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Errors of Soft Power, a Year-end Review

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.


  1. pug_ster
    December 30th, 2013 at 02:13 | #1


    Thought this is another revelation that NSA planted backdoors in many American products including Cisco and Dell. Such hypocrisy coming from them since they accused Huawei of doing such a thing.

  2. Zack
    December 30th, 2013 at 05:18 | #2

    and golly gee, look at how cisco and Dell are paying for their dishonesty and lies; in effect the US is paying, with interest.

    anyway, i meant to post this on Mao’s birthday, it’s an analysis from Eric X Li:

  3. pug_ster
    December 31st, 2013 at 00:53 | #3
  4. N.M.Cheung
    December 31st, 2013 at 04:34 | #4

    When we talk about soft power, we tend to forget what’s behind the soft power. People takes terms like democracy and freedom as self evident. During the 1950s, the term “Brain Washing” was in vogue in U.S., it was a hateful term connotes of communist propaganda and depicted in movie like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”. Today when people denounce China for human rights abuses and cites Liu Xiaobo for fighting for democracy they never consider the history of U.S.. Looking at U.S. history of slavery, genocide of Native-Americans, wars against people in Philippine, Cuba, and Latin Americas, not to mention more recent wars of empire maintenance, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. That’s the price of freedom and democracy for some of the people in U.S..
    Let’s look at more recent history of Arab Spring. Young people in Egypt and Syria, fueled by those terms of freedom and democracy, Facebook and Twitter, caused earthquakes in these countries. I do not belittle their accomplishments, yet look at those countries now. Military dictatorship in Egypt worse than during Mubarak years. Syria, ethnically broken apart, massacres on both sides, and even if the rebels prevails, Islamic fundamentalism beckons. For those young people freedom and democracy are mirages they probably wish they never have rather than the nightmare as refugees.

  5. ersim
    December 31st, 2013 at 07:06 | #5

    “Freedom and democracy” are the best examples of soft power. It’s a matter of affording it, something the Western elites have been bankrolling for the past 3 centuries,, from the Dutch onward.

  6. Black Pheonix
    December 31st, 2013 at 08:28 | #6


    1 of my problems with “soft power” is that the term is too broad. It can mean any thing from passive unintended influences, to economic blackmail.

    In practical terms, pure “soft power” should be nothing more than passive unintended influences. For example, China invariably passed along Confucian philosophy to Japan, Korea, Vietnam, without any intent to export it.

    In history of Asia, China became a dominant cultural influence in the area, partly because of the unintended export of Confucian philosophy. People from other places came to learn Chinese to learn Confucius’ words, and became familiar with Chinese ways.

    China didn’t set out to try to change the World into students of Confucius, yet it happened slowly in the immediate sphere of China.

    *Of course, China also received outside influences, like Buddhism and Islam. Yet, such “imports” didn’t make China more receptive to other aspects of the outside.

    *And that’s 1 problem: Even if INTENDED (and especially if forced), “soft power” influence do not necessarily mean the receiving nation would be receptive to every aspect of influence.

    I.e. an African nation may adore Hollywood movies, but they may completely reject US Democracy model.

    *So in conclusion, it really doesn’t make much sense to plop down $billions to package up (spoon feed) a good PR image to the World, because people may see you in different unexpected ways.

    For example, Japan was far less influenced by Chinese culture than Korea was.

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