June 18, 2005

When Soft Power Attacks

"Soft power"—defined generally as the advantage a country gets from having other countries respect it, or like it—often gets disparaged here in the United States. "Why," the question goes, "do we need to care whether other people like us, so long as we have a massive military, plenty of economic strength, dominate all the international institutions, and can generally get other countries to do whatever we want them to do? We don't need to be loved so long as we have respect."

Well, maybe not.

In this week's New Republic Joshua Kurlantzick has yet another "China on the rise" story, only this time with a twist: China's gaining influence around the globe not merely because of its economic "hard power", but because it's also acquiring a good deal of soft power as well, not to mention engaging in a bit of deft diplomacy. People are starting to like China. In Australia, late in 2003, George Bush paid a visit, was protested and booed by both citizens and parliament, and jetted out after 21 hours. By contrast, Chinese President Hu Jintao visited a bit later on and was given a standing ovation by the legislature. Not surprisingly, Australia is starting to do Beijing's bidding: Tibetan activists were barred from the reception. Meanwhile, other Asian countries consider China, and not the U.S., their closest friend and ally. Developing countries are increasingly welcoming China's technology-driven, semi-socialist development model over the neoliberal "Washington consensus", a consensus, mind you, that has frustrated a number of Third World countries who have remain mired in poverty despite (as they see it) following IMF and World Bank recommendations slavishly.

Now a lot of this shift is economic in origin. If it came down to it, most people would obviously prefer America's democratic system to Beijing's one-party state. As horrendous as our own human right's abuses are, they pale besides China's. But many people genuinely do like the fact that China is focused on getting rich rather than obsessed with battling terrorists. China's growing diplomatic influence also comes from the fact that it's willing to ally itself with regimes we refuse to fraternize with—Zimbabwe, Sudan, Iran Burma. Still, the larger lesson stands: China's not just a big beast gorging itself in isolation. It's also making friends. Lots of friends.

So okay. This doesn't mean China's a threat, necessarily. Just because it's China doesn't mean alarm bells need to start ringing. Having another benign superpower in the world, especially one willing to invest in developing countries, can be a good thing. What's important is to make sure that the United States and China don't collide. But China's growing influence can be a bad thing, however, if it means that our influence is on the wane, and with it, pressure for better human rights and democratization around the globe. (We may be inconsistent on this front, but we're still the best game in town.) Some American officials understand that, and Robert Zoellick in particular is trying to re-emphasize economic concerns in his visits to our allies, and strengthen diplomatic ties. But our waning influence may also mean the United States needs to rethink its approach to Third World development, for instance, and perhaps even engage in regimes we'd otherwise prefer not to engage. It's laudably idealistic to cut all ties with Iran because of its human rights abuses, but if the end result is that Tehran simply aligns itself more closely with China, then we aren't really getting anywhere.
-- Brad Plumer 11:15 PM || ||