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Choosing ‘the better evil’? The contrast effect and the relative nature of soft power

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It is an established article of faith in the discipline of international relations that in formulating their foreign policies, in selecting certain courses of action over others, and especially when it comes to the business of forming allies and selecting trading partners, states do so through a rational analysis of costs and benefits to be obtained from selecting one “partner” over another (Diego, 2010: 265).

States broaden their appeal not only through coercive means such as military or economic power, but also through means of persuasion; what is termed soft power. This paper deduces from this that there exists what may be called a contrast effect that renders one state more favourable to another as a choice of ally or partner than another specific state. Therefore, in line with such a logic, soft power can be said to be relative as well as relational; it is, in other words, a foreign policy instrument that should not be looked at as an absolute phenomenon but by way of comparing, and denoting that each state’s soft power advantage comes about due to the soft power of another state being diminished in the subjective perception of the appraising state. Observed in these terms, we can go so far as to deduce that the negative image of one state can help benefit that of another. Thus the concept of soft power can be said to include at least three actors at any given moment: the appraising actor, as well as at least two actors being actively compared to one another in terms of their appeal, or soft power, qua being a potential ally, a trading partner or any other relational role than can be entered into with the appraising state.

In order to make its case, the paper will conjure up the concept of soft power as articulated by Joseph Nye and as elaborated on by subsequent commentators, and then articulate the concept as it may pertain to the theses laid out in this paper. Secondly, the paper will explicate what may be said to be a contrast effect in the observed tendency of states to weigh their options and pursue, or abandon, one course of action over another, and therefore select some allies/partners over others. The paper will then synthesise these two notions and seek to show instances in history, and contemporary international affairs, that may be said to be proof of the argument being made. Finally, the paper will evoke and subsequently incorporate some possible scenarios that can be said to not fit within the thesis. By way of conclusion, the paper will offer discuss methods through which the thesis can be evaluated.

Soft power in context

Apart perhaps from the description of the international arena as anarchic, the concept of soft power has become one of the mainstays of international relations scholarship – and practice. Though there is some debate over the idea (Paruk, 2014: 57), it has enjoyed a near-unanimous acceptance amongst scholars. Soft power is a concept developed by Joseph Nye in the wake of the end of the Cold War to describe the usage of diplomacy to attract and co-opt as opposed to coercion, what is traditionally understood to be hard power – military, economic sanctions and isolation. In Bound to Lead (1990), Nye wrote that “when one country gets other countries to want what it wants might be called co-optive or soft power in contrast with the hard or command power of ordering others to do what it wants.” The concept was further developed in his subsequent Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (2004). In other words, soft power is the ability to shape the preferences of other states by appeal and attraction to one’s cause. Sources of soft power may include the attractiveness of a particular culture, the political ideals of the country or international policies, such as democracy and human rights championing, or indeed “policies that include the interests of others” (Nye, Creehan and Rahman, 2003: 46). Others have elaborated on this concept and added such phenomena as developmental models and trajectories as possible sources of soft power. Thus it may not be the wealth of a state that makes it more likely to get its way (that would be hard power), but the manner in which it has garnered it as well as the potential application of that model to other states’ own domestic settings. This is particularly said to apply to China, which has been lauded as a source of inspiration for the “global South”, which is in search of development along the lines of China (Monsoon, 2009).

Though the US and Europe are the soft power centres of the world (Nye, 2003), in The Charm Offensive (2008), Joshua Kurlantzick painstakingly details the manner in which China has been using its soft power to garner trade partners the world over. In the past twenty-five years China has increasingly harnessed and spread its cultural appeal in its places as diverse as Thailand and Africa. Through an investment of over a billion dollars, such media outlets as Language Exchange programmes, the Beijing Review magazine and the CCTV network have been established in order to foster foreign consumption of news and narratives from a Chinese political and economic perspective.

South Korea has also been on an active path to heighten and make the most of its soft power around the world. Among the most prominent of its moves is perhaps the usage of ‘gastro-diplomacy,’ through which South Korea has literally vied for “access to mouths” in places such as the US, Canada and Europe. Perhaps the Korean pizza waffle is the most salient exemplar of this; in under a decade, between 2000 and 2016, about 2,000 Korean pizza waffle restaurants have been opened in the US and Europe, as well as Africa. This has helped export a bit of Korea to the rest of the world. And it has had the added benefit of bringing in more tourists who want to see more of the country’s vibrant culture (Harthone, 2016).

There can be such a notion as “too much soft power”, however. As Nye, Creehan and Rahman (2003: 46-47) elaborated “Soft power, however, is not without its costs. It can create a backlash if there is a feeling of cultural domination or imperialism, and…it is worth noticing that US culture is not attractive in all parts of the world. For instance, in conservative Islamic states, there is much about Hollywood that is unattractive.”

There have since been criticism of Nye’s theoretical framework of soft power. For example, the historian Niall Ferguson discounted it as being “well, soft” (in Nye, 2003: 74). But one of the more sound criticisms came in Mingjiang Li’s 2009 book, Soft Power: China’s Emerging Strategy in International Politics. Li paid particular attention to Nye’s conceptualization of soft power, making the case that “soft power does not exist in the nature of certain resources of power but rather it has to be nurtured through a soft use of power” (2009: 3), and adding further that soft power “has to be intentionally cultivated through prudent use of all sources of power available in certain social relationships” (2009: 3). There has also been criticism that “Nye did not provide a clear line between the two, which leaves the definitions blurred. By way example they indicate that “if country A provides economic aid to country B without explicitly or implicitly asking for any favor in return, is that soft power or hard power for country A?”” (Paruk, 2014: 57). But these criticism, and almost very self-consciously, do not discount the existence of soft power but rather are perplexed as to how it may be said to work. The first point of criticism may be said to expand the concept of soft power and in no way disproves it, but rather, in much the same fashion as the present paper, looks into various other means through which soft power is incarnated. In responding to the latter point, Nye has stated that soft power is not a substitute for soft power, but the two may coexist and complement one another. For example, hard power was necessary in pushing back against the Taliban in Afghanistan, but attraction of moderate Muslims to the US’s course can only take place through soft power means (Nye, 2003: 76).

The contrast effect

Israel is lauded as the only true democracy in the Middle East. South Korea is seen in high esteem in its sharp distinction from its bellicose neighbour to the north in the form of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Germany has gained an image as a welcoming society since taking in the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees which its European Union counterparts turned away. And neutral Switzerland is much celebrated in light of the historically war-prone neighbours which surround it in continental Europe. The negative image of one state, or indeed more states, can make another seem rather more positive. That is the thesis of this paper. In selecting allies, for example, states do so through a continuous measuring and assessment of their present partner vis-à-vis a potential alternative. This is the case made by Henrickson, in a contributory chapter to the edited volume, The New Diplomacy (2005), when stating that “public diplomacy should therefore be thought of as a form of engagement – intellectual engagement, as well as political and social engagement. Minds, as well as hearts, must be won. The ‘power of the better argument’ should thus be considered integral to the concept of public diplomacy” (Henrikson, 2005: 71; italics added). And while it is indeed true that we live in an era of multilateralism, in which states tend to maintain diplomatic relations with all other states, and in the wake of the United Nations states tend to cooperate with almost all other states in the world, even if indirectly, nevertheless, there is also the inescapable reality that multilateralism has its limitations and global landscapes sometimes present scenarios in which states have to select one partner over another. For example, in pursuing regime change in Iraq, the United States found that that notion did not enjoy universal appeal, and was forced to go at it with minimal support from a “coalition of the willing”. Indeed, scarcely has the world ever agreed upon anything – from the Kosovo Question, to lack of cooperation in the Syrian crisis we are reminded of this even in our own modern world with its monuments to common ground. The United Nations is, apart from being a wishful notion, a kind of oxymoronic expression.

Pursuing the better of two (or more) evils…

In the late eighteenth century, the Russian Empire was engaged in several wars against Persia, in which among Russia’s allies were the small kingdoms of Georgia. In 1783, the chief kingdom of Georgia placed itself under Russia, and by 1881 its sovereign, King George XIII, reached the decision that Russia annex his territory (other Georgian principalities were soon taken over by Russia through conquest). With it being clear that domination by an external party was imminent, King George made the decision that he would rather have his territory be taken over by the Russians rather than by the Persians; a decision which may have been driven by Russia’s comparative appeal over Persia – the Russians, like the Georgians were Christian, and had a longer history of engagement and cultural confluence with Georgia, as opposed to the Persians who were Shiite Muslims (Seton-Watson, 1961:19).

The Cold War was an international order sublimely self-aware in its being characterised by the question of soft power as the two superpowers were looking to not only outspend, outwit and ultimately outshine each other so as to attract allies at the expense of the other, but also to out-embarrass the other for the same ends. Each sought to obtain new allies based not only on its own merits, what we may today refer to as soft power, that it thought itself to have, but also on the failings of the opposition. The anti-Soviet propaganda associated with McCarthyism was not only restricted to the US domestic front but also exported to other parts of the world, and even the USSR’s backdoor and satellite regimes, in Eastern Europe through the construction and sponsoring of radio stations such as Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty (Urban, 1997).

It is clear from this that a state or any other international actor may see itself obtain soft power, or make gains in its soft power standing, without making any change to its own behaviour, but by there instead taking place a decline in the soft power of a competitor state or organisation. Indeed, some nations were founded on basis of the “contrast effect” and the relativity of soft power. For example, in the nineteenth century, in 1861, King Moshoeshoe of baSotho, predecessor to the present-day Lesotho, repelled by the prospect of annexation by the Dutch-settler republic of Orange Free State (Davenport, 1981: 105), asked that his territory be annexed by the British. The request was initially refused by the British High Commissioner Sir Philip Wodehouse, but in time events necessitated the incorporation of Basutoland and the kingdom gained protectorate status in 1868; while eventually all around it, the white supremacist South African regime enclosed and formed the eventual apartheid Republic of South Africa. Interestingly, and speaking to the significant soft appeal that the apartheid regime lacked but an ideal democratic South Africa possessed, plans were allegedly made for a union of Lesotho and South Africa after the dismantling of apartheid, but for various reasons these never came to fruition (Lemon, 1996: 263).

