The wokeness of soft power
The content of the Global Soft Power Summit 2021 shows that progressives have turned a vague concept into another divisive label
How do you turn “soft power” into an anti-racist, anti-Western, pro-China, neoliberal, anti-Brexit aspiration? You partner with the BBC to host a soft power conference. You invite Hillary Clinton to headline it. You introduce her as “the best President we never had”. You put David Miliband on one panel. On another panel, you put David Heymann (the Labour government’s chairman of what is now Public Health England). You invite Carl Bildt to represent continental progressives. You invite Tom Tugendhat as your sole “conservative”; a Remainer who won’t disagree with your handwringing about Brexit.
The nominal host of Thursday’s four-hour conference was Zeinab Badawi of BBC World News, who repeated her favourite self-identification as “someone who was born under the African sun”. Clearly unprepared, out of her depth, and star struck, she kept fluffing her lines and circling back to criticism of the West.
Joe Nye, the author of the term “soft power”, was there too, to remind us inadvertently that the wokeness of “soft power” begins with its vagueness. Nobody would disagree with what it’s not. “Hard power” (i.e., military power) is associated with vicious “hawks”, while progressives like to paint themselves as virtuous “doves”. The concept is ancient, although Nye published the term in 1990 when he was a professor of political science at Harvard. Within years, he was serving in Bill Clinton’s administration.
Pursuing soft power might mean compromising on one’s values to appeal to somebody else’s
Nye has never defined soft power in any operationalizable way or measured it except by personal judgements. He specifies the objective as getting “other countries to want what you want”, or to “attract” others to your way of thinking. But an objective is not the same as a definition. He breaks soft power down into “culture”, “values”, and “policies”, but your culture, values, and policies appeal most to those who already share them. Meanwhile, soft power can be repellent to others. Nye himself admits that the worst despots had soft power. Moreover, pursuing soft power might mean compromising on one’s values to appeal to somebody else’s.
Nye has never provided a satisfactory guide to navigating these imperfectly competitive choices. Indeed, his later comments became decreasingly helpful. For instance, in 2012, he admired China’s rise with this contradiction: “the best propaganda is not propaganda.” At Thursday’s conference, the closest he came to giving an example of soft power is to hope for a post-Trump return to “values”. In answer to Miliband, he admitted that “hypocrisy” undermines soft power.
Clinton sometimes remembered to include “soft power” in her list of achievements, but she never defined soft power and gave only “diplomacy and negotiation” as examples.
Yet if soft power is just communication, then every state has soft power – at least, as long as any other state wants to talk. People are more likely to talk if you have hard power. Otherwise, they’re being charitable.
Most of the participants advocated charity as the main form of soft power. But then one wonders, in which direction is soft power really moving? Does the aider have soft power, or the recipient for attracting the aid? Or is it the interest groups that drive governments to virtue-signal despite the waste and counter-productiveness? Soft power ends up being used to justify itself.
At times, advocates of soft power see soft power everywhere. Tugendhat cited the use of the Union Jack to decorate mobile phones: “If that’s not soft power, I don’t know what is.” His next example was the appeal of British universities to foreign students. He pointed to foreign consumption of BBC news, but this is British soft power only if the coverage of Britain is positive, which it rarely is.
The South African legal scholar Thuli Madonsela specified “kindness” as a form of soft power. She used “social justice” interchangeably, which illustrates the woke agenda. Badawi seconded the idea that aid to Africa was soft power, charity, progressive, social justice, and all things nice.
The company behind this particular conference was selling a proprietary Soft Power Index, derived from surveys of how people rank each country by technology, political stability, and suchlike. Most respondents are essentially reporting affection or familiarity. The trouble is less in the data than the interpretation, which is blatantly partisan.
From bashing the West, the participants get to praising China
This particular Soft Power Index places Germany as global leader in 2020, partly because of its handling of Covid, says the company’s founder (David Haigh). But Germany’s government is struggling to persuade its citizens to take vaccines that it previously denigrated as too risky for the over-65-year-olds. And Germany is most culpable for the EU’s farcical acquisition and distribution of vaccines. As Haigh admitted later, Germany scores top on “stereotypes”, such as stability, which one would expect to be over-rated during an international emergency. The ranking proves the ignorance of the respondents, because the post-war republic is more unstable now than ever. Most importantly, for this conference’s organisers, Germany scores highly on various progressive markers, such as its leader’s gender.
A speaker from the New Zealand government attributed her country’s rising brand to Jacinda Ahern’s “empathetic leadership”. Ahern has enjoyed gushing coverage (from America’s public broadcaster, for instance) as an exemplar of how female, progressive, or anti-populist leaders have supposedly handled Covid better. Along the way, nobody admits New Zealand’s unique advantages (small population, low population density, remote island location, low immigration).
Haigh introduced Clinton with the gushing observation that women lead New Zealand and Germany (and that Clinton should have been the first woman to lead the US). Clinton agreed that these women are better leaders. Her explanation is that they had been “forced” to use their “emotional intelligence” to get ahead. Otherwise, women are held back by “deep attitudes” about what is “appropriate”.
