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10.3: Soft Power

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    In the post-Cold War world, military power is often not as important as soft power- economics, diplomacy, ideas, culture, education, technology, infrastructure, research and development. A country that spends too much on its military spends less on these other areas and can fall behind as a result. Critics say that one cause of the relative decline of U.S. power is overspending on the military and neglecting the State Department and other soft power programs. (There are more people in U.S. military marching bands than there are U.S. diplomats.) As we said in Unit 2, China has been very active in diplomatic, economic, and cultural activities around the world, while it also builds up its military.

    (From Unit 2) China has gained wide soft power influence by building massive infrastructure projects quickly in 60 countries in its Belt and Road Initiative, giving big loans to African, Asian and Latin American countries in exchange for copper, oil, and other commodities without the environmental and other conditions required by western lenders. There are about 3 million Chinese working on projects in Africa, who receive double pay plus free room and board to be separated from their families for years. The Chinese also export cheap consumer goods and start local businesses.

    When the Libyan war broke out, China sent ships to extract the 10,000 Chinese living there. China has also exported arms, surveillance cameras, facial recognition, phone and internet hacking and other spying software to other countries. Diplomatically, it has participated in every possible committee in every possible international organization and gradually worked up into senior leadership positions, but it has also set up alternatives to the existing western-dominated structures with organizations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the 2016 Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

    China has not attracted large overseas audiences with its politically correct radio, TV and films, but it has succeeded in gaining visibility with its TikTok app, by lending pandas to western zoos, setting up Confucius Institutes to promote Chinese language and culture, helping Philippine typhoon victims, participating in anti-piracy patrols off Somalia and helping rescue stranded scientists in Antarctica. It has also bought or had proxies buy media outlets in many countries in Africa and Eastern Europe and provided local outlets with free news with the Chinese point of view. China also has a network of radio and TV stations in the U.S.

    When local government in Czechoslovakia met with representatives from Taiwan and would not pledge to an anti-Taiwan policy, the Chinese embassy cancelled a lucrative visit to China by the local symphony, reneged on lending pandas to the zoo and threatened to cut off future investment.


    Another example: France punches above its military and economic weight by using trade, its enviable culture and aggressive diplomacy (such as leveraging its seat on the UN Security Council), but also by selling advanced military equipment, carrying out periodic military interventions such as in Libya, and using the disposable Foreign Legion to intervene in former colonies in Africa. France’s influence is still considerable. For instance, only in 2019 have some of its former African colonies reduced their dependence on France’s colonial currency.

    Military spending worldwide has continued to increase even after the end of the Cold War. Some countries, including many poor ones, impoverish their people to have a large military (e.g. North Korea, whose people go hungry while it spends 20% of its budget on the military). Since it is often the military that keeps the leaders in power, it is their priority. Having hostile neighbors also justifies a strong military.

    In arms sales, the U.S. is first at 50%, with China, Russia and Europe accounting for most of the rest. Arms are usually sold to allies or would-be allies, but sometimes alliances change and those weapons are used against the original seller. (For instance, the U.S. gave military aid to Muslim radicals when they were fighting the Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980s.) There has been criticism of arms sales as promoting war and supporting dictatorships, but the profits and influence gained have so far been irresistible. In 2001, 140 countries signed a treaty to curb the sale of small-arms such as the cheap and indestructible AK-47, which is the favorite weapon used in the low-intensity conflicts most common today. However, the Bush 2 administration declined to participate in the treaty because of lobbying by the National Rifle Association (NRA). Today, the U.S. is criticized for selling arms to Saudi Arabia, whose intense bombing in a fierce war in Yemen against Iranian proxies is also killing many civilians.

    This page titled 10.3: Soft Power is shared under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Lawrence Meacham.

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