In the sections to follow, the paper will provide instances in contemporary international relations, which serve as examples of the relative nature of soft power. Each section will present the triadic relationship (A: X v Y) necessitated by the nature of soft power – the subheadings denote the appraiser actor as well as the two actors being weighed.

BRICS: Nigeria v South Africa

The African continent is on the main dominated by two economic giants – South Africa and Nigeria. When the decision was made to add an African country to the BRIC associaiton, then the four-state grouping of the fastest growing economies in the world, it was these two states which were obviously up for incorporation. No doubt, South Africa’s political openness, redistributive policies, human rights record, voluntary abandoning of nuclear programme and peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy were key contributors in the inclusion of the republic as opposed to its West African counterpart which at the time had a still lacklustre human rights record and was characterised by unpredictability and the memory of military involvement in political life. The choice of South Africa over Nigeria, or any other Sub-Saharan African country, as a BRICS partner was therefore motivated by “the soft power bequeathed by its peaceful transition to democracy” as well as strong institutions which gave it the mantle of being the “go-to partner in Sub-Sahara Africa” (Draper, 2011: 209).

Africa: EU/US/West v China/BRICS/East

If there is any continuity for Africa relating to trade between the Cold War and post-Cold War era, it is that Africa continues to sees itself as being in a position of dependency. Africa accounts for only about 2.4 per cent of global production and trade (Brazil alone in 2014 accounted for 2.8 percent [Roux, 2014: 178]), and most of this trade is from imports. Through the asymmetrically-determined architecture of international trade, African states are denied external markets. Since “the West” determines and sets the rules, African states have been goaded into accepting terms of trade that are unfavourable to their growth (Sasaoka 2006). For example, the increasing pursuit of self-preservation closed off any prospect that the July 2008 Doha Development Round negotiations of the WTO would conclude in a manner that would be beneficial to Africa – and it did not, as agricultural tariffs were only removed for one good, bananas, imported to EU countries and the US from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean (Shah 2013). Added onto this reality is the fact that EU and US governments subsidize the agricultural sector, in which Africa has a natural niche (or comparative advantage to use World Bank and IMF parlance [Shah 2013]). This means that diversifying the African economy will prove very difficult; indeed it already has because African producers find that they cannot compete with the much cheaply-produced Western products in the Western markets (Brass 2008). Furthermore, European and American multinational corporations also come to have a crowding out effect in domestic African markets (Wilkinson, 2014).

Through partnership agreements such the Cotonou Partnership Agreement which was signed in 2000, the European Union provides African countries with access to some of its markets and “asks for compliance with a given set of good governance norms and procedures” (Gokcekus and Suzuki 2013). The relations are asymmetrical as African countries quite clearly need the partnership more than Europe needs concessions from African countries. The asymmetric relationship has thereby given the EU the power to impose on African countries what they deem better governance practices; as did the World Bank and the IMF through structural adjustment programmes (Gokcekus and Suzuki 2013).

Such realities have made the continent’s leaders seek to pursue an alternative route, towards partners who would provide trade while not at the same time “enforcing” structural adjustments, which are deemed to represent an interference akin to “neo-colonialism”. The perceived alternatives have been BRICS, especially India and China. Who have increasingly come to become major players in the African scene. And in terms of soft power, “by contrasting their motives of ‘solidarity’, ‘mutual-benefits’ and a fairer international trade system with a more negatively viewed West with neo-imperialist intentions China and India have been able to portray themselves in a positive light whilst validating their rhetoric of ‘mutual gains’, ‘respect for sovereignty’ and ‘equality’ between recipient and donor” (McCarthy, 2011: 16; italics added).

The anti-West and anti-Bretton Woods turn in Africa is particularly salient of soft power because these states and institutions have more in their financial coffers, physical capital, and are clearly willing to dish it out to African states, and yet due to historical experiences with the Washington-based financiers, sub-Saharan African countries are increasingly opting to pursue a course quite intentionally meant to distance themselves from the organisations for the less financially-studded but clearly more attractive route of BRICS, and even regional organisations such as the African Union, ECOWAS and SADC (Roux, 2014).

Other considerations

Why do states pursue amicable relations with organisations and states that are not doing good for them as opposed to pursuing alternative allies as our understanding of soft power would suggest? Such a dilemma – as seen for example in the tendency of former colonies to pursue asymmetrical trade relations with their former colonisers (Miller, 1966), as opposed to arranging more balanced and mutually beneficial ones with other states with whom such a history does not exist – may prove anathema to the very concept of relative soft power, if not the idea of rational choice theory itself.

Nevertheless, we should note not only the informational paucity that may be at work, but also the subjective nature of the act of weighing options on the part of the appraiser state, as well as the expense of abandoning one course of action over another. Equally significant is the fact that the path from conception to action is a rather gradual one, whose outcomes are not usually constant; made more so by the asymmetrical nature of information. It is also possible that the variables external observers such as scholars take note of are in fact only a small portion of the calculus being performed by the policymakers of appraiser state.

