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  • Sep 16, 2014
  • Updated: 11:51pm
My Take
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 May, 2013, 1:23am

Joseph Nye's soft power concept is lame

BIO

Alex Lo is a senior writer at the South China Morning Post. He writes editorials and the daily “My Take” column on page 2. He also edits the weekly science and technology page in Sunday Morning Post.
 

China and Russia, two of the world's pre-eminent authoritarian states, just don't get soft power. That, at least, is what Joseph Nye, the Harvard international relations guru who coined the term, claims in a new commentary in Foreign Policy.

He points to multiple failures in their attempts to exercise it, saying they have all "quickly turned stale". Their main misunderstanding is that whatever it is, soft power cannot be engineered, at least solely, by the state.

Hu Jintao himself has said China needs more soft power, but relied on the state as its sole projector. Nye believes it must spring largely "from individuals, the private sector, and civil society". So the billions spent on turning Xinhua and CCTV into the Chinese CNN and BBC, or building hundreds of Confucius academies around the world, have achieved much less than meets the eye.

So far, so good. But what is soft power anyway and why do we need this dubious notion to understand frequent Chinese state failures in exercising influence beyond the use of money and military hardware? Of course, China also has successes. What other state, I ask, has turned Asian authoritarianism and state-run capitalism into political brands that appeal to non-democratic states and rulers the world over? You can argue it undermines democratic governance, but you can't say they have not been effective - and kind of soft.

Power is about getting what you want from others. They may not want what you want, so you have to coerce them to give or do what you want. Or you can do it through example, co-option and persuasion, so they end up wanting what you want. Don't kids learn these in the playground? OK, at least you can't argue with Nye that seduction is better than rape.

Nye's model is no doubt the US, which has soft power aplenty. Hollywood has often been cited as an example. But its influence does not always benefit the US. It turns out some of the biggest fans of those Rambo and Die Hard movies have been jihadists. Nye or his publicist has managed to mass-market the concept and turn it into an academic cottage industry and prestigious consulting jobs. He has ridden on a woolly, fluffy but catchy phrase to a second career as political guru, not just a mere academic. That's Nye's soft power.

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impala
What soft power is, and whether, when and how it is effective was extensively discussed and debated by scholars, diplomats and politicians alike when Mr Nye first published his seminal work on this topic: 'Soft Power.' That was in 2004. So you are a decade late to this debate, and if you want to know what soft power is (Nye very specifically steers away from fluffy notions, and offers very precise definitions), maybe you should take a trip to your local library and read the book.

And if you want to see Asian soft power in action, then go talk to a certain minister-mentor in Singapore about his Asian Values. And then I haven't even started on the most obvious current day example: hally. Compare and contrast that with Japan's inability to do just about anything right in the eyes of their Asian neighbours.
whymak
"Nye very specifically steers away from fluffy notions, and offers very precise definitions." Sorry, I don't buy it. Many definitions in political "science" are post-conclusion circular, self-referential rationalizations. Scientific method and empirics are often totally lacking in that kind of vaporware. So is logic.
Here is the problem. The richness of spoken languages allows wooly headed academics, and I don't mean Professor Nye being one, use definitions to rationalize and equivocate. If you want to convince me by symbolic logic, which is the ultimate arbiter of correctness, you must decompose large granularity words -- worst ones are democracy and human rights -- down to their elements, where the truth value for a statement about a relation between elements is allowed to take on either "True" or "False."
Failing to do that, everything is open to hand-waving.
Now a true confession: I was a physics teacher in the early part of my career.
Give you an example. The word simultaneity in space-time is defined by a host of thought experiments -- operational definitions -- that must not violate existing physical laws.
Soft power in the Democracy religion context seems to me more like the persuasive powers of the lowest common denominators with little or no durable cultural value. As such, it is rich in entertainment value for folks locked in ideological battles.
I don't speak for Mr. Lo. But I admit I enjoy reading his piece today.
caractacus
What China doesn't get, and never will get, is that "soft power" isn't orchestrated by any Western government or organisation. Soft power is simply the free exchange of information. The Chinese official mentality cannot conceive of people daring to think for themselves and, more importantly, that the people cannot be trusted with the power to change their own government. Chinese culture traditionally assumes that being given authority entitles the holder to abuse that power to the hilt without restraint and that the reason for holding such power is only for self - advancement. Therein lies the heart of corruption which is endemic to the culture. The PRC government believes that all thinking must be dictated by what the population is told by a media controlled by an authoritarian tyranny. This is why the rulers of China and, probably most of its people, have for almost 600 years been incapable of any original thought and why most of the population don't dare stand up for fear of being beheaded. China will never have any real democracy and will never be a great nation, for greatness lies not in size, but in the soul and spirit of a people. Force, racial arrogance and corruption just won't cut it.
blue
caractacus I'm not ethnic Chinese (Full disclosure:But I am a sinophile) and I can tell that you come off as a bit of a bigot. It's hard to accuse a group of people of racial arrogance when you demonstrate your own racial arrogance by assuming that the west is best.
whymak
If you hate yellow people so much, why are you still living in Hong Kong? When are you going to get an AK15 or build your first ammonium nitrate bomb and use it on the abominable Hong Kong Chinese?

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