What China and Russia Don’t Get About Soft Power
Beijing and Moscow are trying their hands at attraction, and failing -- miserably.
When Foreign Policy first published my essay "Soft Power" in 1990, who would have expected that someday the term would be used by the likes of Hu Jintao or Vladimir Putin? Yet Hu told the Chinese Communist Party in 2007 that China needed to increase its soft power, and Putin recently urged Russian diplomats to apply soft power more extensively. Neither leader, however, seems to have understood how to accomplish his goals.
When Foreign Policy first published my essay “Soft Power” in 1990, who would have expected that someday the term would be used by the likes of Hu Jintao or Vladimir Putin? Yet Hu told the Chinese Communist Party in 2007 that China needed to increase its soft power, and Putin recently urged Russian diplomats to apply soft power more extensively. Neither leader, however, seems to have understood how to accomplish his goals.
Power is the ability to affect others to get the outcomes one wants, and that can be accomplished in three main ways — by coercion, payment, or attraction. If you can add the soft power of attraction to your toolkit, you can economize on carrots and sticks. For a rising power like China whose growing economic and military might frightens its neighbors into counter-balancing coalitions, a smart strategy includes soft power to make China look less frightening and the balancing coalitions less effective. For a declining power like Russia (or Britain before it), a residual soft power helps to cushion the fall.
The soft power of a country rests primarily on three resources: its culture (in places where it is attractive to others), its political values (when it lives up to them at home and abroad), and its foreign policies (when they are seen as legitimate and having moral authority). But combining these resources is not always easy.
Establishing, say, a Confucius Institute in Manila to teach Chinese culture might help produce soft power, but it is less likely to do so in a context where China has just bullied the Philippines over possession of Scarborough Reef. Similarly, Putin has told his diplomats that “the priority has been shifting to the literate use of soft power, strengthening positions of the Russian language,” but as Russian scholar Sergei Karaganov noted in the aftermath of the dispute with Georgia, Russia has to use “hard power, including military force, because it lives in a much more dangerous world … and because it has little soft power — that is, social, cultural, political and economic attractiveness.”
Much of America’s soft power is produced by civil society — everything from universities and foundations to Hollywood and pop culture — not from the government. Sometimes the United States is able to preserve a degree of soft power because of its critical and uncensored civil society even when government actions — like the invasion of Iraq — are otherwise undermining it. But in a smart power strategy, hard and soft reinforce each other.
In his new book, China Goes Global, George Washington University’s David Shambaugh shows how China has spent billions of dollars on a charm offensive to increase its soft power. Chinese aid programs to Africa and Latin America are not limited by the institutional or human rights concerns that constrain Western aid. The Chinese style emphasizes high-profile gestures. But for all its efforts, China has earned a limited return on its investment. Polls show that opinions of China’s influence are positive in much of Africa and Latin America, but predominantly negative in the United States, Europe, as well as India, Japan and South Korea.
Even China’s soft-power triumphs, such as the 2008 Beijing Olympics, have quickly turned stale. Not long after the last international athletes had departed, China’s domestic crackdown on human rights activists undercut its soft power gains. Again in 2009, the Shanghai Expo was a great success, but it was followed by the jailing of Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo and screens were dominated by scenes of an empty chair at the Oslo ceremonies. Putin might likewise count on a soft power boost from the Sochi Olympics, but if he continues to repress dissent, he, too, is likely to step on his own message.
China and Russia make the mistake of thinking that government is the main instrument of soft power. In today’s world, information is not scarce but attention is, and attention depends on credibility. Government propaganda is rarely credible. The best propaganda is not propaganda. For all the efforts to turn Xinhua and China Central Television into competitors to CNN and the BBC, there is little international audience for brittle propaganda. As the Economist noted about China, “the party has not bought into Mr. Nye’s view that soft power springs largely from individuals, the private sector, and civil society. So the government has taken to promoting ancient cultural icons whom it thinks might have global appeal.” But soft power doesn’t work that way. As Pang Zhongying of Renmin University put it, it highlights “a poverty of thought” among Chinese leaders.
The development of soft power need not be a zero-sum game. All countries can gain from finding each other attractive. But for China and Russia to succeed, they will need to match words and deeds in their policies, be self-critical, and unleash the full talents of their civil societies. Unfortunately, that is not about to happen soon.
Joseph S. Nye, Jr. is a professor at Harvard University and former chair of the National Intelligence Council and the author, most recently, of Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy From FDR to Trump. Twitter: @Joe_Nye
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