The book currently making the rounds among serious students of politics and government in the United States of America is entitled The Paradox of American Power: Why the World’s Only Superpower Can’t Go it Alone. Joseph S. Nye, the dean of Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and former chairman of the national intelligence council in Bill Clinton’s administration, has authored this engaging tome.
To establish the US’s undeniable status as the world’s only post Cold War superpower, Nye writes, “Not since Rome has one nation loomed so large above the others”. He quotes Der Spiegel, the German newsmagazine, “American idols and icons are shaping the world from Kathmandu to Kinshasa, from Cairo to Caracas. Globalization wears a ‘Made in USA’ label”. The French foreign minister, Hubert Verdune, states, “US supremacy today extends to the economy, currency, military areas, lifestyle, language and the products of mass cul- ture that inundate the world, forming thought and fascinating even the enemies of the United States”.
If such is the dominance of the US, why can’t it go alone' The paradox, Nye argues, is that military power, which he calls “hard power”, alone cannot solve global problems of the 21st century such as terrorism, regional conflicts and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The US, he asserts, must maximize its “soft power”. Nye’s “soft power”, a relatively new concept in international political parlance, is “the ability to negotiate, resolve issues without conflict, lead consensus, manage issues to our advantage — to attract and persuade others to adopt the US agenda”, without the use of the coercive “hard power”. The fact that the US is home to Hollywood and MTV, Coca Cola and Pepsi, Domino’s and Pizza Hut, Disneyland and McDonald’s, Boeing and Kodak, Microsoft and Intel, Levi’s and Ralph Lauren or many of the products in daily use around the globe, provides an attractiveness to the American lifestyle of which these companies’ products are emblematic, providing the right background for the “soft power” to be pursued effectively. Paradox, written prior to the Iraq war, has drawn unprecedented attention because of America’s failure to use its considerable “soft powers” to rally other nations behind it to support its agenda after its swift and decisive military victory over Saddam Hussein. Hard power won the battle but the absence of soft power is losing the war.
Another sphere, according to the author, where “soft power” plays a vital role is “interstate economic issues” which includes “international treaties regarding international trade, antitrust and commerce and financial regulations. Here power is distributed on a multipolar basis (and) the US cannot achieve much in the area without the cooperation of the European Union, Japan and often China, India and other major players”. What better example of this than what happened recently at the World Trade Organization meet at Cancun, where India with China and Brazil formed an 18-nation block opposing government farming subsidies in developed countries like Japan, US and EU to the detriment of farmers across the developing world, effectively bringing the talks to a standstill' There is little doubt that coordinates will be tilted towards the developing world before the next WTO jamboree.
Of the countries listed, whose cooperation is imperative to address global economic issues, EU, being the “fatherland” of most Americans, is cast in the same mould and is not in a position to offer an alternate set of “soft powers” to the world. Japan and China have language and lifestyles foreign to the Anglo-Saxon and European fraternity which dominate the world. India alone among the rest offers an alternate set of “soft powers” which have already made their mark across the world.
Before we examine these, the obvious needs to be stated. Soft power backed by hard power, military and economic, is meaningful. Backed by nothing, it is no power. India was an example of this unenviable state till the late Nineties. It appears we have rectified matters now. Conventional analyses will show an impressive gross domestic product growth of around 6 per cent over the last five years despite damaging sanctions by the West and a formidable projected 7 per cent in the current year. It will also show our maturing as a regional economic superpower. And miraculously, all these were achieved without labour reforms. With our recently acquired arms, we have gone up a couple of notches in military might. In our foreign policy, we have shown grave maturity by refraining from sending troops to Iraq just to bail out the Americans who continue to define terrorists who operate in Kashmir in one way, and those against their interests in other countries in another way. In our overtures towards Israel, we have shown a pragmatic and mature approach. With richly deserved grades earned in “hard power”, India is ready to flex its immense “soft power”, not directly to persuade others to support us, but rather to enhance our country’s standing in their eyes.
Bollywood is doing its bit by dishing out glitzy entertainment not only to the Indian diaspora from the US to Kenya, the United Kingdom to Fiji but to the indigenous population in the Arab world and across Africa. The lay Syrians or the Senegalese in all probability do not understand a word of Hindi, but they go along with the spirit of things, awestruck by the elaborate surreal sets, consequently looking at India with admiration. And when Lagaan finds itself within a whisker of an Oscar and Shekhar Kapur is hijacked to direct Elizabeth in Hollywood and films like Bend It Like Beckham and Monsoon Wedding, directed by women with Indian names, telling stories of immigrant Indian families, become runaway hits worldwide and A.R. Rehman is chosen to compose the music for Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Bombay Dreams, the most extravagant musical ever in the history of theatre, and a Bhangra number makes it to the top of the pop charts in the UK, the “soft power” quotient goes up several notches. And it shoots up even further when a Ravi Shankar, an Amjad Ali Khan, a Zakir Hussain performs at the Lincoln Center or at the Royal Albert Hall, or when our fashion designers occasionally monopolize chic Manhattan and Oxford Street stores, or when a statue of Mahatma Gandhi grace downtown New York.
Our status in the “soft power” sector has already reached a stage where it does not surprise anyone when Amartya Sen wins the Nobel Prize in Economics and has both Oxford and Harvard universities vying with each other to get him. Or when Americans place our own institutes of technology in the same league as their very best. Or when foreign companies offer fresh graduates from the Indian Institutes of Management pay packages resembling long distance telephone numbers. Or when the UK looks to Indian hospitals as extensions of their own under their national health scheme. Or when the first world makes changes in its immigration policy to accommodate our doctors and software developers.
But it is not these “achievements” only which demanded and received a rightful place beside those of the first world, drawing universal admiration. We were respected for our thriving media, our irascible nongovernmental organizations, our vigilant human rights groups, our impartial bureaucracy and above all, our pluralistic democracy. The sight of a bent old Muslim woman, several notches below the poverty line, standing patiently in queue to exercise her franchise, seen on the television screens around the world, made our democracy truly unique. This has been sullied of late, following the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the Gujarat carnage.
Let us put an end to politicians using the spectre of religious intolerance to undermine our greatest asset, termed “soft”, but which in effect is our hardest won.