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Geopolitics In The Age Of Soft Power And Shifting Battle Rules

Shoaib Bajwa reflects on the soft power projected by different countries and what it means for the global geopolitics

I arrived in Cairo in 2007 for a planned 18-month stay. I reached my apartment in Maadi and was greeted by a bawab (doorman) who smiled and politely asked, “Hindi?” What he meant to ask me was whether I was Indian, while I replied yes, affirming that I understood Hindi. Excitedly, he asked me to look into his room. When I entered his quarters, a small room at the building’s entrance, I found that it had a whole collection of Indian (Bollywood) movies. There were about 50 of them, gloriously stacked in a corner, his prized possessions. He said that he had more video cassettes back in his village and that he was a fan of Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan. I was baffled at how a doorman from a village somewhere on the River Nile, all the way in the deserted South of Egypt; a man who hasn’t received a formal education, has no access to the internet and has hardly a clue about Indian culture; a man who can’t speak nor understand Hindi, has such a passion for Bollywood movies! What a wonder indeed. And it had me think more deeply into the role of soft powers in world politics.

A new kind of power is evolving in the world: that of shaping others’ views in your favor. This new form of power operates without armies. “Soft power” has become particularly important in an increasingly digital world. At this point in time, global relations are changing as some alliances are created while others end. For instance, since 2016, Trump has reduced the US’s budget for soft power and has started leaving gaps in the western liberal order. This of course would affect the US strategy to manage China’s rise. On the other hand, this has strengthened the Arab countries’ relationship with Israel to corner Iran who is warming up its relations with China.

Pakistan is currently China’s ally in the Belt and Road Initiative. It needs a strategy now rather than tactics to position itself well on South Asia’s regional chessboard – a shift away from the West, under the leadership of China, and perhaps assuming an anti-Saudi Arabia position might be a daunting task for Pakistan. India, meanwhile, is potentially a global player in decades to come. The combination of its economy, military, demography, and soft power makes it a likely long-term ally for America against China’s block. The UK would sadly continue to try to navigate its interests through the “Stop and Go” strategy between America and China.

India: If only demographic factors were to count, India alongside China and America would be the main player on the global stage in the next 20 years – with an economy the size of around $10 trillion. India, despite its brutality in Kashmir, has perhaps not lost its charm before the global eye. Until only a few years ago, when one thought about India, one related it to elements like Bollywood, IPL, curry, and the technology industry. By now, India has converted its soft power potential into a hard power benefit. This has been done very successfully in Afghanistan – a key battleground for regional dominance in South Asia, for example, where many people watch Hindi films and have even learnt the language through them. Under Modi’s government, India’s image of a recognized forward-looking and secular country has become suspect, but in the larger context, India would conceivably reassess the benefits of its soft power and continue to follow the historical upward trajectory to place itself strategically in the future world order.

United Kingdom: This is a game of kings, and the kings rule the world. For the UK, these may be Wimbledon Tennis, Shakespeare plays, Oxford, Cambridge, or the Edinburgh Literary Festival. In the early 2000s, I witnessed Chinese students who had come all the way from China to my universities, Royal Holloway and the London School of Economics, just to learn the English language. The English language became prominent because of British imperial hard power. The Chinese and others are attracted to it primarily because it enables them to achieve economic and political power in the global environment.

Evidently, US universities had the same influx of Chinese students until the recent COVID-19 crisis and friction in US-China relations. This might be an opportunity for UK universities to attract more international students to learn English and convert its soft power for more economic benefit – especially in the case that Britain decides to take an independent and partnership-based approach with China instead of towing the US foreign policy. I must say supporting US foreign policy against China to gain any favorable trade agreements would not be any different to “the cat smells a rat”.

Pakistan: Pakistan is on another trajectory. Although trying hard to rise from the ranks, Pakistan is still a long way from correcting its international image, struggling even to draw tourism, investment and general interest (although aspects like LUMS, Karakoram Range or Lahore Literary Festival have admittedly made some contribution on the global stage for Pakistan). Religious intolerance, political encroachments, constitutional breaches, and lack of acceptance of different views is continuously challenging the society to progress and evolve. Although the security situation has improved over the past few years, table talk in Singapore, London, Tokyo, or New York still revolves around Intolerance, Security, Terrorism and Afghanistan when it comes to Pakistan. Unless the basics of any society – human rights, freedom of speech, identity crisis, progressive religious knowledge, rule of law etc – are not fixed, it would be a steep challenge for Pakistan to develop its “soft power”, and benefit economically and politically of any serious magnitude. Pakistan’s constant efforts to promote its rich entrepreneurial ecosystem, technology industry and environmental efforts, among other things, rarely get any serious attention.

Current world order: ‘US is in decline and China is on the rise’ is a statement on relative terms – not in absolute terms. China might be able to challenge America’s military and economic strength in numbers, but it has a long way to go before comparing with America’s non-traditional power with its corporations (Uber, Amazon, Apple etc), universities (Cornell, Harvard, Stanford etc), Hollywood, American Academy of Arts and Sciences etc. The American educational culture and entrepreneurial corporate system have been such that it has often attracted governments and individuals into building favorable alliances; simply put, people want to associate with the best story, and the United States has always had that in the global perspective.

China would continue to do well in coming decades but it would be hard for them to pass the prominence of the United States or the West if they continue to follow the path of openness, liberal values, entrepreneurial mindset and diversified societies, which would continue to give them the edge over China from knowledge, per capita income, information and technology perspective. China might also struggle to boost its soft power because of its internal authoritarian political system. The emerging Chinese economic elite would also probably align themselves with the Western liberal values which might also jolt the existing Chinese political pillars.

Future scenarios: President Trump, if re-elected in November, might be good news for China to continue its ascendancy. Trump has already cut down the soft power budget in many ways. At the same time, America’s traditional strategy of maintaining global alliances to manage international interests has been undermined by its president. The US currently has strained relationships with Japan, South Korea, and, to some extent, India as well as with international organizations e.g. WHO and NATO. The Trump team may believe that the US could deal China a serious blow using hard power like economic sanctions, military threats and intimidating diplomacy. But this would be an expensive possibility. In case Biden wins the elections, one may expect that he would readopt some of the old soft power strategies, together with strategic alliances as well as hard power.

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