Badawi responded that Clinton was a “trailblazer for women” in a country that “has not been very good in that regard”. Badawi went on to second Clinton’s delight in the women and colour of Biden’s administration. Clinton laughingly responded that Trump’s Cabinet was all “middle-aged white men” (not even close). Then she went off on the “wild conspiracies” about herself. In a particularly nauseating aside, Badawi asked Clinton whether the Duchess of Sussex would be the next “woman of colour” to enter American politics. Fortunately, Clinton didn’t know.
According to Badawi, BLM’s only objective is to end “systemic racism”. Clinton agreed, then described a racist conspiracy, part of the “vast right-wing conspiracy” she invented in the 1990s. Tellingly, when Badawi asked her to identify these conspiracists, Clinton stuttered about people who oppose change. Badawi categorised them as “white supremacists” and “terrorists”. And Clinton agreed.
Haigh and his employees kept biting their lip over the US slipping from first to sixth in soft power, but looked forward to Joe Biden fixing this. Haigh attributed the slippage to Donald Trump’s “polarisation” and the BLM riots, without a word about the Democratic Party’s polarisation, which Clinton epitomised in 2016 and epitomises today.
Nobody had any criticism for the WHO’s whitewashing of China’s lies and obstructions
Clinton started off by dismissing Donald Trump as showing “contempt” for “soft power”. She said that Joe Biden was “slowly showing what good leadership looks like”, without realising her Freudian slip. Sounding like Theresa May, she expected “steady leadership”. She promised that Biden was returning America to “norms and values”, “making democracy work for everyone”, and “deal[ing] with the big global challenges we all face”. But making democracy work for everyone doesn’t include supporters of Trump. Cue the consensus that Trump represents everything bad about the West, and that the West should be less like itself.
From bashing the West, the participants get to praising China. It started with Haigh talking up China’s prospects, even though China’s ranking has dropped from fifth to eighth. Haigh took comfort that America’s ranking “fared worse”, and that China, “in many parts of the world, is well regarded”. His main explanation is Covid diplomacy. This is perverse: China’s lies, obfuscations, and manipulation of supplies have repelled most countries. Haigh characterised China as a scion of virtuous soft power and ignored China’s hard power on its Indian border and its maritime borders (even though he scolded Britain for its imperial past).
Nobody had any criticism for the WHO’s whitewashing of China’s lies and obstructions. Heymann, for the record, worked for the WHO before he joined the Labour government. George Yeo (former foreign minister of Singapore) talked about how “East Asia” does everything best, but contradictorily criticised China’s supposedly uncooperative neighbours. Clinton, to her credit, listed China’s crimes against intellectual property and foreign sovereignty, but undermined this realism by blaming Trump’s focus on trade.
The conference ended with a speech by China’s Ambassador to Britain, full of propaganda about how well China had handled Covid, how generous China has been with its exports, and how ungraciously the West has reacted. The speech was scripted and not subject to discussion.
Britain barely featured in this conference; despite being hosted in London. Haigh’s first statement lamented the “harsh realities” of Brexit and “mixed opinions” about Britain’s “brand leader” (Boris Johnson). Tugendhat talked up Britain’s increasing soft power without crediting either Brexit or Johnson. Clinton warned that Brexit was a product of “forces” that used “disinformation and propaganda” to mislead Britons, before transferring to America to help Trump in 2016. Even in 2021, she said, Brexit makes Britain’s relationship with America “much more difficult”.
The first panellist to be introduced, Heymann, complained that Western countries (i.e., Britain) are buying vaccines for their own citizens more than for foreigners.
Similarly, Carl Bildt complained of “vaccine nationalism”. He defended the EU’s management of Covid, perversely, by pointing out that the EU kept the borders open longer than some members wanted. He strangely attributed Sweden’s soft power to its receptivity to “globalisation,” neatly skipping over the Swedish trend away from open borders.
If soft power is just about selfless charity, then progressives shouldn’t expect anything in return
In answer to a later, irrelevant question, Bildt took the opportunity to assert that the emergency had confirmed the prescription for more open borders, so that science and supplies could flow easier to solve future emergencies. He overlooked that fact that global supplies had not moved quickly or reliably enough to meet the needs of most countries, which have accelerated their decoupling and reshoring, particularly from China.
George Yeo warned that countries not sharing their vaccines “would be remembered”. He expected countries to “give their last loaf of bread, their last bag of rice” to build their brand.
This pretty much sums up progressive hypocrisy. If soft power is just about selfless charity, then progressives shouldn’t expect anything in return. Yet they’re selling soft power as something that makes the practitioner stronger.
Moreover, wealthy progressives are calling for absolute redistribution of wealth, without putting their own wealth on the line. And they’re doing so at a conference organised by a company trying to sell something, while pretending to advance transnational interests.
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