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  Use of soft power: Myth and reality

Use of soft power: Myth and reality

Published : Jul 29, 2016, 12:31 am IST
Updated : Jul 29, 2016, 12:31 am IST

The United Nations’ adoption in 2014 of an International Yoga Day was remarkable for many reasons.

The United Nations’ adoption in 2014 of an International Yoga Day was remarkable for many reasons. In his first address to the UN General Assembly in September 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had argued for it, declaring yoga was a holistic approach to health and well-being and that by changing our lifestyle, it could also help us deal with climate change. Barely 75 days later, the UNGA adopted a resolution for an International Yoga Day, with 177 of the 193 UN members co-sponsoring it and none of them opposing. No International Day resolution has been co-sponsored by so many countries or has been passed in such a short timeframe. It was definitely a remarkable achievement for Indian diplomacy. It has also been hailed as a demonstration of India’s soft power.

Before we evaluate the last assertion, let us examine just what “soft power” means. The expression was coined by Harvard academic Joseph Nye to describe the ability to attain foreign policy objectives by non-coercive methods, as opposed to the “hard” power of political or economic pressure. In a broad sense, soft power involves the use of culture, political values, civil society, development assistance and other forms of persuasion to achieve national objectives by influencing public attitudes.


Of course, the practice existed long before the expression was coined. From the 1950s, the British Council, American Center and Alliance Francaise have been providing the urban Indian middle class access to books, films, seminars, scholarships and other material projecting the political, economic and social values of the “free world”. For decades, this provided a counter-narrative to the socialist, pro-Soviet worldview that the West saw as being fed to the Indian public by its government. This investment in influencing the Indian middle class opinion is arguably continuing to yield returns.

A more powerful example is the campaign of American and European NGOs to promote democracy in former Soviet countries. A US assistant secretary of state confirmed at the end of 2013 that the US had invested more than $5 billion for the “development of democratic institutions and... a good form of government in Ukraine” since its independence in 1991. Similarly, Georgia (a much less populous country) got about $1.5 billion from the US and EU for similar capacity building. These initiatives created momentum for opposition to the governments of Georgia and Ukraine. In 2003 and 2014 respectively, the elected governments of these countries were hounded out of office by public protests and replaced by the leaders of the protest groups.


In both cases, soft power instruments facilitated protest movements and the overthrow of governments. However, it was the solid external support of the US and EU that validated this regime change. In other circumstances, they might have been condemned as undemocratic coups by street mobsters. In short, soft power works best when it is backed by hard power.

India’s 30 million-plus diaspora abroad is both a soft power resource and a target of India’s soft power. The Indian community in the United States played a valuable role in promoting political support in the country for the India-US civil nuclear agreement. The six million Indians in the Gulf region provide a soft power reinforcement to India’s other strong political, security and economic links with the region. The Indian diaspora is also a target of India’s soft power: when our Prime Minister exhorts the diaspora at massive gatherings around the world to participate in his government’s flagship programmes of Make in India, Digital India and Smart Cities, he plays on their cultural and psychological bond with India to secure this participation.


However, to translate their enthusiastic response into action, we need to provide them transparent and trouble-free avenues for contributing to these programmes. This is where we often fall short. The overseas Indian encounters opaque procedures and tepid responses, when he seeks facilitation to engage with Indian government schemes.

This was the case with the imaginative and impactful Incredible India media campaign abroad over the last decade. When it generated tourism enquiries, our embassies and tourist offices abroad were not equipped with attractive tour packages and other tourism support material, which could have catalysed a quantum jump in Indian tourist arrivals. The other deterrent was, of course, the inadequacy of our tourism infrastructure of roads, transport and hotels. We are good at identifying soft power resources; we are poor at harnessing them.


The timely completion of every Indian development project overseas cements bilateral relations by enhancing public goodwill. Conversely, every case of racial abuse of an African student in India dilutes it.

It is an unfortunate fact that the most spectacular use of soft power and its dovetailing with hard power is by a non-state actor, Islamic State. Through charismatic preachers, diabolic propaganda and mastery of social media, it disseminates its jihadi ideology across diverse societies, promoting “self-radicalisation” and “lone wolf” terrorism. The hard power reinforcement is delivered by such horrendous terror attacks as in Nice, Istanbul, Kabul, Dhaka and elsewhere.


This highlights four important aspects of soft power: one, it should be used subtly, since advertising it defeats its purpose (the Georgia and Ukraine movements could not have succeeded if their aims had been advertised in advance); two, for soft power to be meaningful, it should target specific objectives; three, conducive conditions should be created to harness soft power to deliver its objective; and four, soft power is most effective when it is backed by hard power.

This brings us back to the International Yoga Day. If its annual celebration internationally can be used to stimulate public awareness and governmental action on health and climate change issues, it would be an exercise of soft power. Otherwise, it would be like hundreds of Indian music, dance and film festivals organised around the world. Millions attend them, appreciate them and go home with warm feelings for India. The true demonstration of soft power is when it is successfully deployed towards an objective.


The writer is a retired diplomat and was most recently India’s ambassador to Russia. He can be reached at