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Does Pakistan need soft power? Challenges and prospects (Part 2) July 3, 2015

Posted by southasiamasala in : Guest authors, Pakistan , trackback

Maqsudul Hasan Nuri

Pakistan lies at confluences of east, west and Central Asia. Although it has good relations with the Arab world it is intrinsically South Asian. Ties with India have to normalize as it is dragging both countries down. Since the 1990s, India has made a shift from hard power to soft power. Pakistan is a culturally diverse and rich country. It has Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic and British influences. Exhibitions, road shows, student exchanges, art, sports and cultural visits of delegations can help build the soft power of a country. Propaganda can be part of soft power, but must be based on facts to be credible. Moreover, soft power employment is less competitive and involves lesser financial and material resources. It is the power of ideas, of attraction and persuasion, that are important. But if soft power becomes too condescending the real message could be easily lost.

Democracy’s test lies in delivering through transparency, accountability and good governance. It cannot be imposed by force. Local government, transparency, corruption control and efficient governance might help in alleviating negative images and improving governance. Success will also depend on policies that open regional economies, reduce bureaucratic controls, speed economic growth, improve educational systems, and encourage the types of gradual political changes currently taking place in small countries such as Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, and Morocco. Japan and South Korea have demonstrated that democracy can coexist with indigenous Asian values.

Pakistan’s civil society is generally fragile, though lately in the lawyers’ movement in July 2008 and the rise of social media it has shown some vibrancy. Parliamentary elections of April 2013 and opening up of social media, energized civil society but the nucleus remains weak. Corporations, foundations, universities and other non-governmental organizations – as well as governments – can help nurture open civil societies. Corporations can offer technology to modernize educational systems. Its universities can establish more exchange programs for students and faculty. Foundations can support institutions of European and US studies and programs to enhance professionalism of journalists.

There is no gainsaying that poverty and low levels of education are directly correlated and are the main drivers of militancy and violence. An illiterate population is a drag on the economy and spawns a host of social ills. Thus women’s education and involvement in the economy are equally important. Also, it is important for trade, businesses and investments to flow unhindered. Where economic forces come into play they establish the dynamics of a win-win situation and tend to avoid conflict or confrontation. Pakistan can become a good land bridge between West and East Asia. The recent building of a trade corridor between China and Pakistan is a welcome step, and if and when the pipelines of TAPI and IPI become operational, they would be beneficial to the region.

Pakistan can be a tourist-friendly country as it has many picturesque places for outsiders. The historical and archaeological departments have to be re-designed to showcase historical sites. It has great scope for religious tourism for Sikh, Buddhist and Hindu pilgrims, as well as having the sites of Muslim Sufi saint and shrines. For this, the prerequisite is sound law and order, good infrastructure and interfaith harmony.

How many groupings and membership of world organizations and multinational bodies does the country hold? What contribution has it made in political, social or economic fora at the international level? How integrated is it with the world community? How active and focused are its foreign missions and what contribution do they make in global conflict resolution, mediation, peace keeping and peace building? These are all indices of soft power.

While liberals eulogize soft power benefits the realists criticize it – saying that the world faces semi-anarchy and the state remains a unitary actor; hence soft power is subservient to military power. Also, in their view, if hard power cannot succeed in attaining peace, how will soft power alone do it. There are, however, some evident limitations to employment of soft power. For one, it is still an understudied field in international relations; secondly, it is more intuited than measured, e.g., COW Project in the 1960s studied indicators of hard power but it is difficult to quantify soft power. Thirdly, in an environment of rapid political and technological change it is becoming important as evidenced in the Arab uprisings; it is not mutually exclusive but reinforcing. Therefore, the new concept of spectral power has emerged.

Hard power needs to be upgraded while soft power has to be built up incrementally and takes time. Some realists maintain that soft power is no substitute for hard power, which has the ability to intimidate, punish or bribe. They think it has been practiced often in history and still holds an appeal. But the soft power theorists on the other hand contend that the power of ideas, education and models are more appealing in changing minds. Even great empires after using force in conquest followed it up with soft power to win hearts and minds. Another criticism is that military power is essential and can sometimes create soft power: the US, for instance, after World War II undertook reforms in Japan and South Korea.

In cases of national emergency or dire threat to national security resort to hard power is essential. Again, soft power of a country may not appeal to those who have strong, aggressive and militant ideologies. E.g., North Korea is a hard military power that lacks soft power appeal. Small Nordic and Benelux countries have soft power but lack hard power (although protected under the NATO umbrella) and have appeal regarding human rights, good governance, technology, culture, aid policies and research.

Power can be conceptualized as spectral like light. Just as in the case of light, the rainbow is only visible if all the colors are represented; likewise, power is most effective when all the tools along the power spectrum, ranging from hard to soft are represented. Nye’s ‘smart power’ concept differs from this conceptualization of spectral power. Linear conceptualization allows scholars and policy makers to view all aspects of power without exclusion. They need to complement each other rather than being seen as binaries.

In short, Pakistan’s quest for soft image requires simultaneous improvement on multi-pronged fronts: political, economic and cultural. Good public diplomacy works but propaganda is insufficient; it needs to be based on solid facts in order to be credible. Countries need resources to divert energy from other pursuits. And those with chronic security issues find it hard to easily cultivate soft images. These are created through public diplomacy by effective broadcasting, exchange programs, development assistance, disaster relief, donor conferences, exhibitions, films, road shows and sports activities. Moreover, international honors and awards, attracting foreign students, international conferences, new research and patents are always useful.

Pakistan, in fact, possesses hard power, having a sizable territory, a large population and the sixth largest army, and being the sixth nuclear power. It needs to set its own house in order and deal with militancy and terrorism. Earlier, the republic of Vietnam and Sri Lanka were able to come out of dark shadows of protracted civil wars. Brazil and South Africa are faring well – buttressed by soft power elements. China is another worthy example and is performing well on hard as well as soft power. The recent Pakistan-China Economic Corridor (CPEC) Agreement (2015) is a reflection of China’s soft power in Pakistan.


Dr. Maqsudul Hasan Nuri is former President of Islamabad Policy Research Institute and presently Adviser to Centre for Policy Studies, COMSATS Institute of Information Technology, Islamabad.


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