Measuring the true impact of soft power

by Gareth Price

The UK’s high score on a latest global ranking contrasts with India’s poor performance on the soft power scales.

Soft power is a contested term, in terms of what it means, how it should be measured and how beneficial it may be for a country. That said, it does seem intuitive that cultural factors along with the general attractiveness of a country’s political system should play a role in a country’s standing, beyond simply economic and military might.

But the question of how to measure it is difficult. For the past few years, Portland Communication has compiled a ranking of soft power, using a range of data points, reinforced by large-scale polling, to assess political values and governance to rate the attractiveness of the political system. Counter-intuitively, from this vantage point at least, the UK came top in 2018, owing its success more to its universities than its current political shenanigans.

But what is also clear from the survey is that India performs poorly, to be kind. In part this reflects the data points used – if one were (not unreasonably) to give a higher weighting, for instance, to culinary exports, India’s stock would clearly rise, substantially. But as it is, of ten countries surveyed in Asia, India tops just Indonesia and the Philippines, lagging behind countries including Thailand and Malaysia.

On the one hand this is surprising – more than many countries, India is defined by its soft power, particularly as being the birthplace of several of the world’s religions. Further, and putting its relationship with Pakistan to one side, for decades it has emphasised its absence of hard power and policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. As a keen advocate of decolonisation, and opponent of apartheid, India may have expected to receive greater acknowledgement of its past positions.

But as the commentary regarding India, by Dhruva Jaishankar from the Brookings Institute, points out, the picture is more mixed.  In part, as Jaishankar points out, this does relate to the methodology – for one, India’s large population weighs against it. As in many fields relating to India, the average may make little sense. But if one is to make international comparisons, the average is often the best there is.

Not that long ago, external perceptions of India may well have been synonymous with poverty and exoticism. But the changes which India has under-gone over the past couple of decades, resulting in the recent announcement that India now has less people in poverty than Nigeria, do not seem to have generated international recognition. This may be because of the news “agenda”. News from India reported internationally is rarely good. This is not because of any particular anti-Indian conspiracy but simply because, of late, India has made more headlines for topics such as corruption and rape rather than information technology.

As Jaishankar also points out: “India rates badly on any measure of state-driven cultural diffusion rather than more organic and natural private sector and citizen-led efforts”. India’s government has rarely engaged effectively in terms of cultural diffusion. Yoga, Bollywood and Indian cuisine have successfully spread around large parts of the world without government assistance.

Should India be concerned? Possibly yes. The government’s economic objectives – obviously “Make in India” requires increasing foreign investment. Of course, firms base investment decisions on a range of factors, most of which may well be economic. But soft power equates, more generally, to the overall attractiveness of a country. Were India to project more “soft power”, to be a country whose values and systems are attractive to others, it seems safe to say that foreign investment would be more likely to accrue.

It may be challenging for India to “game the system” with this particular assessment of soft power, which measures a range of issues which are widely acknowledged to be challenges for India – government effectiveness; diplomatic resources and ease of doing business. Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently launched “Study in India”. The number of foreign students in India, at around 50,000 is low, and there is vast scope to increase this, particularly for other students in South Asia. However, increased investment in universities (whether by the state or more likely through the acceptance of foreign investment) is likely to be a prerequisite. Unsurprisingly, India performs well in relation to digital issues.

The soft power index does underline the importance of continued reform of governance. It matters in itself, because better governance means that things work better. But it matters – particularly for a country like India – because it means the country is more attractive, and that in turn means more investment, which means more jobs and the delivery of desired, higher, rates of economic growth. While the methodology adopted for this survey can certainly be critiqued, the broad brush inference may well be that India is not as attractive as it thinks itself to be, or needs to be should its economic aspirations be met.

As noted by one Professor Rawnsley: “soft power is a resource, not an instrument”. It is the result of the right policies having been taken – rather than something that can be constructed in itself. Were India’s soft power to increase, a virtuous circle would be there for the taking.

Dr Gareth Price is Senior Research Fellow, Asia Programme, Chatham House.

2018-08-23T12:12:44+00:00August 1st, 2018|2017/2018, Home Page, UK Edition - August 2018|

About the Author: Gareth Price