SOFT POWER AND ITS IMPACT
On 27th May 2020, there appeared a rather curious opinion on the website of NDTV, captioned “No, China Will Not Conquer the World”. The burden of the said opinion was that we should not read too much into China’s rise and that China will not and cannot dominate the world because it cannot claim to have the requisite soft power that is necessary for rising as a Super Power on the world stage. He then proceeds to compare China’s lack of soft power to that of the Britain and the United States. In the course of his so called opinion, Guha also makes a candid confession, let’s have it in his own words then “Even while opposing American policies in Vietnam or Iraq, we continued to wear jeans, drink Coca-Cola, listen to rock music, and watch the films of Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep. We could detest the American State while glorying in the beauty and diversity of American culture.” [https://www.ndtv.com/opinion/no-china-will-not-conquer-the-world-by-ramachandra-guha-2235737, 27th May 2020]. It was extremely surprising to have such an opinion being penned by Ramchandra Guha, considering the ideological stable that he comes from. But the essential motive behind this opinion is rather ulterior inasmuch as, considering the present aggressive and belligerent posture adopted by China all along India’s northern border, including instigating Nepal, not to mention Pakistan, and the Modi Government crafting a robust response to these Chines maneuvers, it is obvious that there will inevitably be a rise in nationalist fervour throughout the country. And any rise of nationalistic sentiment ends up strengthening the position and stature of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which in turn is the worst nightmare of the left-liberal (whatever that self-contradictory term means) intellectuals. While, trying to oppose Modi in such a scenario would be obviously suicidal, Guha takes a rather convoluted path by trying to “de-demonize” China in a unique way, not by overtly saying anything in China’s favour (though that is exactly the intent), but by belittling China and trying to say that it is not as menacing as it tries to make itself to be, that it is inherently incapable of being a hegemon as it lacks the requisite soft power. Be that as it may, but as I pointed out, he makes a surprising confession, namely that when these left intellectuals (then possibly in their teens or early twenties) were crying themselves hoarse against America and everything that it was doing, calling it imperialist, fascist, predatory capitalist etc. etc. and declaring themselves to be the sole and only honest champions of the world’s downtrodden and exploited masses who were the victims of American and Western imperialism, they were fond of and were enjoying their rock music, drinking their Coca-Cola, sporting denim jeans, watching Clint Eastwood movies. Significantly enough, the leftist and Marxist Soviet Union and their communist minions the world over were denigrating these very aspects of American life as “decadent bourgeois culture”, a perversity, which was on its last leg and in terminal decline, as much as they termed western liberal democracy, contemptuously as bourgeoise democracy. The manifest hypocrisy of people like Guha apart, the said candid confession shows how wrong he and his left-liberals were and have always been in understanding the true nature and strength of this soft power veiled by the West in general and America in particular.
So, let us understand the difference between hard power and soft and how soft power differs from hard power. We can loosely describe hard power to mean coercive power backed by and executed through military threats and economic inducements and is based on some tangible resource such as the armed forces of a country or its economic and industrial strength. Whereas, soft power is devoid of any coercive element but it can be more appropriately called persuasive power which emanates from attraction and emulation and is based on intangible means such as cultural influences. The essential characteristic of soft power is that once it is created it gathers a momentum of its own and does not depend upon the hard power of its mother country or countries for its spread. You can never underestimate the significance and importance of soft power in the spread of the sphere of influence of a country as is the case with the United States. The candid confession of Mr. Guha is eloquent evidence of this. Such soft power retains the hold of the country or culture that it represents over its sphere of influence even after the country in question ceases to be a great power or super power. Great Britain is an example of such hold that a country can have on the hearts, minds and imagination of people much after Britain has passed its prime (I am referring to parliamentary democracy, known as the Westminster system, concept of the rule of law etc.). This is in fact the essence of soft power; it is the battle for capturing the hearts and minds as well as imagination of the people the world over. It is this battle for hearts and minds of the people that the United States defeated the Soviet Union much before it eventually collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions. Even within the realm of soft power there are two kinds of soft power, one is purely intellectual and the second is psychological in the sense it touches the day to day life of the common man and the masses, it fires his imagination and gives him dreams that the man on the street sees it deliver. The kind of soft power that the Soviet Union exercised and of which Mr. Guha talks about was the intellectual appeal that the Communist ideology and Leninist version had over a large section of the intellectual class the world over during the first half of the twentieth century following the success of the Communist revolution in Russia. There is no doubt that leading intellectuals the world over especially amongst the democratic west, came under the almost magical spell of Marxism-Leninism or some softer or milder version of it. But the honeymoon was short lived inasmuch as, after the Stalinist repression and purges in the thirties the intellectual appeal of communism took the shine off that intellectual appeal and it started to wane. It was in the year 1949 that the Book “The God That Failed” was published, which was essentially a collection of six essays penned by six of the leading intellectuals from the west, who were hitherto confirmed communists but had now decisively turned their backs on it. The common theme of all the six essays was the authors’ disillusionment and abandonment of communism. It was in reality the beginning of the end for communism as an ideology which was peddling a utopia on which it miserably failed to deliver. That it would never