights promotion, are less likely to encounter opposition to their foreign policies.

Or perhaps we are talking about positive image management and creating positive associations for India’s global brand? Or maybe we are talking about cultural attraction and the promotion of Indian culture around the world? Nowadays, we tend to lump all these activities under the umbrella term of ‘Soft Power’.

But this is not the power that Nye originally envisioned.

Though I am focusing on semantics, I think that concepts matter. Concepts help us make sense of the world and understand the actions of states. The reason that the concept of Soft Power has endured is that it offered academics and policy makers a clear metaphor for grasping international affairs- a clear distinction between Hard and Soft power. And yet when we use the term soft power we often forget that power is power- power is changing the behavior of other states. Power is exercising agency. Power is forcing another’s hand. Soft or Hard- power remains power.

I believe that a discussion on Indian Soft Power needs to focus on the future, and not on the present. Though ultimately booted out of office, Tony Blair remains an astute student of international affairs. He contends that the 21st century will be governed by three giants- the US and China, thanks to military and financial prowess, and India given its status as the world’s telecommunications hub.

In this competitive world, nations will increasingly form Alliances that are centered on mutual interests. China and Pakistan have formed a partnership to curb India’s rise to global dominance. Israel and the Gulf States have created an alliance to stem the regional power of Iran. Notably, China and Pakistan’s relationship cannot be explained by Soft Power. The two countries do not have a shared culture, systems of government or shared norms and values as evident in each country’s attitude to religion. Yet they share an interest and that binds them together.

Similarly, as the century progresses, India will have to form Alliances to balance the power of China and America. The dilemma here is closer to the one envisioned by Nye- how can India attract Alliance members? By coercion and military strength, or through attraction and the creation of joint mechanism for global governance? Should India lead through a nuclear arsenal, or through regional and global organizations that work to advance the interests of Alliance members?

Here, norms and values may play a crucial role. India’s ability to attract Alliance members may rest, in part, on the values and norms that India wishes to promote around the world. What does India stand for? What are the guiding principles that govern India’s domestic and foreign policies? What kind of world does India envision in 2050? By answering these questions, India may be able to create a positive, global vision that will be appealing to other states which will then join Indian Alliances.

This will truly be a form of Indian soft power.

Notably, when dealing with Soft Power one must take into account the impact of domestic policies on a state’s reputation. This is especially the case with digital policies. India is known throughout the world as a hub of telecommunications. Through its digital diplomacy activities, India is also gaining recognition as a digital innovator. For instance, the Indian foreign ministry has created the most advanced smartphone application that can be used by Indians, Indian Diasporas and foreign citizens. The ‘Know India’ program utilizes digital technologies to connect second generation Diaspora to India.

Yet, India is also attracting attention due to domestic digital policies that include the suspension of social media sites and asking social media companies to block certain accounts that are critical of the government. This has also been the case with online criticism during the Covid19 pandemic. These actions have attracted criticism from numerous actors, be it other states, civil society organization or networks of activists.

Contradictions between domestic and foreign polices limit the credibility of a state and by extension its ability to attract Alliance members. If India wishes to promote a positive global vision, it must ensure that domestic policies, including digital policies are in-line with this global vision.

Notably, in the digital age, state policies are more easily exposed and denounced by global publics. Domestic policies may thus quickly turn into diplomatic blunders.

In a world of three Giants, the US will stand for democracy, China will stand for alternative and more authoritarian models of government, what will India stand for? The sooner India answer’s this question, the sooner it will be able to form the Alliances necessary to obtain diplomatic goals in the 21st century.

That, I believe is what we talk about when we talk about Indian Soft Power.

Thank you

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