By Shubhangi Shah
Suddenly, south Koreans seem to be everywhere. They are on your Netflix recommendations and music playlist; their products have flooded the supermarket shelves; and their skincare and lifestyle products feature among the best. Whether it’s their boyband BTS, or the hit Netflix show Squid Game, or their ramyun and kimchi, it might just be a tad exaggeration to say that this tiny east Asian nation has culturally invaded the world without firing a single bullet. Yes, these are testaments of Korea’s industrial excellence. But these also point to its growing soft power influence globally.
A term coined in the 1990s by American political scientist Joseph Nye, soft power is the ‘ability’ of a country to get what it wants through attraction and charm, instead of coercion or brute force. Several elements constitute soft power, such as a country’s culture, history, democratic values, institutions, humanitarian aid, diaspora, people-to-people contact, cuisine, festivals, films, music, etc, explains Abhishek Srivastava, an assistant professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s (JNU) School of International Studies.
Democracy & Hollywood
When speaking of soft power, the USA, with its democracy, Hollywood, McDonald’s, and denim jeans, top everything else, as seen in the Global Soft Power Index 2022 by Brand Finance. Nye, too, noted that the country “has been good at wielding soft power, which is based on culture, political ideals, and policies. Think of young people behind the Iron Curtain listening to American music”.
And rightly so. America’s music icons ranging from Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley to Bob Dylan continue to grab people’s imagination. Although an American award, the Grammy is considered the biggest in the field of music. The same goes for films where the Oscars trump every other award in the entertainment space. The same goes for Pulitzer Prize in journalism.
American education, too, remains much sought after and attracts the brightest minds from across the world. Google CEO Sundar Pichai is an IIT-trained engineer, who went to the US to pursue MS followed by an MBA. The same goes for Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, also an India-trained engineer who pursued higher studies there. Twitter CEO Parag Agarwal, also an IITian, did his PhD in Computer Science from Stanford University. India both gloats over its technocrats and complains about the brain drain. The truth remains that quality education coupled with lucrative employment opportunities makes the US such an attractive destination for bright minds from across the world.
But does such an image help it in other aspects of its policy-making, such as its military incursions in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan? “I think it does,” says professor Harsh V Pant, vice president – studies and foreign policy at Observer Research Foundation (ORF), a global think tank based in New Delhi. However, its military incursions are always couched in the language of “human rights and democracy”, unlike China, which goes about claiming sovereignty, he pointed out.
For the UK, which stood second on the Global Soft Power Index 2022, monarchy remains among the fundamental elements of its soft power. Whether it’s their ups, like Queen Elizabeth II celebrating her 70 years on the thrones, or downs, like the infamous scandal involving Prince Andrew, Britain’s royal family continues to grab popular attention worldwide.
English, the most widely spoken language with 1.5 billion speakers worldwide, is another crucial element of its soft power influence. And the country does much to promote it. For example, Indian author Geetanjali Shree is the latest recipient of the International Booker Prize, which is awarded to an author for his or her work written in an international language, then translated into English. Medieval and modern English authors, such as William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, George Orwell, and Virginia Woolf, to name a few, remain widely read across the world. The same applies to English music and its luminaries, from The Beatles and Pink Floyd to Elton John, Dua Lipa and Harry Styles, who are considered the best among the best.
These apply to countries across the world, but India and Britain have had a fraught and complex past. Ours was a British colony for two long centuries. Despite colonisation, the UK remains an attractive destination. “Although geopolitically, India and Britain’s relationship has been complex, the people-to-people ties have never been problematic,” says Pant, who is a professor of International Relations with King’s India Institute at King’s College London.
Despite the devastating Covid pandemic, military incursions, widespread censorship, allegations of human rights abuses, especially against ethnic Uyghurs, and a dictatorial regime, China stood fourth globally and first in Asia in the Global Soft Power Index 2022. While ancient wisdom like Confucianism and Taoism continue to find takers worldwide, its true power seems to rest in its economic might.
“People are mostly attracted to its economic muscle, and it has a lot of hard resources that it can throw around the world to build infrastructure or as aid,” says Pant. The multi-trillion dollar-worth Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, is a major example. It’s China’s overambitious extensive infrastructure building programme, extending from Asia to Africa through Europe via land and maritime networks, to boost trade and financial integration. However, whether it falls into the realm of economic power or coercion is open for discussion.
What started with Psy’s Gangnam Style paved the way for music sensations like BTS and Blackpink. Films and shows like Parasite and Squid Game, although set in Korea, took up universal themes of class inequality and capitalism and went on to become global hits. The growing popularity of the South Korean entertainment industry is such that it is now attracting talent from abroad, as seen in the Netflix show Squid Game, where India-born Anupam Tripathi played a pivotal role. Some Indians have also found their place among K-pop artistes.