There have also been cases of mixed appraisals of external states by different sections within the population, as well as among the policymakers themselves. This is true of the US-Iran relationship under the Obama Administration during which the President is argued to have had a divergent view on the Iran nuclear deal and indeed pursued a settlement with the Middle Eastern country in spite of opposition from Congress. Another is when the IMF loans which received considerable opposition from the Greek public were accepted by the government regardless; or indeed in the Philippines where the Duterte government has sought to propound a substantially more pro-China policy, whilst polls continue to show that the US enjoys the most favourable ratings in that country than any other populace in the world (Pew Global Indicators Database, 2016). The first lesson to be gleaned from this is the extent to which soft power is not a straightforward phenomenon, and one with many areas in wait for further elaboration and study, and the second speaks to the dilemmas presented by the confluences and divergences between domestic considerations and international aspirations as part of the great ongoing (and probably irresolvable) debates in international relations scholarship.

Sometimes states have seemed to have no preference between one state or an alternative; something which may prove contrary to the argument being made in this paper. For example, after coming into power, Ayatollah Khomeini came to the conclusion that his newly declared Islamic Republic of Iran would uphold an alliance with neither the communist Soviet bloc, nor the capitalist West. Declaring them both to be “Satans”, he chose to pursue the policy of non-alignment. Do moves such as this – of states choosing none of the so-called options available to them – disprove the concept of relative soft power? No. To further elaborate on the Iran case, it is worth noting that the Cold War was between more than just two actors, but really between three; the excesses of both the communists and the capitalists proved unappealing to some and thereby bred a third actor in the Cold War struggle, the Non-Alignment Movement. This is an example of an instance wherein there is more than two actors being weighted in terms of relative soft power by the appraising actor. And it is also worth noting that in speaking of the two “Satans”, the Ayatollah, in precisely the relativistic outlook spoken of in this paper, differentiated between them and offered differential rankings with the US being the “greater Satan” and the Soviet Union being the “lesser Satan”. And is this outlook, this weighing of degrees of compromise that each relationship may bring as opposed to another, not the way that states – African states towards the US and China, Bangladesh towards India and Pakistan, or Turkey towards the US and Russia – are want to think of, though not necessarily go so far as to label, their potential allies and partners?

Conclusions

Conceptualising the war on terror as being really a war between moderate and extremist Muslims, Joseph Nye himself long stated that “the United States must adopt policies that appeal to moderates and must use public diplomacy more effectively to explain common interests to would-be allies in the Muslim world” (2003: 75), in other words it must heighten its appeal vis-à-vis the moderate Muslims who stood to gravitate towards the extremists if the US appeared too “hawkish” in its conduct of the campaign against terrorism; especially if the US invaded (as it was then still planning to invade) Iraq. In essence, much of what this paper has done is elaborate on the obvious. Realists have long argued that economic and military – that is to say hard – power is to be looked at in relative as opposed to absolute terms; such is the root of the security dilemma in many ways. The thesis argued here, that there exists such a thing as the relative nature of soft power, is one that is quite elemental in many scholars’ understanding of power in international relations; it has taken this paper to only articulate and raise some of the dilemmas it poses as well as explicates. To be sure, in showing that soft power is a dynamic and nominally a tripartite relationship, it has also raised the important dilemma of at what point can we state that an actor has lost its soft power appeal. In other words, what is the threshold point of soft power loss? A way, if only perhaps a complicated one, of resolving the dilemma would be for a set of indices which would measure the relative soft power of one actor in relation to another in the outlook of a given state.

Bhaso Ndzendze is the Research Director at the University of Johannesburg-Nanjing Tech University Centre for Africa-China Studies (CACS). His research interests include international economics, security studies, and International Relations methodology and he has taught and written on Africa-China relations, the politics of the Middle East, soft power, and the war on terror among other topics at the University of the Witwatersrand. His work has appeared in numerous journals and in the popular press including Business Day, Mail and Guardian, The Sunday Independent and The Mercury among others. His most recent publication is the Beginner’s Dictionary of Contemporary International Relations.

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The Dilemma of Science Diplomacy: Between Advancement of Humanity and The Source of Rivalry

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In the past decades, science and technology have gained more ground in foreign affairs decision making processes. The emergence of more complex global problems has raised awareness that policymakers need to collaborate with researchers and scientists to create effective solutions. This is where the term science diplomacy has become increasingly noticeable over the years. The complicated challenges are faced by numerous countries simultaneously; therefore, both inter-state collaboration and scientific evidence are considered indispensable to overcome those challenges, thus, bringing science to the foreground of policy-making. Science diplomacy is then expected to close the gap by presenting a contemporary approach to global challenges. The existence of science in diplomacy conveys two important promises: scientific advice and networks that could help build the world better amid the complexity of transnational issues and leverage that international actors can use to strengthen their foreign policy.

