Monday,27 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1435, (21 - 27 March 2019)
Monday,27 May, 2019
Issue 1435, (21 - 27 March 2019)

Ahram Weekly

The importance of ‘soft power’

Egypt’s soft power in the shape of its history, culture and civilisation can be put to work more effectively to extend its influence in the region and beyond, writes Mohamed Abdel-Wahed 

The importance of ‘soft power’

State power is a critical factor in international relations because it is a main determinant of the role a state can play in the international community and in its relationship with others. 

However, it is not enough for a state to possess such power. It must also utilise it effectively. In developed capitalist societies, economic resources are major sources of power. But there are other sources too, such as organisational capacities, numerical strength, efficiency, advanced knowledge, control over the access to information or over certain types of jobs or instruments, and even the reputation for having power. The latter is unique in that it depends not on the actual possession of power but on the perception that it exists.

The forms of power are numerous, and they have varied over time. In general, however, they fall under the categories of military strength, economic might, political power, and technological prowess. Political scientists have recently also begun to speak of a new category of power, “soft power”, even though this has in fact existed since time immemorial. It is difficult to draw sharp lines between these forms of power, since they usually interact and are mutually contingent. 

Broadly speaking, power makes it possible to make others do what they may not be otherwise inclined to do, making them align their priorities and preferences with yours and creating or shaping the perceptions and beliefs without their realising it.

When a government determines its foreign policy aims and objectives, it must carefully assess its sources of strength and how they can be deployed in order to realise its ends. In so doing, it will typically utilise a combination of hard and soft power. 

Egypt possesses numerous types of soft power. Among the most important are its language, history, culture, and political geography. Its moderate religious establishments such as Al-Azhar and the Coptic Church, lend the country a major religious and spiritual status, religion being the cornerstone of forging a people’s collective consciousness and way of thinking. Egypt’s great historical and civilisational heritage is another form of cultural capital and has enabled it to remain one of the most important players in the international and regional orders up until the present day.

In modern times, Egypt’s pivotal role has been manifested in its support for Arab causes, especially the Palestinian cause and the Palestinian people’s struggle against the Israeli occupation. It has also supported African causes, from the continent’s anti-colonialist and national liberation struggles to its developmental causes of today. 

Egypt is also one of the world’s most open countries to other cultures, especially Western cultures with which it has had a long history of interplay and mutual influence. Egypt is a pioneer in cinema, television, the theatre, the media, music and literature. Egyptian Arabic has been instrumental in bringing the peoples of the Arab world closer together, through Egyptian films, plays, songs, as well as newspapers, magazines and radio. The Cairo-based Sawt Al-Arab (Voice of the Arabs) radio station, for example, was a major vehicle in unifying the Arab peoples against colonialism. 

The crucial role that Egypt has played in the preservation of international peace and security by its participation in UN-sponsored peace-keeping operations has augmented its soft power. This has been important across the region, where Egyptian culture, thought and foreign policy values are a source of inspiration, and innumerable Egyptian intellectuals, artists, writers and religious leaders have contributed to shaping the Arab collective consciousness. 

The strength and influence of Egypt’s soft power in the region is integrally related to the strength of the state and its political leadership’s awareness of the importance of culture as a mainstay of national strategy. The foundation and rapid development of the modern Egyptian state allowed it to become a pioneer in the regional and international environment in many fields. Starting with the reign of Mohamed Ali Pasha at the outset of the 19th century, for example, Egypt founded the first modern army in the region and established what might be regarded as the first modern universities, such as the Al-Mohandes Khana (1816), the region’s first school of engineering, and the first school of medicine in the Abu Zaabel (1817), which was followed in the 1820s and 1830s by the schools for midwives and veterinarians and of music, agriculture, mineralogy, languages and so on. 

Mohamed Ali also established the tradition of sending students on educational missions abroad. Governments under his successors followed his lead, adding other instruments of soft power, such as museums, libraries, a royal opera house, and scientific establishments such as the Astronomical Observatory, the Chemistry Authority, and the Khedival Geographical Society. In the 20th century, during the reign of king Fouad the government founded the Arab Music Academy, the Egyptian Academy in Rome, the School of Fine Arts, and the Egyptian Broadcasting Company, to name but a few. 

