Making the most of soft power

by Terence MacNamee

“Soft power” is an American idea. This is not surprising, because the Americans have been the greatest exponents of it. Soft power means cultural power, as opposed to military or economic power. If you get people to think like you, to value the same things as you, to admire you, then you don’t need to invade them with tanks or blockade them with energy embargos. As the American saying goes, “you’ve got them eating out of your hand”.

Soft power means making your culture admired. It also has to do with making your language admired – not forcing people to learn it, but making them want to learn it.

This happened often enough in the past. For example, France dominated Europe culturally and linguistically, even though Louis XIV and Napoleon ultimately failed to dominate it militarily or economically. In Asia, China dominated Japan culturally, even though it failed on a couple of famous occasions to dominate it militarily.

The Americans got off to a good start in the soft power business when they occupied Germany and Japan after the War. They managed to be constructive and respectful, and helped the former enemies to build up again. They taught them American ideas about how to run a country and an economy.

After that, there was no stopping the Americans. For decades now, popular music and mass entertainment media have all come from America. How could young people around the world fight American power when they consume American cultural products all the time, when these products determine their modern lifestyle? The other half of American soft power is, of course, the English language. Ironically enough, the Americans have never actually organized themselves to export English, whereas the British, who only travel on their coat-tails, have made it into a huge successful industry.

Funnily enough, the Americans don’t seem to have planned their soft power very much at all. Like good capitalists, they left it to the private sector. Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley did the job for them. This does not mean that other countries cannot plan their soft power. France, for example, with its Alliance Française and Francophonie, understands very well what is at stake and is very active. The Germans with their Goethe Institutes could have done just as well, but since the War they have been suffering from a national inferiority complex, and so have not pushed their language and culture as much as they might have.

China shows signs of building soft power with its Confucius institutes. To be sure, Chinese language, writing system and culture are an outstanding achievement of humanity that the rest of the world should be familiar with.

Japan could enjoy tremendous soft power but doesn’t. The Japanese have so much to offer the world, but they are still too insular and focused on themselves. “Japanese management” was a craze they failed to exploit and it seems to have fizzled out.

Other countries, including Asian countries, could be exploiting their soft power and making it count around the world. But they would have to value their own civilisations, and not just the business and technology skills which they have picked up from the West.