However, these two promises contradict each other as bestowing political power in science makes it laden with interests. By using science diplomacy, states will be confronted with the dilemma of either using science to improve the life of people or using science to pursue their national interests. This article will further analyze this dilemma on how science and technology are imperatively needed to resolve global challenges. Yet, at the same time, its existence becomes one of the sources of power that create a rivalry between states.

The Extent of Science Diplomacy in International Affairs

The development of science and technology is pivotal in solving complex human issues at both national and international levels. However, innovative inventions resulting from scientific evolution need to be acknowledged by policymakers and put into policy implementation first before they can be advantageous for overcoming global challenges. In this case, diplomacy could be one field of policy and decision-making where science can appear both as transformative solutions for international issues or as leverage tools for states to achieve domestic gains, which then refers to as science diplomacy. Simply put, science diplomacy is the use of scientific collaborations among nations to address common problems facing 21st-century humanity and to build constructive international partnerships. According to Legrand and Stone, science diplomacy is not limited to exchanges only between states, but the practice has been unfolded to have wider global policy ramifications.

Over the last 15 years, the involvement of researchers as transnational actors in public policy and global governance are increasingly visible and making a distinguishable impact in various dimensions, including social, political, and economical. The increasing entanglement of science in diplomacy is caused by three main factors as follows:

  1. The growth of transnational challenges. Recent international issues tend to spread and transgress national borders. For instance, concerns about cyber security, the transmission of disease, labor migrations and digital communities indicated how states had developed higher levels of interdependency towards each other. These are all matters that demand the implementation of sophisticated scientific knowledge.
  2. The disaggregation of transnational policy-making. Although powerful sovereign actors are still considered the most important actors in the international arena, non-state actors’ emersion started gaining influence as significant players in managing policy challenges. This creates an opening where new subjects can be integrated into transnational relations, necessarily science and technology.
  3. The turn to science diplomacy. The science paradigm is rarely contested when disputes over transnational issues occur. This circumstance started shifting when the rationalist traditions within public policy were ascending. As a result, scientific advice in understanding government challenges becomes matters to create policy responses related to economic inequality, social unrest, or depletion of natural resources.

The extent of science diplomacy’s contribution to international affairs ranges in countless essential issues. Cross-border partnerships and multinational research networks have accomplished consequential scientific discovery: from gene-edited plants that could endure climate change to the identification of SARS Coronavirus and the formulation of its vaccines in less than two years. Recently, the involvement of science in diplomacy has made a significant impact in improving global health. Cooperation between governmental and non-governmental public health experts with diplomats and political leaders successfully assisted the dealing with some health challenges such as HIV/AIDS, the spread of the infectious Ebola Virus and MERS, as well as managing swine flu through coordinated global response.

Further, science diplomacy has also been impacting economic dimensions. Initiatives conducted by governments and foundations along with United Nations have successfully employed technology to reduce extreme poverty. The rapid growth of digital technology also fortuitously generates new opportunities for people in the least developed countries. In environmental dimensions, The Paris Agreement was another accomplishment facilitated by science diplomacy and considered a game changer in dealing with climate change. The successful narratives above show how scientific research could eliminate major global challenges and save human lives. Undeniably, the integration of science in diplomacy become imperatives approach currently in improving humanity.

Science in Diplomacy: Creating Rivalry

Away from its contribution to solving major global challenges, the existence of science could also be the source of power which function to leverage states in international relations. According to Royal Society, science for diplomacy enables actors to conceive science as a means to cultivate or even improve international relations between states. However, the usage of science in diplomacy could not be separated from political objectives. This is in line with Nye’s argumentation which stated that the strategy of using science is pursued with genuine scientific interest, yet strategic political goals clearly champion the approach. Consequently, science in and for diplomacy drew a paradox, for it can be seen only as a way to exploit science in international political affairs to achieve national interests.

Science is inherently neutral and perceived as a force for good. Royal Society also claimed that science offers a non-ideological setting for interaction and free idea exchange, regardless of ethnic, national, or religious roots. The integration of science in policymaking has inflicted a political dimension into it; hence their neutrality is questionable. Nevertheless, by bestowing political objectives upon science, it can become a powerful tool to leverage states’ bargaining power. In this case, science becomes a source of contested power that creates rivalry. This was clearly seen during the Cold War Period when the United States and Uni Soviets attempted to attain nuclear and space capacities to maintain their hegemony.

The current trajectory of science in international relations is internalized much the same way, particularly when science and technology are growing at a breakneck speed. Looks at the Technology War between the United States and China, where both countries compete to increase their science capacity. As China gains more ground in technological developments, Xi Jinping Government is increasingly being reckoned in global political affairs. Its presence is welcomed progressively in Global South as a key player in building a digital backbone. China is even considered a systemic threat by the US following its increasing domination over science and technology. This narrative showed how science became a contested power which could leverage states’ position in the international arena. Thus, science diplomacy should be understood as something other than a contemporary approach to resolving the complex global issue. It also needs to be addressed as the source of rivalry among states.

