2018 in Review Opinion

Soft Power Is Not Power

This is Part 2 of our series, 2018 in Review, and focuses on Indian Foreign Policy. Specifically, on the lessons we can learn from Kautilya.

‘Soft power’ is overrated. In India it is over-celebrated too. The idea enjoys support across the political spectrum: Shashi Tharoor is an articulate proponent, and so is Venkaiah Naidu. Everything from Indian films, cricket, cuisine, yoga, spirituality and the insufferable television soap operas are claimed to be elements of India’s soft power.

After all the self-congratulation is done with, there’s little empirical evidence to show that all these things actually constitute some form of ‘power’; and if they do, that India can do something with it.

Indeed, if soft power were something, the governments of our immediate neighbours ought to have been favourably inclined towards us. After all, on a per capita basis, it is perhaps the people of Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Pakistan who are the foreign consumers of India’s cultural exports. Yet, even if they like Indian films, music and celebrities, popular attitudes and their governmental policies towards India are not reflective of that warmth. Further afield, the richer states of the Arabian Gulf and South East Asia might well watch our films and dance to our music, but have a condescending view of Indians and India. For all the praise of our soft power, its effect is negligible in the manner in which foreign countries vote on important national issues.

The only people mesmerised by Indian soft power seem to be we Indians ourselves. We perhaps talk about it to compensate for the deficit of real power. In the Arthashastra, Kautilya describes three types of power, or strength: “Intellectual strength that comes from the power of deliberation; the strength of sovereignty that comes from a strong finances and armed forces; and physical strength that comes from martial power.” To the extent it can be employed to pursue a policy objective, “intellectual strength” can be seen as a soft form of power. Films, music, yoga and cricket don’t work that way.

Advocates of soft power suggest that it works by making other people want the same thing as we do, both by making more of them like us, and making them more like us. Empirically, though, that has neither happened nor is it likely to happen any time soon. On the contrary, religious and ethnic nationalism are on the rise, and the people of the world are asserting their differences. As the United States discovered, people can watch your films, wear your clothes, speak your language, study in your universities and yet bomb your cities.

Other than giving us some export revenues, and the warm fuzzy feeling that our cultural exports enjoy consumers around the world, soft power counts for very little in the real world of international politics. The Chinese will perhaps purchase half a country and most of its politicians while its people learn yoga and enjoy Indian films.

If soft power itself is a soothing intoxicant that we consume in higher than normal doses, the idea that India can be “a vishwaguru” again” ought to be classified as a psychedelic drug. Really now!

After failing to match China’s pace in lifting people out of poverty, we can neither blame colonialism nor the wrong-headed economic policies of our immediate post-colonial governments. Forget being a world teacher, we are failing to adequately educate our own people. Our cities are messy sprawls and our countryside is in chronic distress. We’re still eking out 6-8% economic growth thanks to a quarter-century-old crisis, but we have no appetite to make the changes necessary to sustain that momentum. Narendra Modi perhaps does not see the irony in announcing vishwaguru ambitions while simultaneously running down intellectuals, but the rest of the world will laugh at the thought. No, yoga and spirituality don’t cut it, even if you enlist the Ministry of External Affairs and the United Nations for the job.

Given our immense social and economic challenges, India ought to be humble and adopt the mindset of being a “vishwa shishya”, a world student. Let’s learn from the rest of the world, for there are solutions out there that can solve our problems. Indeed, there are few problems in India that have not already been addressed elsewhere. It’s cheaper, faster and better to learn from others than to try reinventing the wheel. That is how the United States, Japan, the East Asian Tigers and China did it. The arrogant mindset of being a vishwaguru can blind or blinker us to the value of learning from others.

That said, India does have the potential to hold out a model for the rest of the world: if it can be a stable, harmonious and prosperous liberal democracy. If we can show that the Indian constitutional model – where there can be liberty amid massive diversity, where there can be prosperity amid real democracy, where there can be peace within and without — then India will have something to teach the world.

For now let’s focus on getting the basics right. Our foreign policy priority is not to be some vishwaguru or get everyone on yoga mats once a year: it is to create the external conditions for economic growth during very challenging times. We should heed Kautilya and focus on harnessing intellectual, economic and military power towards this end.

About the author

Nitin Pai

Nitin Pai is co-founder & director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy. His policy research covers defence economics and the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific region. Pai is a graduate of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (National University of Singapore), Nanyang Technological University and National College (Bangalore).