South Asia and the Efficacy of Soft Power

South Asia and the Efficacy of Soft Power

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Ancient Chinese principles of war embodied in Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” preach the notion of a victory where blood need not be spilled. As the age of globalization dawns, the traditional notions of power are being altered as the art of persuasion is beginning to hold sway, more than the persuasiveness of tangible power.

The term “soft power” was coined by Joseph Samuel Nye in the last decades of the twentieth century at a time when the world was reeling from the after effects of the Cold War. He defined it as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than force”. Hence, the application of this rather benign form of state policy requires a different and unique approach as compared to the use of kinetic measures for achieving state objectives.

History is a testimony to the fact that a state derives its soft power from a past characterized with considerable hard power. Take Britain for example: the propagation of English language at the global scale is a consequence of the imperial legacy of the crown, stretching from the Americans to as far as the subcontinent. Similarly, the transition of the Soviet society from feudalism to an age of development contributed to the rise in popularity and appeal of Marxism during the twentieth century.

For Pakistan, the propagation of a better image is a daunting task in present times. The sporadic waves of terrorism combined with separatist tendencies in Balochistan continue to blemish the image of the country at a time when the country is desperate for a hint of positivity. At a time when the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is in its nascent stage and with the rise of Trump in the United States along with heightening tensions with our immediate neighbours, the use of soft power becomes paramount. On the western front, Islamabad is faced with hostile stares from both Afghanistan and Iran. Meanwhile, there is an everlasting threat from the eastern front in shape of India.

At a time when the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is in its nascent stage and with the rise of Trump in the United States along with heightening tensions with our immediate neighbours, the use of soft power becomes paramount.

Starting off at the western front, Afghanistan does not hold back its outrage. All fingers in Kabul point towards Pakistan in the aftermath of any act of extremism within its borders. The matters are not helped at all by a rocky past between the two neighbours, going all the way back to the beginning when Pakistan denied Afghans their “Pashtunistan” dream. Meanwhile, at the other end Iran continues to stare daggers at Islamabad too. It has resorted to act as a provocateur lately, by firing mortar shells and operating unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to spy on Pakistani territory. Although Iran claims to be affected by the terror threats emanating from its Eastern border, but remains oblivious to the covert support it has provided by shielding the top leaders of Al-Qaeda who caused terrorism in Pakistan.

The grass is not greener on the other side either. Delhi has already announced open opposition to the CPEC project and remains as rigid as ever when it comes to Kashmir. A history of acrimonious relations between the belligerent neighbours has led to a feeling of mistrust between the two, reinforced by historical narratives of the pre-independence era and troubled relations during early years of independence. It is deeply rooted in the strategic culture of Pakistan. The race towards nuclearisation between the neighbours shows no signs of stopping any time soon. Both the countries are in continuous struggle to move up the technological ladder and increase their non-conventional arsenal. India’s superiority in conventional terms forces Pakistan to look towards the non-conventional means in order to maintain strategic stability in the subcontinent.

However, it is worth noting that the “stability-instability” paradox suggests that stability in the upper echelons of power leads to an instability at the lower levels.

However, it is worth noting that the “stability-instability” paradox suggests that stability in the upper echelons of power leads to an instability at the lower levels. The tensions at the Line of Control (LoC) between India and Pakistan serves as the best example for this. Moreover, recent developments have fuelled suspicion in Islamabad that India is attempting to divert global attention towards Balochistan and away from Kashmir. The Kulbhushan Jadhav episode is proof enough to substantiate these suspicions.

In times like today where the consequences of a nuclear war or a conventional war are devastating, the appeal of soft power use is undeniable. The question that arises concerns ensuring peace in the region without the use of covert or obvious force. Pakistan has a window of opportunity that it can cash in this regard. The souring relations between Iran and the United States, and the potential return of General Raheel Sharif is a perfect time for Islamabad to repair its relations with Iran. Points of mutual interest can be used effectively for this purpose. These points include a stable Balochistan, trade, and use of public diplomacy, considering that both Pakistan and Iran are home to a large Shia population. Similarly, repairing ties with Afghanistan may seem a hard nut to crack on paper, but it can be done. Pakistan’s vast majority consists of Pashtun population just as Pathans are the second biggest majority in Afghanistan. It can be used as a building block to begin a series of track two diplomacy initiatives involving cultural exchange so that hostilities between the neighbours can be turned down a notch.

 The souring relations between Iran and the United States, and the potential return of General Raheel Sharif is a perfect time for Islamabad to repair its relations with Iran.

As far as India is concerned, the dissipation of ill-feelings between Pakistan and India is not something that can happen at once. It will need time and effort from both sides of the border. There have been efforts from both sides to pursue people-to-people contact and inject some friendliness to a hostile atmosphere. But not all of them have been successful. The popularity of Bollywood movies in Pakistan can be taken as a building block. Efforts can be made to introduce Pakistani dramas and art in India to raise awareness on the congruity of cultures on both sides of the border. Similarly, student exchange programs can also be considered as a viable option. Such programs tend to increase friendly feelings among students and contribute to a better understanding of the traditions and culture of the participating countries, in this case Pakistan and India. These options can prove to be fruitful because after all, we used to be one and the same not so long ago.

However, Nye equated soft power with robust economic and military strength. According to him, a country’s soft power seems more appealing when it is in a position of strength with sound political and institutional values. With this notion, Pakistan’s soft power may not be in the best place. However, the vibes for the future are positive and expectations are high. The CPEC project has introduced a fresh wave of optimism in the local populace promising them a better future. In addition, maturing political institutions and increased civic and political awareness in the populace is a sign of better things to come. The way forward is now to make Pakistan more prosperous, tolerant and enriched in every way possible so that Pakistan’s soft power can be turned into a weapon that can be yielded to serve the best interests of the nation.

Muhammad Saad
is a graduate of School of Economics of Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. He has specialized in the field of development and political economics with additional non-credit courses of Environmental Economics and Monetary Policy. Currently, he works at the CSCR.

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