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Feminist Foreign Policy: A moment of introspection

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Those who are aware of Feminism would understand that it is not just a cozy club of women, where only conversation related to women’s issues talks place. Some would even contest that it is a club, feminism is like a school with a different department, focusing on a different area of research. Liberal, Radical, Ecofeminism, Standpoint, Structural, and Black feminism are a just few schools within feminism that approach issues from different perspectives. On the one hand, the diversity within Feminism is its strength. But this can also become a challenge if not handled properly. However, in today’s geopolitical climate where we see rising insecurities due to global challenges like migration, climate change, populism, inflation, and threat to women’s autonomy, we need an approach that addresses these complex challenges through a contextual, incremental, and culturally based perspective. We need a global approach with local solutions that deal with both domestic and international simultaneously. Hence, Feminist Foreign Policy (FFP) is likely to play an important role in the contemporary uncertain political atmosphere, by creating a sense of solidarity, sisterhood, and inclusiveness among global citizens.

Feminist Foreign Policy

FFP is not just a foreign policy that aligns itself with selective feminist values, but a way of conducting foreign policy via diplomatic relations that respects feminist principles such as human rights, diversity, inclusive governance, non-discrimination, anti-colonialism, anti-racism, indigenous rights, climate justice, and anti-militarization. It is not just about representation, but equally about principles of equity and agency, which unfortunately is neglected in the practice of contemporary foreign policy.

But before addressing the dilemma associated with the questions, it’s vital to explain one major issue that will essentially come when we talk about Foreign Policy, that is ‘National Interest’. Many conversations become redundant about foreign policy when National interest comes into the picture, it is the bottom line or the only religion that states are allowed to follow. Heresy is not an option that states are privileged enough to practice in what they see as an anarchic international system. Many scholars have debunked the masculine perspective of international politics. Feminist scholar like J. Ann Tickner have argued in favor of the feminist narrative in International Relations for ‘constructing an ungendered or human science of international politics which is sensitive to but goes beyond both masculine and feminine perspectives.’ FFP shifts the idea of national interests by emphasizing what feminist scholar like Soumita basu states ‘gender as a national interest’. This essentially brings forth the inequalities that different gender experience during conflict and war. FFP had redefined how peace, security, and power are perceived by challenging existing perspectives in foreign policy and diplomacy, such as the domination of patriarchy via skewed gender representation, and values that privileges masculinity over feminine characteristics. Focusing on positive peace, human security, and power as a social good is how feminists have challenged the status quo, at all levels; society, national, and international. This becomes possible by working closely with activists, academia, and INGO networks.

FFP in practice: Focusing on representation, resources and rights

We have seen FFP making some progress in the field of Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferations which are heavily dominated by men propagating statist-discourse of Nuclear Weapon States (NWS). Scholars like Conway and Minami have argued for adopting FFP because it deconstructs the notion of masculinity like strength, violence, and aggression from the field of Nuclear security. Due to this, the process of nuclear disarmament has been seen as feminine, weak, and emasculated for the norms and ideals it upholds. FFP here helps to promote gender perspective in multilateral forums, where negotiations and discussions takes place. It focuses on the issue of nuclear disarmament by emphasizing increasing women’s representation, and norms mainstreaming. Women diplomats try to influence the process, be it in the form of better negotiations, essential deals, more checks, or even creating an environment of trust. This was seen during the JCPOA deal with Iran, where women representatives were involved. One prominent example was the role of women diplomats like Wendy Sherman for the U.S., Helga Schmid, and Federica Mogherini from Europe in finalizing the JCPOA deal with Iran, adding to the work of their successor Catherine Ashton from the EU. This was a case of women trying to get the best deal to ensure sustainable peace. Furthermore, FFP also emphasizes on ‘inclusion’ of small states, particularly Non-Nuclear Weapons states(NNWS) and Civil society organizations(CSO) which stresses on the gendered impact of nuclear weapons, and the humanitarian perspective, influenced by feminist characteristics. A treaty like the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) has been used by NNWS to maximize their interests at forums, for them, these forums act as a resource. Butale emphasizes that treaties such as TPNW is more gender-sensitive as compared to Nuclear Ban Treaty, NPT, and other nuclear policies. Since the TPNW entered into force on 22 January 2022, it has been ratified by 91 states, and 68 state parties. It adds to the existential nuclear disarmament regime but without the existing P5 states, and helps to delegitimize nuclear weapons through moral and political means. This is a long struggle of activists and NGOs where feminists worked together, and now through FFP, we have a renewed focus on women’s representation not only in diplomatic negotiations, but even in INGOs and civil society to ensure gender equality, equity, and diversity in social and political movements. Representations among CSO has seen progress, where out of 143 CSOs, we see equal representation in 17 CSO, more female than men in 42 CSOs, and 29 CSOs with all female.   

