BC’s Tales of the Pacific | Soft power in the Pacific

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WHAT do Star Wars, sushi, K-pop, Confucius institutes and Bollywood all have in common?  They are prime examples of soft power, a term that refers to a nation’s ability to affect other countries without the use of military or diplomatic coercion.  Understanding soft power will go a long way in understanding how Pacific islands interact with the outside world.

On September 11, 2001, CNN showed footage of Palestinian children cheering and dancing in the streets upon hearing that the World Trade Center had been attacked.  Finally, they shouted, someone had dealt a blow to America, the Great Satan.  Ironically, several of the children wore Spiderman t-shirts and one of them wore Nike tennis shoes.

In 2004 protesters gathered at the Cannes Film Festival to protest the American war in Iraq by demonstrating outside the premier of Shrek 2.  After the protesters dispersed, many were seen wearing giant foam Shrek ears which were given away at the theater.  

The weapons of soft power are not military, they are cultural.  It has to do with how much we admire and want to emulate another country or culture.  But make no mistake, soft power is taken very seriously in the political world.  Rather than affecting decision making by coercion, that is, making someone do something you want, soft power deals with making someone do something because they want to do it.

It also has everything to do with national coolness.  Right now, experts on the subject agree that the global leaders of soft power are England, France, United States, Japan, and Canada, the last simply because no one has anything negative to say about Canada, ever.

Looking at the others, it is clear to see how soft power works.  James Bond and the BBC project a positive, cool image of Britain, just as attaching “French” to something makes it more desirable.  Chefs are good, French chefs are better.  Wine is good, French wine is better.  Language is good, the French language is the coolest.  And anything American must be good, because nothing says success and wealth like “American.” Denim jeans are good, American jeans are better, Levi’s jeans are the best.  As the old saying goes, imitation is the best form of flattery, and these are the countries everyone imitates.

There are two countries who stand on the outside looking in at the cool group, countries who want to project the kind of soft power we are talking about but find it difficult to do so: China and Russia.  China spends more than any other country in promoting its culture abroad.  Entertainment juggernauts like Shen Yun and cultural propaganda schools such as the Confucius Institutes promote China to the outside world, highlighting the longevity and desirability of its culture.

Russia is having a more difficult time selling itself as a cool brand, mainly because very few people trust Vladimir Putin.  He is not seen as a leader worth emulating, the way everyone admires Angela Merkel of Germany or Queen Elizabeth of Britain.  It is true that Donald Trump suffers from a similar PR problem, but then people don’t admire America because of its president, whereas Putin and Russia are inextricably linked because he is the face of the nation and has been in power for twenty years.     

As power specialist Joseph Nye said, “Hard power is the ability to get others to do what they otherwise would not do through threat of punishment or promise of reward.  Soft power is the ability to get desired outcomes because others want what you want.”  So, who do you want to be like?  

BC Cook, PhD lived on Saipan and has taught history for 20 years. He currently resides on the mainland U.S.

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