Egypt’s sources of soft power continued to accumulate until the late 1970s, which brought a major shift in Egypt’s affiliations abroad combined with a shift in focus to the domestic front where the government utilised soft power in its drive to equip the public to adjust to new political developments, most notably the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty and its repercussions on Egyptian-Arab and Egyptian-African relations. 

Egypt’s regional influence declined further as a result of changes in the international order following the end of the Cold War, the rise of the US as the world’s sole superpower, and the rise of regional powers that began to jockey for regional leadership.

 

DECLINING POWER: Among the causes of Egypt’s regional decline are the negative impacts of globalisation and information technology on Egyptian culture, which began to lose its unique character blending authenticity, contemporaneity and the preservation of cultural, religious and historical identity in a regionally and internationally important form. 

At the same time, Egypt saw an exodus of brain power and creative talent due to the government’s declining attention to the needs of these sections of the population combined with other countries, particularly in the Gulf region, having the capacity to attract them. Regional rivals also emerged that were bent on spreading their influence in the Arab region by using soft power. The prime example of this is Turkey, which has presented itself as a model to be emulated by others and utilises Turkish media, arts and literature to influence other cultures.

Because of its preoccupation with domestic issues at the expense of external causes, Egypt lost much of its regional and international influence and its social, political, economic and cultural persuasiveness abroad. Egyptian culture, such as the arts, literature, and music, has also tended to project a negative image in which marginal elements are made to represent Egyptian society as a whole, with the language used also being needlessly vulgar. 

The spread of mahragan (festival) music in Egypt has caused the country’s cultural influence to recede. And many commentators today believe that the Arab world in general and Egypt in particular is structurally flawed in terms of its ability to exercise soft power because it is so heavily subordinated to the West, which uses its media and control of cyberspace to influence Arab minds. 

According to the US commentator Joseph Nye, soft power is a way to influence others to get the outcomes that you want. Coercion, or the “stick”, can be used, as can the “carrot” of money, to influence the way others think and behave such that they can be induced to want what you want them to want. Carrots and sticks constitute “hard power”, whereas the ability to persuade others without employing these things is “soft power”. 

Soft power persuades or lures others to serve the ends you desire without having to use force or money. The most important forms of soft power include a given society’s culture, especially those aspects of it that most attract others, a country’s political values, especially those most accepted or admired at home and abroad, a government’s foreign policy if it conforms with the criteria of legitimacy, and a country’s economic or military resources, if the latter are channelled into such activities as international cooperation, training, and humanitarian relief.

Soft power can be exercised directly through powers of persuasion such as diplomacy or charismatic leadership or indirectly by generating an environment that induces others to modify their behaviour. Its feasibility is contingent on its credibility, especially in this age of intense rivalry among news and information outlets which leads people to search for the most credible sources of information even if they are based outside of their home countries. The longer audiences remain loyal to a country’s news and information outlets, the more durable is its soft power. 

It would be mistaken to regard soft power as just an alternative to hard power, however. Soft power is often exercised in conjunction with hard power, and it is also a reflection of a country’s hard power. The two are inseparable and reinforce each other. Ultimately, hard power has the final say in balances of power, which is why those with soft power still prefer to possess hard power as well even if they have no intention of using it as a threat or deterrent.  

Soft power is frequently found among those connected to the world’s cultural elites. This has led some to believe that it is not effective because it cannot compel compliance. Others go further and say that it is ineffective when it comes to solving major international problems such as armed conflicts. Such objections have contributed to the rise of the concept of “smart power”, which is essentially the art of effectively blending soft and hard power. 

It is possible to convert hard power into soft power, notably by the use of coercive or “gunboat” diplomacy which involves the threat of force, military operations if legitimate and intended to defend rights or to protect civilians, and the extending of protection and security to friends and allies. Other ways of converting hard into soft power include taking part in peacekeeping operations that aim to protect civilians, safeguarding the arrival of humanitarian aid, or checking cross-border flows of refugees. The provision of training and humanitarian aid and emergency relief is another such method.