On the one hand, we have seen encouraging signs with increasing countries following FFP or adopting feminist perspectives, mainly countries from the global north, and some in the global south such as Mexico adopting FFP. However, we have also seen the pioneer of the FFP, Sweden under its right-wing government scraping FFP. There still remains many contradictions while pursuing FFP, the recent abstention of Mexico from the vote on the expulsion of Iran from Commission on the Status of Women points towards a dissonance when it comes to following the policy to the words. Challenges will rise with the current global scenario becoming more polarised, where we would see culture, and politics intermingling together both at the domestic and international level. This trend has already manifested itself on social media leading to exaggerated and accelerated clash between conservatives and feminist values, between political parties and interests groups domestically, and liberal-democratic and conservatives government across the world. Any movement across the globe now is seen threatening the stability of a regime. The revolution led by the brave women of Iran against the Hijab and supported by governments of democratic states is now seen as a symbol of destabilising countries, rather than solidarity.

The way forward

There exist some negatives within FFP that needs to be addressed to make it more acceptable without compromising its basic principles. Taking a skewed approach, essentializing gender as the category of prominence and institutionalizing this category at the center of policy and decision-making has not been marketed well. The current approach projects a reality of binaries between men and women, which essentially creates a backlash. FFP must move beyond this binary, towards greater inclusion.  Unfortunately, it brings the existing problems that feminists have faced in ‘Peacebuilding’ with the domination of western narratives, funding, and implementation of liberal values bereft of indigenous connection. To address this FFP need to engage with local and indigenous culture’s knowledge systems that give agency to local actors and stakeholders, and avoid imposing ‘North’s’ FFP framework as a template for the Global south. FFP can work on sharing best practices, funding, and giving a platform to marginal voices at International Institutions. Mainstreaming voices in diplomacy and foreign policy that are traditionally neglected, focusing on two E’s and one ‘D’ and ‘I’ should be the focus going forward; Equity, Equality, Diversity, and Intersectionality. This will help bridge the existing conversation and create a foreign policy-making process holistic and fair.

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Diplomacy

Commercial Brands as a Soft Power Tool

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A state’s international image is its main “soft power” attribute. By developing this well-known concept, countries can create prospects for national investment, and therefore wealth for their country. Nowadays, commercial brands may constitute a powerful tool in the hands of diplomats, who bet on using soft power as a means to exert their nation’s ideological influence onto other states and their people.

The concept of soft power is often used today in the sphere of international relations as a public policy tool. The term was coined by American researcher Joseph Nye in 1990 in his book, “Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power”. Nye claims that culture plays an important role in foreign policy, which is not surprising because while it is possible to change the economy and political course of a country, it is quite difficult to change its culture. The cultural nature of conflict is a source of global contradictions. In “The Clash of Civilizations and Remaking of the World Order”, renowned political scientist Samuel Huntington concludes that the clash of civilizations will be the main cause of international confrontations based on differences in culture, religion and traditional values.

Through the concept of soft power, an “attractive” image of a secular and prosperous state is promoted in order to “tactically” influence other countries and their people. As Joseph Nye simply explained, soft power is the ability “to make others want what you want.”

An engaged and educated society, advanced technology, developed infrastructure, protected cultural heritage, high level of social support for the state, and active country involvement in tackling global issues on the sustainable development agenda are the strongest elements of a country’s soft power.

The commercial sector is heavily influenced by this concept, and corporations and states have the potential to control the masses through major brands as leverage.

Not Everyone Benefits from Globalization

The phenomenon that is “globalization” can also be used by some governments as an excuse to violate the sovereignty of other states. They play the “globalization” card and use it as an argument against any country that is not prepared to cooperate on an issue in their unipolar sphere of interest.

Countries interested in spreading their production without considering the national needs and values of other cultures and perceive the world as a “one featureless market”, are the first to benefit from globalization and the blurring of cultural boundaries. Many countries therefore limit the impact this has on their citizens, trying to protect them from an imposed value system that wipes out historical memory and cultural identity, that is so emphatically defended by UNESCO as “living heritage”. China’s internet policy, “The Great Firewall of China”, is a clear example of such protection measures in practice. Considering the uncomfortable technological sophistication that China has achieved for several countries, internet policy has become primarily a matter of security.

Additionally, Chinese national television focuses on broadcasting picturesque landscapes and the beauty of its great culture, encouraging the Chinese population to value nature, as well as domestic tourism, rather than simply showing endless commercials for industrial products. China is the only civilization in the world that has not interrupted its development by succumbing to other, notably Western, soft power influences. Today, China strives to carefully pass down its world-view ideas across generations, one of which being “āntǔ-zhòngqiān (or love of homeland and unwillingness to leave it).

Almost Everyone Today is a customer

Today, the big commercial brands are geared towards a global community in which almost everyone has purchasing power. Year after year, despite a myriad of global challenges, the world population is making tremendous progress in terms of living standards.

In April 2022, the World Bank updated its global poverty estimates for 2018 (prior to the Covid-19 pandemic) on the new Poverty and Inequality Platform (PIP), showing that global poverty rates (those living below a daily income of $1.90) was 8.6%, down from 2017’s 9.1%. In other words, this is equivalent to 28 million people pulled out of poverty in over two years. Comparing earlier periods, the global poverty rate fell by 4.3% between 2012 and 2018.

