Sunday July 21, 2024

Where is Pakistan’s soft power?

By Beelam Ramzan
June 13, 2023

At a time when Pakistan is in the grip of civil unrest and the political and economic crisis, its soft power image for which the country struggled long and hard is at its lowest ebb. Its multicultural ethos and rich diversity is a hotspot of conflict.

Pakistan stands at the 84th position in a group of 121 countries in the 2023 Global Soft Power Index by brand evaluation consultancy ‘Brand Finance’, trailing far behind the regional adversary India at 28th. In the 2023 Global Firepower Ranking, Pakistan ranks seventh out of 145 countries. This may be a consolation for a country with limited resources and a mighty army.

The country needs hard power, undoubtedly, but the glaring disparity vis-a-vis soft power resources is a cause for concern domestically and internationally. The global soft power index is based on almost 40 metrics on “the quality of a country’s political institutions, the extent of their cultural appeal, the strength of their diplomatic network, the global reputation of their higher education system, the attractiveness of their economic model, and a country’s digital engagement with the world.”

Dropping from the 63rd position in 2021 to 84th in 2023 is indeed a downward slide. American political scientist Joseph Nye, who is a proponent of soft power, has summed up these various metrics into three basic resources of soft power: political ideals, culture and foreign policy. He defines soft power as the “ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion.”

Since post-cold war Western countries have used soft power resources strategically to enhance their global position and achieve their desired foreign policy objectives. The US is considered the bastion of soft power with its liberal democratic order and cultural exports – from Hollywood movies to Madonna and from Google to Harvard and Coca Cola to McDonald’s.

American artists and musicians have acted as cultural ambassadors during peace and pandemics. China has also utilized its soft power image, blending its cultural and commercial appeal. With its Confucius institutes in 162 countries, the country sponsors educational and training programmes for foreign students. Despite an assertive foreign policy against the US, Taiwan, India, and Hong Kong, the soft power image of China could not erode owing to its massive commercial appeal through multi-trillion dollar infrastructure and investment projects in Asia, Pacific, America and Africa.

India is making waves through Bollywood movies, music, Silicon Valley and its thriving tourism. South Korea is sweeping the world through its popular boy band BTS – which is smashing records – Oscar wins, the growing drama industry and skincare goods. By enhancing cultural attraction and promoting democratic political ideals and a strong economic model of development, a country promotes a credible image internationally using the soft power resources and positively impacts how people think or interact with them.

Soft power gets into action when a country strategically taps its domestic core assets into specific foreign policy goals and establishes moral authority to get what it wants from the others.

Unfortunately for Pakistan, its cultural appeal could not be enhanced around the world due to a lack of support and direction from the government. The media – including entertainment – is a dying industry and tourism and sports is stifled due to the worsening law and order situation. The political journey has been messy. The country’s fragile democracy keeps getting derailed. Civil supremacy remains the main casualty in such a political crisis. The country’s record of human rights abuses is abysmal, attracting the ire of local and international media on issues like freedom of speech, media censorship, violence against women, custodial torture, contempt of law, and targeting political opposition and journalists.

Pakistan’s dire economic situation has damaged its soft power image globally. We have signed hundreds of bilateral and multilateral trade agreements with countries, but our exports are constantly shrinking, rupee devaluing, foreign currency reserves depleting, entrepreneurial genius nose-diving, and private investment dwindling. Pakistan has had 21 IMF bailouts, and yet there is no relief in sight. That Pakistan – an agrarian country – is in danger of high food insecurity like Ethiopia, Kenya and Syria as reported by the FAO-WFP report is alarming.

Our foreign policy objectives are either narrow or ambiguous. We have disputes with almost all our neighbours. And this has tarnished our global image and potential trade advantage. Our public diplomacy is nonexistent and cultural diplomacy never took roots. With poor law and order, hosting of international events has been a great challenge.

While the world is competing for supremacy in gaining soft power to get its desired foreign policy objectives, it is unfortunate to see how poorly we have used our national capacity to advance our priorities. Our multi-ethnic culture is hostile to others; our political credibility is eroded at home and abroad; the strength of our diplomatic network is waning; the economy is near default; and our foreign policies in the world lack legitimacy and moral authority.

Pakistan has tremendous assets in the soft power area which must be developed in conjunction with hard power to augment legitimacy to the state’s power position in the global system. A strategic and sustained effort is needed by the government along with the private sector to promote cultural and public diplomacy.

Social media can be used to engage, inform, and encourage participation on domestic and foreign policy fronts. Pakistan is at a critical juncture and it is time the world continued to regard us as a tolerant and pluralistic democracy with a benign international influence and an emerging economy. It’s a long and arduous journey. The work must begin, seriously and consistently.

The writer holds an LLM degree ininternational economic law from the University of Warwick. She can be reached at: