“Soft Power” Counts for very Little”
Amb Kanwal Sibal

Much is sometimes made of India’s “soft power” as a diplomatic force multiplier. This kind of power is defined as the ability to attract and co-opt rather than coerce, use force or give money as a mean of persuasion. Through this power a country can supposedly obtain the outcomes it wants because other countries admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its levels of prosperity, openness and availability of individual opportunities, want to follow it. Those who believe in the reality of such “soft power” in international relations think that Bollywood, yoga, Indian music, dance and cuisine, our practice of democracy and pluralism amidst huge diversity give India added diplomatic weight internationally. Is this true?


The concept of soft power may have gained wide international currency in political and academic circles but that does not mean it is unquestionable. The concept is very American, developed from the perspective of the world’s dominant political, economic and military power. One can do the academic exercise of separating the various components of US power and establish a new category of “soft power” on the assumption that American democracy, culture, values, Hollywood et al exert draw the rest of the world voluntarily into the American orbit.

The US, supposedly, attracts others through this kind of soft power to follow its lead, without the need to use force. This is a debatable proposition. If the US lacked the overwhelming “hard power” it has, if global institutions were not dominated by it, if it did not actively propagate its political,economic and societal values world-wide, if it did not control significantly the flow of information across the globe, its “soft power” would be ineffectual. Switzerland has many of the elements of American “soft power”- a veritable grass root democracy, respect for citizen rights, individual opportunities, high levels of prosperity, quality production etc. Yet no one talks of neutral, non-military oriented Switzerland’s “soft power”.

Furthermore, have countries at large progressively embraced democracy because of the American example? On the contrary, one now talks of the attractiveness of the Chinese model of governance for developing countries. Russia resists US ideas of democracy and the methods used to promote it in Russia itself and in its neighbourhood. Despite decades of US global domination, consolidated by the demise of the Soviet Union, no democracy wave has engulfed the world, except in areas liberated from Soviet domination in eastern Europe. The Arab world is seeing political convulsions that have been inspired not by US democracy but by local anger against protracted dictatorships, with power transferred to muslim groups averse to western style democracy. Moreover, American democratic freedoms and cultural values have hardly wrought change in the Gulf monarchies despite their long asociation with the US. Its “soft power” hasn’t prevented the US from being deeply unpopular in the Islamic world at large.

The claim that US soft power draws strength from its commitment to human rights would need to be reconciled with American military intervention in Iraq that has exacted an enormous human toll. Regime changes of the kind enforced in Libya and being currently promoted in Syria, with Iran to perhaps follow later, are exceedingly costly in human terms as whole societies are destabilized. In Afghanistan, and even in Pakistan where the US has become deeply unpopular, radical forces like the Taliban are unimpressed by US soft power, even with regard to basic human values such as proper treatment of women and the right girls have to education etc.


It is important also not to confuse entertainment with power of any kind. There is no relationship between enjoyment of Hollywood movies and political support for US policies across the globe. Because of the highly unequal quality of these films, in some ways the picture they convey of US society can be actually unflattering.

In India’s case, its putative soft power as a democracy has failed to exert much co-opting influence even in its neighbourhood. Countries like Nepal have actually viewed Indian democracy in the past as a threat. Governance issues have tarnished the image of our democracy, with the spread of corruption in all walks of life eroding further its prestige. With China racing ahead in economic development and pulling millions out of poverty, India’s failure to eradicate abysmal levels of poverty still prevalent in the country, besides wide-spread malnutrition and poor sanitation and hygiene, corrodes the attractiveness of its model, which some have begun to see as increasingly dysfunctional. In some areas the human development indices in India are lower than in sub-saharan Africa. It is ironical that the democracy argument has to be offered by apologists to explain the shortfalls in India’s performance.


Bollywood, which is loved by the Pakistani public, hasn’t reduced Pakistan’s hostility towards India, just as the fondness of some here for Pakistani plays and affection for sufi music does not change negative thinking about Pakistan in India. Our secularism and pluralism is hardly viewed with admiration in the Islamic world, where the more conservative regimes actually see secularism as a form of heresy and minorities are denied equal status in law. Our other cultural attributes, however attractive, haven’t persuaded countries to be on India’s side against dictatorships and military regimes that inflict violence or make teritorial demands on us. Across the world people can love Indian food and enjoy Indian art forms, but that does not lessen political differences on key bilateral or international issues, just as the popularity of Chinese food in India does not alter our thinking about Chinese claims on Arunachal Pradesh or its strategic alliance with Pakistan.

So, let’s not be soft-headed about the politically seductive force of India’s “soft power”.

Published Date: 31st October 2012, Image Courtesy: www.adrianjohnson.org

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