People today live better than have before, which means they buy more. However, the impact commercial brands play in shopper purchases goes far beyond the numbers.

Brand with a Human Face

Today we are witnessing brand humanization with 24/7 customer feedback. No longer is the aim of big trading companies to enter into a money-for-good relationship with its customers, but rather it is to gain customer loyalty and, if necessary, change political and social attitudes.

According to the American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s pyramid of needs, people need to belong to a social group through which they can feel valued. Commercial brands don’t miss a chance to take advantage of that.

Major sportswear companies are offering free membership to a community of brand enthusiasts, encouraging them to become a part of a global community that is recreating the future of sport. But beyond this noble goal, there is a purely commercial one: successful sales are the foundation of any company’s development.

What’s more important is that every major brand has digital platforms. Brand social media pages are turning into full-fledged media outlets, engaging major magazines that produce news and set the agenda for the brand. Commercial brands are trying to focus on sensitive global issues in a bid to appeal to different social groups, from exclusively female audiences to devout environmentalists.

For example, the American brand “Dove” is developing a “Self-Esteem Project” with the slogan “Stop the Beauty Test”, which works with issues of self-perception and anxiety reduction that cannot but find support among today’s women.

Major retail chains are creating clothing lines out of recycled plastic. Certainly, some companies are keen to contribute to the environment, but commercial brands exist on sales and by creating a line based on recycled plastic, brands mentally reinforce customers the belief that they are not just consuming a good, but saving the planet, even if the recycled plastic makes up 5% of the item; that matter takes a back seat.

Commercial Brands Polish the Soft Power of States

It is not so much the products that the big commercial brands are capturing audiences with, but rather the lifestyle; they offer comfortable terms of purchase, instant delivery and generous discounts, which is difficult for local businesses and local manufacturers to compete with, affecting the country’s economy. The authentic “made in” products of a strong brand produce positive perceptions of the country and vice versa. When we buy water, food, a car, or clothes from a country, we create an association with the country where they are produced.

In this way, big brands turn the country itself into a brand, attracting investors, businessmen, and immigrants, among them promising scientists and young minds, whose work shapes the country’s economy and its status as a world active leader, desirable partner, and ally.

Additionally, company websites collect user data in thematic surveys that are used to analyze the lifestyles and purchasing power levels of people in other countries in order to subsequently adapt products. Public demand influences import and export policies of states, and commercial brands play into that.

The international image of any state is the main attribute of its “soft power”. The market research company “FutureBrand”, a brand-transforming business, developed the “FutureBrand Country Index”, which measures the “attractiveness” quotient of a country in terms of public perception, examining consumer or corporate brands through surveys and scientific data analysis techniques. The top three in 2020 are Japan, Switzerland and Norway. According to respondent country brand associations, the top performers in Japan were “Toyota” and “Uniqlo”; “Tissot”, “Rolex”, and “Swatch” in Switzerland; and “Neutrogena” and “Statoil” in Norway.

Country as a Brand

The UN’s 2022 annual World Happiness Report, Denmark earned second place for home to the world’s happiest people, with Finland taking first. Human happiness cannot be measured by quantitative methods, but Mike Wiking from Denmark founded the Happiness Research Institute, which studies people’s quality of life and satisfaction with their daily lives using scientific methods. According to the Institute, governments and civil society organizations are eager to collaborate in order to apply collected data to public policy, and make the lives of their citizens better.

A few years ago, the world seemed obsessed with the Danish concept of “Hygge” (happiness in Danish), which became the basis for many business ideas for Danish decor, furniture, and clothing brands. The country even became an attractive destination for potential immigration. This is just one example of how people do not buy a product, but a lifestyle.

National Branding Can Help Developing Economies

The pandemic has particularly weakened the economies of countries with tourism as their main source of income. Turning a country into a brand can help countries with dwindling economic potential and save jobs at a time of crisis, as digital technology allows countries to create successful PR campaigns.

At the “World Conference on Tourism Cooperation and Development”, organized by the World Tourism Cities Federation as part of the “China International Fair for Trade in Services” forums in September 2022, representatives from Africa and the Caribbean outlined strategies for recovering tourism after the pandemic. One successful example of country branding were the Seychelles Islands, which during lockdown created a platform with the slogan “Dream Now and Experience Later.” The resource contained high-quality photos and videos introducing the country online and, once the lockdown was over, the creators invited people to visit the islands to experience the real thing.

Power Is Also Like Love

As Joseph Nye puts it, “Power is also like love, easier to experience than to define or measure, but no less real for that.” Nowadays, corporations and brands boost economies and attract investment, cultivating the potential for that very soft power that countries will continue to work hard for, to attract financial flows and initiate various forms of intercultural cooperation.

When you hear about Switzerland, even if you have never been there, you get an image of a safe country with amazing natural beauty and a strong economy; a place where you can confidently keep your savings, which is why it attracted the world’s wealthy elite.

However, in today’s world, sanctions show quite well how fragile and politicized the commercial sector is, and the notion of a “free market” is a highly idealized concept.

From our partner RIAC

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