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Rohit Viswanath: The news about soft power

Rohit Viswanath 

In a globalised world, nations are increasingly realising the virtues of non-military means for expanding strategic influence. Military belligerence is widely disapproved of, for the material and psychological damages it inflicts on affected countries; such violence also adversely impacts the image of the bully nations. Consequently, major powers are applying non-military welfare-enhancing measures for engaging countries. These measures — collectively referred to as “soft power” in a relatively young but growing branch of literature in international relations — include development and humanitarian assistance, trade, investment, cultural and public diplomacy and people-to-people contacts. The use of soft power diplomacy was popularised by the US and Western Europe; Asian powers such as China and Japan have also been actively employing soft power in their foreign policies. In contrast, India has been a rather subdued practitioner of soft power and public diplomacy despite escalation in its global strategic relevance.

Over the last decade, the role of the media in public diplomacy has significantly expanded owing to interrelated transformations in politics, foreign relations and mass communications. The radical changes have greatly altered the meaning of power in the modern world. It has come to mean a nation’s or a leader’s image and ability to control information flow and not just military and economic power.

Information about what is occurring has become a vital commodity of international relations, just as the threat and use of military force was seen as the fundamental power resource in an international system eclipsed by the possible spar between superpowers. Needless to say, mass media has become a central source of information about world affairs. The technologies and institutions of communication that have become so central to world politics and economics over the past couple of decades have fundamentally altered the nature and sources of power and influence, both domestically and internationally. Indeed, as Marvin Kalb says, “Only a foolish leader can any longer afford to underestimate the power of news.”

Further, the coming together of ground-breaking changes in politics and communication has given birth to a new media-dominated domestic and international governing structure. This structure has been variously called medialism and teledemocracy. Some scholars have even proposed that this transformation has led to a novel trend in foreign relations, known as the “CNN effect”, whereby in crises involving an opportunity for humanitarian intervention, officials have ceded power over decision-making to the global media.

Among practitioners of this variety of diplomacy, the United States is by far the master of the art of marrying statesmanship with salesmanship. Public relations have been at the core of American diplomacy ever since the First World War. American soft power and media diplomacy efforts contributed largely to its triumph in the Cold War. In recent times, immediately after September 11, Charlotte Beers, the chairperson of J Walter Thompson Worldwide advertising agency, was named undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. Her job was explaining and selling the Bush administration’s foreign policy, especially its war on terror. Her efforts, which were considered successful by the US administration, were the largest public relations campaign in the history of foreign policy

It is also important to take note of Britain’s initiatives in its former colonies and elsewhere for projecting alternate media perceptions. The projection has been carried out by the BBC through not only their English language broadcasts but also through several local language radio stations, television programmes and online platforms.

India has, in its own way, been employing the concept of soft power to remain engaged with the world, though it seems the term is not as widely used in the Indian context. There are gaps in terms of tools used and their spread, and there does not seem any clear-cut policy direction. India’s bilateral initiatives with countries in Southeast Asia and in Africa reflect many pertinent examples of its practice of soft power diplomacy; it is seen to be more benign as compared to the efforts of China and other countries.

There are many useful lessons India can learn from American and British soft power projections and media diplomacy efforts. It might be useful to consider whether India can initiate similar efforts that would influence perceptions. India’s economic success in recent years has been in marked contrast to the West, and can easily serve as a good cause for projection, as can its sound and lasting principles of democracy.

Indian television channels are already popular in much of South Asia. It is probably time to encourage the launching of more international print editions of prominent newspapers and magazines from India. Government news agencies should expand their operations and should be given a more prominent role in diplomacy. It is also important to facilitate Indian news and media icons, who enjoy positive impressions in different parts of the region, to have regular interactions with the local media in countries across the world and also have them out there periodically. Neighbourhood concerns occupy considerable space in Indian foreign policies. A benign external environment and a stable and peaceful neighbourhood is a key driver for India’s sustained high growth. Smart news media diplomacy can go a long way to help achieve this end.

The writer is at Icrier, New Delhi

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First Published: Sun, May 27 2012. 00:57 IST