deliver on its promise as the ideology was essentially phoney, is what the subject matter of “The God That Failed” was all about. Beyond this vague intellectual soft power and which too, was being constantly undermined by the very power which was swearing allegiance to it publicly, the Soviet Union never had any soft power worth its while, which could capture the hearts and minds and imagination of the people comparable to rock music, Coca-Cola, wrangler or Levis jeans, Hollywood, McDonalds or KFC. Nothing captures the essence of America as these symbols of the American culture and lifestyle which have established themselves in the hearts, minds and imagination of the people around the world as much as the Statue of Liberty, which beckons to all those who seek to live a prosperous and better life or live the American Dream as it is understood by millions the world over. The American Dream is there for everyone to see and experience, in flesh and blood and not some vague promise of a utopia to be ushered in some distant future. That is the real strength of soft power, The Soviets had nothing compared to this, no Russian Dream which they could show the world here and now. Complete totalitarianism, a closed society devoid of any individual freedom or initiative, was all that they had to offer and that too rang increasingly hollow as they failed to deliver on one promise after another. The eventual collapse of the Soviet System was therefore inevitable. This is the fate of all totalitarian ideologies and belief systems. To give an example to draw home the point is, the opening of an outlet of McDonalds in the Square opposite the St. Peters Basilica, inside the Vatican, in January 2017. No sooner than the announcement was made that the Vatican had permitted McDonalds to open an outlet bang opposite the Basilica, protests erupted from the clergy as well as a section of the laity criticising the Vatican for permitting McDonalds to open an outlet there and defile the sacred precincts of the Basilica. Why? McDonalds was an essentially American and therefore a “western” phenomenon so neither the clergy nor the section of the laity opposing it, could complain of any “cultural invasion” as some of the extreme rightwing groups (and extreme leftwing groups too. Birds of a feather flock together?) were doing. But the real reason for this opposition was that those who were opposing McDonalds were perfectly aware as to what McDonalds, KFC, Coca-Cola were and do truly represent. They were and are symbols of freedom of individual choice, the freedom to live and enjoy one’s life as one chooses to, without that choice being limited or dictated to by closed and totalitarian ideologies and belief systems, whether Social, political, economic or religious. The American expression “do your own thing” perfectly encapsulates the essence of this philosophy which is at the basis of the American Constitution which declares “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and that their creator has endowed them with certain inalienable rights of which are the right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness…..” That’s what it is all about, life, liberty and pursuit of happiness which means to seek one’s happiness and pursue it in a manner one chooses. Neither the Soviets had anything comparable to offer to the people within their closed and autocratic system where the state claimed a historical right to make your choices for you and decide for you as to where and in what lay or ought to lie your happiness and you could not have any say in it. And that is why when these powers, communist China included have been predicting the demise of the decadent bourgeois American society/culture, one became history ( the Soviet Union) and the second (China) has had to dump Marxist dogmas and embrace the very same decadent culture which has survived them both. McDonald and KFC are doing flourishing business, both in Moscow and Beijing (not to mention the Vatican) However, it appears that China seems to have learnt only a partial lesson from the Soviet Communist meltdown namely that, peoples aspirations for a better and a prosperous life cannot be perpetually capped on the vague promise of some grand utopia to be ushered in, in a distant future and therefore rapid economic development and delivering the dream of prosperity to the common man is essential and imperative. But the other half of the lesson seems to have been lost on the Chinese, who seem to believe that once prosperity is delivered people, will forget all about liberty and individual freedom. But they are wrong, because once the first condition of a better life is fulfilled, the peoples’ appetite for further political reforms is whetted as never before. Furthermore, the economic machine that delivers prosperity, soon runs out of steam, in the absence of freedom of choice and initiative, staggers and stagnates. And that’s the real crux of the matter, a capitalist market economy cannot be permanently tied to a coercive and totalitarian political system. The capitalist market economy is the proverbial goose that lays the golden egg and a totalitarian political system in the long run inevitably ends killing it as we have seen in China’s history too. But presently it doesn’t appear that the CCP has any answer or solution to this conundrum. For the present at least we can agree with Mr. Guha’s conclusion that China is incapable of creating the kind of soft power that America enjoys, to become a super power and stay in the race for a sufficiently long period. It is entirely possible that the communists may loose power in China or may be ousted by a peoples’ uprising and China will turn a corner and become a truly democratic state with a vibrant capitalist economy. If that happens the possibilities are quite exciting and endless. But for now, it is entirely in the realm of speculation. But unless China democratizes, it will be structurally incapable of generating the necessary soft power or offer any credible alternative to the American Dream which still resonates in the hearts and minds of the people the world over. On the contrary, India with a time-tested democratic polity and a vibrant economy (i.e., if we play our cards well) may just be able to generate its own version of an American dream. The elephant may yet overshadow the dragon, who knows? However, it would not be proper to round off this discussion without trying to understand and comprehend as what is the new China Dream that is being touted by China and what is the Xi Jinping Thought that today is the prevailing orthodoxy in China. And for this, it is also necessary to have a more than casual and cursory look at the personality of Xi Jinping himself. The next topic that I would therefore like to address is Xi Jinping and his China Dream/Xi Jinping Thought.
- Adv. Kishor Jawle