Diplomats have always tried to find ways to ease the painful side of politics, either because they believe they can make the world a better place to live or because they serve certain interests.
In the international political arena, diplomats and scholars have used the terms ‘hard’ and ‘soft power’ to portray the way nation-states exercise politics.
With a brief look at current global politics one would dismiss the term ‘soft power’. It is a term introduced by Joseph Nye, one of the most influential scholars in International Relations and policy makers in the United States. The term refers to the ability to persuade through culture, values and ideas; it is also the capacity to achieve goals through co-option. This is in contrast to ‘hard power’, which we can apply to the latest developments in Libya and the power politics demonstrated between Turkey and Israel, whose diplomatic relations have been bitter of late. Also, American foreign policy is mainly based on hard power, as for several years U.S. was the key global actor. ‘Hard power’ refers to the use of instruments like military force, coercive diplomacy and economic sanctions.
On the other side there are countries which employ cultural diplomacy and ‘soft power’ practices, in order to overcome diplomatic problems through productive intercultural dialogue. Cultural diplomacy is a methodical use of a country’s cultural characteristics in international relations. It is also a way to continue exercising foreign policy affairs in a less traditional manner, either because hard power is not enough or because of special problematic situations. An example of cultural diplomacy was the letters that Frederic II sent to Cairo’s sultan Al-Kamil in the 12th century AD. Frederic asked Al-Kamil’s opinion of mathematics, medicine, etc. His interest for the Arab culture together with his peaceful stance helped the bilateral relations at that time. Cultural diplomacy is a form of ‘soft power’ which is not controlled necessarily by governments and can result via social interaction. This process can be guided by governments and various social agents, for example non-governmental organisations, private corporations, social networks.
For some countries the use of ‘soft power’ is the easiest way for achieving long-term and investment goals. This is one of China’s main tools for strengthening its relations with Africa. The construction of infrastructure, like roads, hospitals and water works in Africa is proceeding quickly with China on its side as a strategic partner. Chinese are winning more ground in Africa, as they respect the diversity of Africa’s people. Culture, political values and diplomacy construct a successful model of this new form of power. Additionally, the Chinese interest in the United National peacekeeping operations coupled with forceful economic strategies in sectors like trade and banking (e.g. cheap loans to Africa) and the low profile demands in international politics make them a global ‘winner’. In his book on China’s soft power, J. Nye says that “success depends not only on whose army wins, but also on whose story wins”.
One of the important aspects in exercising ‘soft power’ is to understand the importance of culture. Culture is at the epicentre of global relations, particularly with geopolitical developments in the last two decades and with revolutionary changes in information technology. Firstly, because international relations have become transnational – there are a plethora of actors playing an important role besides nation-states. This change in the social norms and processes underlines the importance of culture. Secondly, increased global interdependence means not only financial interdependence (look at current financial crisis), but also social and cultural. Commitment to multilateralism desired by most states in the world cannot be achieved, unless culture is taken under consideration. The Preamble to the EU’s treaty on the European Union – Lisbon Treaty clearly states ‘drawing inspiration from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe, from which have developed the universal values of the inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law, have decided to establish a European Union’. Thirdly, successful strategies in the sector of international communications are all about cross-cultural strategies in the time of globalisation, off-shoring and rise of new political and commercial powers.
A third way between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power is the so-called ‘smart power’, a term again coined by Joseph Nye, who wrote that it is “the ability to combine the hard power of coercion or payment with the softer power of attraction into a successful strategy”. This term has been used several times by the Obama Administration. For example Hilary Clinton in her appearance at a Senate hearing spoke about the restoration of American leadership through ‘smart power’. Realpolitik failures especially in the Middle East offer a strong incentive to the U.S to reconsider the values of diplomacy and ‘smart power’.
It is not an easy task for states to leave behind ‘hard power’ and re-evaluate the gravity of democracy, culture and human rights. However, the potential of being a strong actor in the current altered international arena by achieving goals through dialogue is tempting. The results might not be imminent when exercising ‘soft power’ as this kind of strategy is a long-term one. Patience though is the most important virtue for diplomats.