From Thailand to America to China, the secret to global success is soft power
Light power. The United States has Hollywood, jazz, and Facebook, while South Korea has K-pop, kimchi, and taekwondo. For Thailand, Pad Thai, Tom Yum Kung and Muay Thai have a global punch. Mango Sticky Rice is the latest addition to this list after Thai rapper Danupha “Milli” Khanatheerakul grabbed a bowl during her performance at the Coachella festival in California.
Countries around the world use soft power to spread their appeal and influence, although some have proven more successful at it than others.
Wealthy and powerful states tend to be better at projecting their soft power internationally, although certain smaller ones – like Singapore and Switzerland – have had similar success, experts say.
What is soft power?
The term soft power, coined by American political scientist Joseph Nye in the late 1980s, means “the ability to get what one wants through attraction and persuasion rather than coercion or payment” – as opposed to “hard power”, which refers to the use of force, force or military action.
“If a state succeeds in making its power appear legitimate in the eyes of others, it will meet less resistance to its wishes. If its culture and ideology are attractive, others will follow more readily,” Nye argued.
Countries value soft power because it makes them attractive and helps advance their agendas through a mix of culture, values, and foreign policies that serve their national interests.
According to the Global Soft Power Index 2022, a country’s soft power mainly depends on its familiarity, reputation and influence in areas such as culture and heritage, international relations, governance, business and trade, education and science, media and communications, and people and people from values.
Bid to boost the kingdom’s reputation
Thailand’s efforts earned the country 35th place out of 120 countries in this year’s Global Soft Power Index.
Thai food, Thai massage and Muay Thai have pushed this ranking up, along with the Kingdom’s reputation as the “Land of Smiles”.
Now the government is trying to further expand its soft power through food and cuisine, fashion, sports, TV series and films, and festivals.
But critics insist more needs to be done to bolster Thailand’s global reach of soft power. They say efforts should go beyond conventional Thai culture and traditions to cover creative content and innovation.
Leader in soft power
The United States, which tops the index and was named the “best implementer of soft power,” uses soft power alongside its military and economic might to advance its foreign policy. It does this by exporting American culture through movies and music, soft drinks, fast food chains, and more.
Through soft power, the US spreads its core values – including liberal democracy, free enterprise and human rights – around the world.
“Cultural exchange never fails to impress foreign nations with the freedom and openness of America’s business and communication dynamics,” wrote Professor Steve Jones of US Southwestern Adventist University.
During the Cold War, Hollywood films were used as a soft-power tool to spread US ideology in the fight against the Soviet Union and Communism, according to Yigit Guzelipek, a political scientist at Karamanoglu Mehmetbey University in Turkey.
“The image of the ‘American Dream’ is being promoted by Hollywood in terms of America’s so-called invincibility,” he wrote.
Today, American tech giants like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram dominate cyberspace, spreading US soft power across the internet and reflecting America’s core value of free speech.
Why Thailand’s soft power isn’t as successful as South Korea’s
Overcome geographical borders
South Korea is another soft power success story, despite being a small country whose hard power has been limited throughout its history.
The East Asian nation created the “Korean cultural wave” popularly known as Hallyu, which has swept the globe over the past two decades. As a government invention, Hallyu relies on the support and incentives of the South Korean government.
South Korea’s cultural influence, ranked 12th in the 2022 Global Soft Power Index, has spread globally through its popular music — known as K-pop — as well as television dramas, films and food.
Popular boy band BTS, mega-hit TV series Squid Game, and Oscar-winning film Parasite are just a few examples of South Korea’s successful use of its soft power.
Hallyu’s success has contributed enormously to South Korea’s economy, but its benefits are difficult to accurately calculate.
However, BTS alone contributes an estimated US$3.54 billion (116.8 billion baht) annually directly and US$1.26 billion (41.6 billion baht) indirectly, according to a 2018 Hyundai Research Institute study economy at. Meanwhile, South Korean tourism benefits from the hordes of foreign visitors who are drawn each year by movie or drama locations, as well as their favorite K-pop bands.
Top Asian nation on the list
China has made impressive strides after spending the past decade building its soft power. The communist country ranks 4th in the 2022 Global Soft Power Index, up from 8th last year, overtaking other Asian powerhouses like Japan (5th) and South Korea (12th).
In 2007, then-Chinese President Hu Jintao declared at the 17th National Congress that “cultural soft power” was a key factor in increasing the country’s competitiveness. “Building cultural soft power” has been duly listed in China’s 12th Five-Year Plan for National Economic and Social Development (2011-2015).
After President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, he endorsed the concept and linked it to his China Dream vision.
“Strengthening national cultural soft power is crucial to realizing the century goals and China’s dream of national revitalization,” Xi announced.
China, the world’s second largest economy after the US, is the rising power in terms of technology and trade. Chinese technology brands are now popular all over the world. Meanwhile, China also has its own social networking platform that can compete with Facebook and Twitter.
TikTok, a popular video clip-sharing service, is seen as another important source of Chinese soft power.
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Size doesn’t matter
Singapore, an island nation only slightly larger than Phuket, has mustered disproportionate soft power over its status as a global business hub.
Despite its small size, Singapore is the only Southeast Asian country ahead of Thailand in the 2022 Global Soft Power Index, ranking 20th compared to Thailand’s 35th.
“Singapore thrives on harnessing soft power in areas where not just values but interests align. Both at home and abroad, the rule of law has been vital to Singapore’s development, security and prosperity,” wrote retired Singaporean academic and diplomat Bilahari Kausikan in 2019.
“Singapore’s strong rule of law, predictable and stable system of government, and business-friendly regulation have all helped it attract international companies, foreign investment and global talent,” he added.
Singaporeans pride themselves on expanding their soft power by providing education and training to people from other countries. Their universities offer scholarships for students from ASEAN countries.
Former Singapore International Foundation Governor K. Kesavapany credited his country with helping China’s rapid rise from an impoverished nation in the 1980s to the world’s second largest economy today.
He said several thousand Chinese trained in Singapore after Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping visited the island nation in 1979 and told his people to “go south and learn”. The trainees returned with knowledge and expertise that contributed to China’s rapid growth.
From the Political Department of Thai PBS World