April 17, 2023
DHAKA – On March 2, 2023, Brand Finance – the world’s most famous consultancy – published a report on Global Soft Power Index (GSPIS) in London which examined the brands of 121 nation-states. Through the prism of 40 different metrics, the report ranked actors that can influence their foreign policy most or are successful in branding themselves globally through optimising soft power components ranging from governance to cultural and ideological values. Soft power as said by Joseph Nye – the proponent of soft power – is some sort of national power which is deliberately or purposefully used by actors that promote the idea of attraction instead of coercion or threat to achieve their desired foreign policy goals.
Based on the report of GSPIS 2023, it can be argued that among the top 20, Western countries are much ahead in pursuing soft power compared to South Asian or African countries. The US is the best example of that. The US bounced back up to the top position of soft power manoeuvring in 2022-23 because of its extensive vaccination diplomacy. Similarly, Europe (especially West European countries like the UK, Germany, and France) creates a sphere of influence worldwide by nurturing its soft power tools namely education, innovation, and tourism. However, one interesting observation is that due to their involvement in war, Russia is currently facing soft power erosion while Ukraine jumped-up from 37th position to 51st – a significant soft power advancement. At this point, it is also interesting to know the positions of other countries which do not have enough hard power or are inclined to focus more on soft power resources in contemporary times.
The Middle East (ME), for instance, is on the rise as per GSPIS 2023 since it always carries unique importance to both regional actors and great powers owing to its potential geopolitical determinants (e.g., energy resources). Countries like the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar rely heavily on soft power as a reliable tool. Located in the gateway between Asia and Europe, Turkey has taken a number of soft power initiatives as a mediator to halt the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. Qatar is regarded as a successful case by arranging noteworthy ventures like sports (e.g., the FIFA World Cup 2022), art, and fashion. It has shown the world how leadership works for a small country. For Saudi Arabia, the three powerful means of soft power are natural resources (e.g., oil), religion, and holy sites. In the case of UAE, mass vaccination programme during the Covid-19 pandemic; trade enhancement through EXPO 2022; hosting of major global events like COP28; investment in space exploration; and donation of a huge amount of foreign aid have brought the country into the limelight and ranked it top 10 in GSPIS 2023.
Now looking back to Asia, it can be strongly substantiated that soft power has a great role in both Southeast and East Asia. According to the index, countries like Japan and China are progressing well (fourth and fifth positions, respectively) because of launching remarkable soft power initiatives which cannot be seen in the West even. Japan, for instance, has made plenty of efforts in fashion, food, cosplay, and anime to establish a synergy between traditional culture and pop culture. China, in other words, views soft power as an important pillar of its foreign policy and a crucial ingredient that can assure the country fulfil its dream to be a “great power”. Although in recent times, China’s rehearsal of military drills near Taiwan was marked as an extension of its hard power strategy, the country still pursues its soft power tools (e.g., public diplomacy) widely across regions. Similarly, South Korea has successfully blended traditional and pop culture that helps her to secure 15th position. Singapore exercises financial and technological soft power to advance its economy. Among South Asian countries, India preserved 28th place by successfully promoting tourism, film, and music. In cultural orbits, promotion of Bollywood and Sufi songs marks a part of the soft power strategy.
Due to the Russia-Ukraine war, power configuration in the international order is gradually changing; thus, countries like Bangladesh need to figure out the best possible options for the economy, security, and diplomacy.
One pertinent question for us is: Where does Bangladesh stand in terms of nurturing its soft power? How does soft power shape Bangladesh’s foreign policy in the fabric of current global politics? This year, Bangladesh secured 97th position which keeps her even far behind from Maldives (59th position) and (Pakistan (84th position). However, for Bangladesh, soft power has been an emerging area and is highly valued in diplomacy. Since its independence, Bangladesh has not advocated any form of coercion or hard power, rather, it strongly supports complete disarmament for the sake of world peace and stability.
For the country, soft power means certain intangible power resources that have the potential to attract people of other countries. Bangladesh’s essential soft power resources are observed in certain key areas (e.g., development visions, non-aggressive posture, value system, science and technology, culture and nation brand formation) that have a significant influence on its foreign policy. However, Bangladesh faces numerous hurdles to execute soft power initiatives, especially to establish itself as a global brand due to some existing challenges related to institutional (lack of strong public diplomacy), digital (lack of digital knowledge among people) and development-oriented (economic growth, investment, infrastructure, skilled manpower, and so on). Bangladesh quite often makes headlines of global media for industrial accidents, road accidents, illegal immigration and so on.
Due to the Russia-Ukraine war, power configuration in the international order is gradually changing; thus, countries like Bangladesh need to figure out the best possible options for the economy, security, and diplomacy. Taking the above challenges into account, some probable suggestions for Bangladesh for promulgating soft power are: coordination between state and non-state actors; utilising the digital world; promoting and protecting human rights; harnessing cultural dividends; investment in education and research; greater economic engagement through foreign direct investment, RMG export and manpower; and promote the brand “made in Bangladesh” to uphold its image globally.
Razia Sultana, PhD, is a Senior Research Fellow at Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS), under MoFA.