 

CHANGING CONCEPTS: The concept of power has also changed considerably in modern times, with Nye speaking in terms of its “distribution” and “conversion”. 

The former takes place at the military, economic and transnational levels. As the US is the only military power capable of reaching any point in the world today, it ranks as the world’s strongest military power. However, economically there are other poles of power as well as “multi-power” entities such as the EU. The transnational encompasses all transnational phenomena outside of the control of states such as climate change, international terrorism and organised crime. 

The 20th-century Italian writer Antonio Gramsci emphasised the need to differentiate between state control and cultural hegemony. Culture is multi-centred and has various influences and roles, he said, from school and religious establishments to media and financial circles, and it can help to generate a positive image of a country’s elite and help to control the minds of the public and ensure that people do not stray too far from the ways of capitalist society. 

Gramsci argues that such hegemony or control is the key to historical pre-eminence and that culture more than any other force both drives people and keeps them under control, thereby serving the purposes of hegemony. However, cultural and intellectual hegemony require support if they are to prevail, and that support must stem from a sense of conviction that requires an intellectual and cultural order that attracts adherence to a particular belief system. In other words, capitalism, for example, is not built purely on the power of money and might, but also on the power of conviction which is shaped and reinforced in society by the culture of the ruling class. 

France’s political elites accord particular value to sustaining a strong international presence and influence for their country. France is a world leader in the use of the principles of soft power, according to a 2017 report by Portland Communications, a leading political consultancy. The UK, the US and Germany ranked second, third and fourth, respectively, out of a list of 30 countries in this report. Russia placed 26, despite its status as the second global and nuclear power after the US.

French culture is a central component of France’s soft power. The country possesses a vast international network of French language-teaching organisations, and it is constantly expanding and upgrading French schools and universities abroad, of which there are 459 which enjoy excellent reputations as bastions for the production of national elites. French perfume, fashion, beauty products and jewellery are also among the visible trademarks of France’s soft power, and France has long stood in the vanguard of the power of ideas. 

The French government has been proactive in developing its instruments of soft power by adopting policies to promote the “economy of the intangible” or “symbolic capital”, with this being grounded in France’s rich artistic heritage as epitomised by the Louvre Museum in Paris and the country’s other famous museums and in its intellectual and educational heritage as epitomised by the Sorbonne and other universities. 

One example of the success of such policies can be found in the Louvre Abu Dhabi Museum that French President Emmanuel Macron inaugurated in 2017. In his speech on that occasion, Macron quoted from the Russian writer Dostoyevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment, in which the main character, Raskolnikov, says that “beauty will save the world.” The museum cost $525 million, footed by the UAE, in exchange for the Louvre’s name and 130 works of art on loan for 30 years. Art and creativity thus became a new avenue for the realisation of economic aims.

Turkey offers another example of the use of culture as soft power in order to attain economic ends. Turkish TV series are the second most-exported after American ones, and they are exported to 102 countries, with the Arab countries being the foremost consumers. Some see this export drive as being part of a systematic intellectual and cultural campaign designed to project and polish Turkey’s image. The productions themselves, from the selection of their casts and the elaborate and tightly woven plots that respect the audience’s intelligence to the wealth and diversity of the characters and the choice of alluring locations as settings, seem to support this contention. The Turkish dramas also address social and human relations in moving and memorable ways. 

With regard to the Arab market, it was a clever move to choose the Syrian dialect for the dubbing of the series because of its acceptability to the Arab ear due to the success of Syrian shows. Arab tourism to Turkey has shot up at times when Turkish serials were aired in the Arab region.

As for the US, its real power may lie not so much in its Fifth or Sixth Naval Fleets or in its marines and other elite military forces. Rather, the country consists of a collection of soft power buttresses that include universities of the status of Harvard, the economic and innovation hub of Silicon Valley in California, the city of New York, the Hollywood film industry, strong political parties, a free press and a strong civil society. 