This kind of soft power has economic dividends, too, as certain estimates peg BTS’ annual contribution to the South Korean economy at a whopping $5 billion.
Speaking of the economic benefits of soft power, Srivastava says it attracts foreign direct investment (FDI). “It can also promote cultural and religious tourism, indigenous medical system, art, culture, and the entertainment industry, which, in turn, boost the economy,” he adds.
According to Pant, the South Korea case has a lot to do with the fact that we live in a globalised world where technology has changed the rules of the game and has brought the marketplace of ideas and entertainment to our fingertips. “The country is making quality products, which is resonating with a wide range of audiences. So, there was a time when you wouldn’t know what was happening in South Korea, but today you know on a real-time basis about the latest products, how they are faring, and if someone likes them as people share,” he explains.
On the South Korean government’s role here, he doesn’t think it’s a very state-oriented approach. “Korea is a typical market economy, where the state doesn’t drive the agenda in entertainment or fashion. It’s happening more from a bottom-up perspective,” the professor says. Also, when it comes to soft power, it works if things are attractive to a wide range of audiences, Pant points out, adding that S Korea has been able to mobilise that element quite effectively.
However, the expert doesn’t think that this soft power gives it any direct leverage vis-a-vis North Korea. “However, it does give it indirect leverage as it’s a stark reminder to the world, and even North Korea, of how big a failure North Korea is with its communist state and closed economy, and how successful S Korea has become,” he adds.
When speaking of eastern soft powerhouses, one cannot forget Japan, which stood fifth in the Global Soft Power Index 2022. And it does wield significant influence with its much-liked kids’ cartoons like Doraemon and Shin Chan and video games, such as Mario and Pac-Man. Its anime and Manga, J-pop bands and artists, along with writers like Haruki Murakami, are celebrated globally. Japan also gives significant aid, which, in turn, helps it in expanding its soft power influence.
The balancing act
The United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) case is a curious one. It’s an autocratic state located in one of the most disturbed regions, and unlike its neighbour, Saudi Arabia, it isn’t the centre of Islamic power. Yet, it has carefully carved out a modern state that attracts tourists and investments alike from across the world. The country finds itself at the 15th spot, first in the middle east and north Africa region, in Global Soft Power Index 2022.
Commenting on its unique model, Pant says that what the UAE has done very carefully is balance its domestic control with external liberalisation. “They became attractive to outsiders while upholding the centrality of their own culture,” he says.
Limitations of soft power
Pakistani musician Ali Sethi’s hit song Pasoori dominated the Indian Instagram space for days and was rightly called a piece of art that brought the two hostile nations closer, albeit for just a few days. That song has been replaced by another hit, Jhoom by singer-actor Ali Zafar, also from Pakistan, which has become a hit in India and Pakistan alike. Not just that, Pakistan’s TV shows such as Fawad Khan and Mahira Khan-starrer Humsafar, and Sanam Saeed’s Zindagi Gulzar Hai find a considerable audience in India.
The same holds for Bollywood films, which have as many takers in Pakistan as in India. “It’s because we are cut from the same cloth,” explains Pant. However, according to him, the case of India and Pakistan reflects the limitations of soft power, where despite wielding considerable cultural influence on one another, it couldn’t transform into a considerable outcome. “At one time, we saw this emphasis on people-to-people ties and commentary on letting culture flow across the border,” he says. However, we see no considerable outcomes on the ground. Rather, whenever there is a rise in tensions, the countries go about banning each other’s films, at the drop of a hat.
Buddha & Bollywood
India is a land of Bollywood and the Taj Mahal, a rich history and democracy, all of which make up its soft power. While the grand Mughal-era monument in Agra is among the seven wonders of the world, Bollywood films are enjoyed across borders. While actor Amir Khan-starrer Dangal (2016) became a massive hit in China, the grand TV show Mahabharat (2013) became immensely famous in Indonesia.
Ours is also a land of multiple religions, all of which have the potential to strengthen ties with neighbouring nations. Indian cuisine, too, is much cherished worldwide. Despite these, India stood 29th on the Global Soft Power Index, much behind China, Japan, and South Korea.
“I think we have been very defensive of our soft power,” says Pant. For example, despite India being the land of key Buddhist sites, China is doing more regarding Buddhism, he says, pointing to the irony that China is a communist state that doesn’t believe in religion. “Yet they are promoting religion and saying we are the centre of Buddhist civilisation and we’ll work with these other countries,” he says.
However, things are turning around. Tapping on the potential of religious tourism, the Centre 2016 announced a Buddhist circuit. It’s a route that follows Buddha’s journey, from Lumbini in Nepal, where he was born, to Bodh Gaya in Bihar, where he attained enlightenment, and Sarnath in Uttar Pradesh, where he preached his first sermon to finally Kushinagar, where he died. Not just Nepal, it can help India build deeper ties with south-east Asia, where several countries are Buddhist-majority.