Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Chinese soft power: Libya and Syria

I am currently attending the annual conference of the International Studies Association in San Diego. At the publishers' exhibition I picked up the February 27 issue (Number 152) of the Asia Pacific Bulletin published by the East-West Center (http://EastWestCenter.org/APB), 'Syria: What China has learned from its Libya experience' by Yun Sun.The author presents a very useful survey of China's involvement in the Middle East that is of interest to scholars of soft power. We know, for example, that China attracted a barrage of international criticism for its joint veto (with Russia) of  a UN Security Council Resolution on Syria. It is important to note, however, that such behaviour is consistent with China's principle of non-interference in the affairs of sovereign states, an approach to foreign policy that can be traced back to the 1949 revolution and which has only recently been challenged by more active involvement in UN peacekeeping operations. In other words, it is possible to argue that the decision to veto the Resolution demonstrates China's soft power in action, if by soft power we mean the projection of ideals and values a country upholds.

Yun Sun makes the point that China's decision on Syria was based on its experience of abstaining on the UN Security Council Resolution 1973 to approve NATO intervention in Libya in 2011. This abstention had actually undermined China's soft power at home ('domestic nationalists criticised Beijing for "compromising its principles" and "acquiescing to Western demands"') and abroad (' ... with some countries questioning the independence of China's foreign policy and its ability to handle Western pressure'). In other words, it is possible that China's decision to abstain in the vote on Libya damaged its soft power capacity: China's behaviour was not consistent with Chinese foreign policy values and principles. Moreover, China's soft power is now enhanced not only by attempts to engage with the Syrian opposition to the Assad regime  (the Syrian National Committee met with the Chinese Foreign Minister on Africa and West Asia only 24 hours after the vote in the UN), but also by China's active search for a non-military solution to the Syrian problem. This is the kind of behaviour that can make a huge difference to China's ability to claim soft power capital.  

Sunday, 1 April 2012

The soft power of happiness

On Monday 2 April 2012, the UN will implement Resolution 65/39 which places 'happiness' officially on the global agenda. The Resolution also empowers the Kingdom of Bhutan to convene a meeting on happiness as part of the 66th session of the UN General Assembly, opened by Prince Charles. Joseph Stiglitz and Jeffrey Sachs will discuss 'happiness indicators'.

This is a major triumph for Bhutan's soft power. Forty years ago, the King of this nation established Gross National Happiness (GNH) as an alternative to Gross National Product (GNP). Although Bhutan is one of the least developed and poorest countries in the world, it has been described as the happiest nation in Asia and the eighth happiest in the world by Business Week. Conferences on GNH have taken place across the world, including Canada and the Netherlands, and high-profile economists like Amartya Sen and the French President have taken notice of how happiness can measure performance and progress.

I think this is an interesting development for two reasons and deserves greater attention.
First, it is an interesting measure of soft power. Happiness is a core value in Bhutan, and if soft power really does mean the attraction of national values and ideals, then perhaps happiness is something we now should consider alongside other such values as democracy, freedom etc, prosperity etc.

Second, the fact that GNH has been adopted by the UN, and that governments, policy-makers and policy-relevant thinkers are talking about happiness demonstrates the success of Bhutan's soft power capacity. Bhutan has been able to persuade the world over the last forty years that GNH is worth noticing. In studying soft power we become obsessed by measurement; can we find any credible and genuine proof that the soft power has worked? Perhaps in this case we can. Perhaps it reveals a deeper malaise: it is not so much the success of Bhutan's capacity to convince the world to measure happiness, but a failure of other, more conventional approaches to measuring progress that seem to be challenged by global recession, wars and man-made crises. Nevertheless, we have clear evidence here of parts of the world, and the UN, embracing the values of a small, poor, landlocked Himalayan kingdom that barely makes the news. This is a step forward. It has taken forty years, but this only demonstrates that persuasion is a long-term process and that soft power cannot expect results overnight.

All in all, I am happy.