The US attracts the largest numbers of immigrants and foreign students that will carry US values into the future: 750,000 foreign students per year come to study in the US and 46 current heads of state graduated from US universities. The US has the largest numbers of Nobel Prize winners in physics, chemistry and economics. It is the world’s largest exporter of films and TV programmes, and it boasts the largest number of original music sales.  


Egypt’s soft power icons: (clockwise from top): Gamal Abdel-Nasser; Hend Rostom; Adel Imam; Um Kolthoum; Sayed Darwish; Mohamed Hassanein Heikal; Ali Mosharafa

EGYPT’S SOFT POWER: Egypt undoubtedly has the potential to recover its sources of soft power and to put them to use both regionally and internationally. 

It has the wealth and allure of its cumulative history and civilisation, which attract the West with its passion for Pharaonic history, and it attracts other African countries because of long and deep historical ties. Verdi’s opera Aida inspired many other musicians and librettists to compose works inspired by ancient Egyptian history. Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute was also performed in Paris in 1801 under the title The Secrets of Isis. Rossini wrote an opera called Moses in Egypt.

The ancient Egyptian musical instruments that appear in the reliefs in Pharaonic temples attract musicologists as well as laypeople throughout the world to learn more about these instruments and the types of music they produced. In addition, the love story that linked the Ethiopian Aida with the Egyptian army commander in Verdi’s opera could also inspire other dramatic or fictional works that could be used to dissolve the boundaries between Egypt and Ethiopia and Africa in general. 

Think of how cleverly the 2008 Indian film Jodhaa Akbar drew on the love story between Jalaluddin Mohamed Akbar, the Mughal emperor, and the Rajput princess Jodhaa in an artistic attempt to end Hindu-Muslim hostilities, for example. Egypt should also promote the study of its history and encourage the selection of the most inspiring and edifying episodes as subject matter for the cinema and the other arts, just as it should stimulate the optimal use of all its resources. 

However, in addition to identifying the sources of Egyptian soft power, it is important to know how to put them to work effectively. Some of the following points need to be borne in mind.

There needs to be a clarity of objectives and their consistency with the values and interests to be promoted, and Egyptian culture and history should be explored for their most attractive and edifying aspects, and work should be undertaken to present them as alluringly and persuasively as possible. Modern technologies, especially the Internet and social-networking sites, should be used as much as possible, as these are powerful, rapid and relatively inexpensive instruments for the exercise and dissemination of soft power. The value of available resources and how they might change in accordance with changes in the international environment should also be assessed.

Efforts should be made to identify and rank preferences in terms of their aims, legitimacy and feasibility, and soft power should be incorporated into the national strategy, precisely because of its value in attracting others. Translation should be encouraged both in order to promote familiarity at home with other cultures and to transmit our culture to others. Efforts should be made to learn from the experiences of others, notably by looking at how France, the UK, the US and Germany have managed to rank so high in the indexes in the Portland report and adapting such lessons to Egypt’s circumstances.

Particular attention should be paid to the French experience, as this is particularly applicable to Egypt’s historical and civilisational wealth. A multi-language international news channel should be established to help to unify the Arab region and defend Arab interests in credible and persuasive ways. Lessons should be drawn from the Turkish, Indian and Korean film and television industries by promoting quality productions that can be directed, for example, to African markets and that are dubbed in local languages using appealing voices. Joint productions should be encouraged, especially those inspired by shared histories and interactions between peoples of different cultures.

Ultimately, soft power can go where hard power cannot. The patriotic song is mightier than the sword and more persuasive than political rhetoric. Films treating tolerance and love can be highly effective ways to dispel ethnic and sectarian discord and promote assimilation and coexistence both within a society or between societies. Soft power in its diverse forms in cultural and creative products can drive home a country’s political messages more widely and deeply than conventional propaganda. 

It also can have major economic and developmental paybacks as it can be used to promote the domestic economy and attract investment and stimulate tourism, especially by the production of popular films set in attractive locations. In short, soft power can effectively showcase a country’s historical, scientific, cultural, economic, and technological attractions and achievements.


The writer is an expert on national security affairs.

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