Thursday, 22 March 2012

Joseph Nye on China

I have just found this short clip of a lecture delivered by Joseph Nye in 2011.

I think that there are two problems with Professor Nye's ideas and these are issues that have troubled me since I have revisted his work for my current research. First, I do not understand why soft power has to be located within a competitive framework. Why should we be so concerned if China is 'catching up' with the US in soft power terms? Surely this is a mindset that feeds the irrational debates about the so-called 'China threat', when understanding the soft dimension of power is a way to circumvent such competitive inclinations. It also demonstrates that the de-Westernisation of soft power is an urgent issue, since this competitive frame is a consequence of understanding soft power via the Anglo-American approach.

Second, the clip demonstrates how confusing the whole idea of soft power really is. If soft power is an intangible, something that cannot be strategised and is ultimately a consequence of who you are and what you do, rather than what you say or what you claim to be, then such a worry about China 'catching up' is misplaced, as is a measurement of soft power based on quantifying and analysing such outputs as the number of Confucius Institutes, the number of TV stations broadcasting from China etc.

Professor Nye is correct, however, to identify the consequences of China's political decisions and actions on its soft power capacity; polls repeatedly show that the more China invests in soft power activities (and it is the highest spender in Asian on such activities) China's image has actually gone down. In other words, there is no clear correlation between investment in soft power and the capacity to persuade audiences to embrace a more positive image. Policy - who you are, what you do and what you stand for - will always be the most important consideration.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Promised Land, Crusader State

I am still refining my understanding of Taiwan's public diplomacy and its location within approaches to soft power (western and non-western). Every time I speak to colleagues, present my ideas in seminars and cover the new literature I seem to take one step forwards and two steps back, thus challenging my own approaches again and again. While this is an exciting intellectual exercise, it can also be frustrating.

Following a discussion with Caitlin Schindler, a PhD student I am co-supervising with Robin Brown and who is tracing the history of American public diplomacy since Colonial times, I began to think that perhaps I need to interrogate a different literature for a while. So I decided to follow her trajectory and read about how the founders of modern America engaged in international communication and projected the new American identity abroad. This literature is based on the main thesis of my research, namely that Taiwan is communicating the wrong theme in its public diplomacy - culture (and traditional Chinese culture to boot) rather than the more exciting and appealing story of Taiwan's democratisation. However, I might benefit from understanding better how other "new" democracies have engaged in public diplomacy, and where better to start than post-Revolutionary America.

On Caitlin's advice I picked up a copy of Walter A. McDougall's Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World Since 1776 (Mariner, 1997). This is proving a wonderful read and I am learning so much that I can apply to my own understanding of not only American and Taiwanese public diplomacy and soft power, but also Chinese approaches. For example, we learn that question we heard so often immediately after the 9/11 attacks - Why do they hate us? - is long-standing and has been directed equally, if not more, to friends rather than the US's foes: McDougall states that 'It's the contempt of our friends that really gets our goat' (p.9). And nothing caused more concern than the 1823 Monroe Doctrine which, said Otto von Bismarck, was 'a species of arrogance peculiarly American and inexcusable' (p.57). Sound familiar?

In Hamilton's "Original Major Draft" of George Washington's Farewell Address which established the notion of the Great Rule of American Unilateralism I detected parallels with Chinese public diplomacy. This may be a stretch, and perhaps I will come to regret making such statements; but there is talk in the Draft of cultivating harmony with all nations, the importance of sovereignty and not being entangled in foreign alliances. Moreover, commercial relations should always take precedence over political relations. All of these have been characteristics of Chinese foreign policy and themes in Chinese public diplomacy at one time or another.

In tackling this literature I may have taken a slight diversion from my East Asian interests, and I do not yet know how much this historical approach will inform my understanding of Taiwan's soft power and public diplomacy. However, it has re-awakened in me the sense that sometimes going off on an intellectual tangent can be very rewarding and is recommended from time to time.