Soft power as international currency

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In the arena of international relations, power was traditionally understood as force – power over others – until Joseph Nye made a distinction between hard and soft power. Hard power, he suggested, was coercion: typically, through guns and money. But there was also soft power, which he described as ‘attraction’, through which influence could be built.

In the US, soft power accrued from American values – democracy, freedom, social mobility – which were transmitted all over the world through Hollywood movies and music. As long as people were attracted to the American Dream, he said, the US would continue to be the most influential actor in the world.

Since Nye articulated the soft power concept, other countries have invested much more over the years in building their attraction to other countries – mostly through increasing their cultural spend. More than one Soft Power Index was born, measuring the relative success of different countries ability to attract tourism and investemth.

China in particular has put soft power very high in the annual budget, spending millions on framing their image abroad as a country you can trust. It doesn’t always have the desired outcome however: their Confucius Institutes (480 worldwide and climbing) have often become spaces of debate rather than education and some were closed down when local people objected to their presence.

Today soft power has become a much more nuanced concept: see here for Indra Adnan’s paper for the House of Lords which talks about the role of values and behaviour when assessing attraction. Simon Anholt’s game-changing project The Good Country Index takes it all a step further, when he suggests that each government should have a dual mandate -responsibility to its own people and responsibility to the planet we all share.

Each week, dozens of new soft power initiatives are announced in the global media. This week it was Kazakhstan’s turn. As Beth McLaughlin writes in her column entitled: Kazakh’s Library: A Bid for Soft Power:

“Ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s infamous  remark that “Kazakhs never had statehood” before 1991, Kazakhstan has been determined to showcase and celebrate its long and storied history.
Shortly after Putin’s 2014 comments, President Nursultan Nazarbayev announced a 550th anniversary celebration of the Khanate, founded in 1465. The celebration of the Khanate’s history and culture continues four years later, with a project from the Kazakh National Academic Library to promote the country’s literature at the 2017 World Expo.
The project’s organizers coordinated with Kazakh embassies abroad to establish cultural centres in select national libraries. The country established 17 new centres in 2016, and new ones continue to rapidly open. Centres now exist in countries such as China, Finland, Hungary, and South Korea. Two centres opened this year in the United States, one at the New York Public Library, and the second at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.. Future plans for expansion include the United Kingdom, Iran, Bulgaria, and Azerbaijan.
The New York and D.C. centres include books in Kazakh, Russian, and English. The collection features works about President Nazarbayev and his administration’s accomplishments, including the construction of the new capital, Astana, and the country’s hosting of the 2017 World Expo, as well as books authored by Nazarbayev himself.
Additional works profile the country’s history and culture. Famous Kazakh writers are represented, such as Mukhtar Auezov and Sabit Mukanov, as well as famous poets Abai, Shakarim and Zhambyl. Umitkhan Munalbayeva, founder of the project and head of the Kazakh National Academic Library, said in a statement for the Astana Times that, “The books will always unite the peoples and continents.”
According to the 2017 Expo page highlighting the initiative, the proliferation of the centers are indicative of the “global interest growing around Kazakhstan, Kazakh language and culture, as well as Kazakhstan’s economic development model.”

The idea of an international competition of values and beauty is certainly preferable to displays of military might. It will be interesting to see, in ten years time, if the people of Kazkhstan feel they have reaped the rewards of such expenditure!