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When soft power is too soft

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In international relations, soft power is the ability of a nation to achieve its objectives by co-opting, attracting and seducing other nations rather than by using carrots or sticks.  You have to win their hearts and minds.  The benefits of military victories are often short-lived.  


According to Harvard University Professor Joseph Nye, who coined the idea, soft power comes from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideal and policies.  Much soft power is created by individuals and society at large, rather than government – even if government often then tries to use such soft power.  The Swiss government is proud to have Roger Federer as its new national brand – a much better image than cuckoo clocks and tax cheats.

Soft power became a hot topic of discussion following Nye’s 2004 book, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics.  At the time, the US government under George Bush’s leadership was responding to the 9/11 terrorist attacks with hard military power, rather than diplomacy, strategic communications and foreign assistance, as recommended by many of the US’s friends.   

Even when US President George Bush’s international popularity was at its lowest ebb, the attraction of the US was irresistible to many of us.  It is a land where you are free to discuss and debate, and even disagree with the government.  It is also a country with an infectious popular culture which produces all sorts of things from ‘hip-hop’ to movies like Sex and the City.

Nye’s analysis has been very influential (softly powerful!).  Everyone is worried if they have enough soft power.  The Chinese government is seeking to develop its soft power by building an image as a responsible world leader with other developing countries.  It has established 295 Confucius Institutes in 78 countries to teach Chinese history and language. 

Indeed, according to Nye, the concept of soft power dates back to the Chinese Sun Tzu from 2,500 years ago who said in The Strategies of War : “The expert in using the military subdues the enemy’s forces without going into battle”. 

Discussions and analysis of soft power became a fad in Japan.  Many jumped on the globalization of Japanese pop culture -- like manga, anime, karaoke, sumo, computer games, sushi and “J-pop” music – as evidence of Japan’s soft power. 

The Japanese government promoted pop culture as a form of cultural diplomacy.  When he was foreign minister, Taro Aso, prime minister and manga fan created in 2007 the International Manga Award for non-Japanese manga artists.  In a Foreign Policy article, American journalist Douglas McGray even presented an analysis of “Japan’s Gross National Cool”.

Japan's huge otaku (think fan or nerd) culture, with Anime and its print sister manga (comics), are certainly big business globally.  And the otaku world is but one of the many projections of cool Japan.  From fashion to food to film and a dozen other cultural avenues, Japan is a global player. 


But to what extent has this global fascination with Japan given it soft power?  Is Japan as a nation more respected, trusted and admired?  Can Japan influence other countries more easily? 

Some would argue that much of Japanese pop culture is merely the Japanese “culture of the cute” (or “kawaii” as the Japanese say) and not serious.  Since the 1970s, cuteness has become a key part of Japanese aesthetics, culture and national identity.  And Japan's love affair with everything kawaii tends to be childish, superficial, materialistic and just plain silly.

More fundamentally, despite the globalization of Japanese pop culture, Japan is often regarded as politically and intellectually weak on the international stage, despite remaining an economic giant.  It is being quickly overtaken by China, India, Korea and even Singapore and Hong Kong.  By contrast, China has been very successful in its aggressive efforts to win friends and allies around the world and to re-establish its traditional role as “the center of the world”. 

Soft power is important.  It is like friendship.  It means that people will follow you and help you because they like you.   

Japan has a big job in front of it if it is to build up soft power, particularly with its neighbors.  Mending historical fences unambiguously and sincerely is one thing.  Political and economic leadership is another.  This could involve several things like removing agricultural protection, opening up seriously to migration or launching a bold initiative regarding reductions in carbon emissions. 

A serious soft power strategy -- to win friends, gain supporters, and influence world opinion -- would go a long way to help Japan in its struggle to find its place and identity in a rapidly globalizing world.  A real test of success would be obtaining a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.  But then again, soft power cannot solve everything.


Joseph Nye, Harvard Kennedy School -- http://www.hks.harvard.edu/about/faculty-staff-directory/joseph-nye