As 2013 comes to an end, we draw upon some lessons of this past year, particularly in regards to the concept of “soft power”, which is discussed often on this forum and in the Western media.
First, I cannot possibly list out all the events that may have impacted soft power, but let’s look at some of the biggies.
(1) Edward Snowden. Blockbuster revelation of US and UK’s massive online surveillance of ordinary people’s every day communications.
It came as a shock to many, mainly because it didn’t fit the “soft power” image that US was trying to project to the World. Since Mid 2013 when the revelation began, the near monthly additional revelations from Snowden’s leaked documents only revealed the scale of NSA’s operation to be bigger and bigger than anyone initially estimated.
Some of us were not entirely surprised. We knew, from a pessimistic point of view, that the US government could not possibly be tempted by so much data and not want to peak at it. But I can honestly say, our guesses at how much peaking they were doing is no where near what it is.
Many governments are not surprised either. They perhaps knew, and they also spy on their own citizens. But that doesn’t nullify the damage done to US’s “soft power”, because the damage is done to the influence on the People of the World. The People are the ones truly shocked. And that’s where the soft power mattered most.
(2) Pope Francis, reaches out to gays and atheists with messages of tolerance.
Even if it is very little in substance, the Pope’s message shocked and surprised many, and gave the Catholic Church a slight boost in the World.
The Pope also backed up some of his words by his humble style. He lives in an apartment, and goes around doing religious services for the poor and other needy people. (He even offered to baptize a not-yet-born infant of a woman who was being pressured by her boyfriend to have an abortion).
The Pope also created some controversies with his rather anti-Capitalist and near Communist statements.
Needless to say, the Pope has brought some good soft power for the Catholic Church. The problem is, whether that image truly represents the Catholic Church, or is it just some Hollywood style brushed up version.
(3) Philippines Typhoon Disaster.
Mainly because so many media piled ridicules on China for its “cheap” initial donation.
As we covered in this forum, it’s not like the racist stereotype of “cheap” Chinese is that much better than the racist stereotype of “cheap” Jewish person.
and “soft power” is a 2 way street. Ridiculing 1.3 billion Chinese with such stereotypes doesn’t make Western “soft power” any more tasteful.
(4) China and Japan and US go Cold War Style on China’s ADIZ.
Overall, one could say that Japan and US scored some PR points, with each other and their own “allies”.
But in the results, China got what it wanted with not much worse off on the “soft power” front.
Even Western media like the Time Magazine, scored this one as a point to Chinese President Xi. Yeah, I would rather have an ADIZ than “soft power” on this one.
Japan and US promised to aid Philippines and Vietnam on military side to confront China in the South China Sea. But many of the talks have stalled. When it comes down to it, Japan and US just don’t trust the corrupt governments in Philippines and Vietnam.
Well, “soft power” can’t just make ideal “allies” appear out of thin air when you want them!
(5) US Budget Deadlock and government shutdown
This is a repeat, but never gets old.
And yes, even US media admits what a PR disaster that was.
We are still waiting to see what happens in the future. The budget passed for now. And the US Senate rammed through the “nuclear option” to remove possible future filibuster maneuvers, but that’s not a sure thing to prevent future budget deadlocks.
Combined with the NSA spying leak, and general European economic malaise, this kind of ineptitude is just making Democracies look bad.
(6) continuing recently, a diplomatic spat between India and US, caused by US’s rather quick and clumsy arrest of an Indian Consular General.
The US Media is largely ignoring the story, after quickly proclaiming that US did nothing wrong.
But the story is all the rage in India, who is now feeling a bit UNEQUAL in the “alliance” of US’s Asian Pivot.
Well, let’s not forget, technically, China is still a US “partner” on some economic front, but no one is doubting that the relationship is UNEQUAL on so many levels.
Why should India be surprised?
Or perhaps India is just too proud to accept the unequal relationship?? Which would be undiplomatic of India as well. If one realizes one is in a weak position, one should not bargain so hard.
There is a lesson in this one. People sometimes speak too much of China’s nationalist pride. I do not think Chinese nationalist pride is out of proportion with its influence. Look around the world, I think there are many nations that have way more nationalist pride, completely out of proportions with their actual influence.
That’s not necessarily wrong. Even a small nation should have pride in itself. But it is impractical to expect others to reciprocate respect toward such pride.
“Soft power” also means that one must understand the limits of one’s strengths and weaknesses.