[OPINION] Will soft power save the rules-based order?

Soft power seeks the long-term view – the weaving of a powerful narrative that avoids the use of force and coercion but instead utilizes inducement

Mark Manantan

Published: 1:5 AM September 2, 2018

Updated: 1:47 AM September 2, 2018

Since the aftermath of World War II, international politics has been governed by this so-called rules-based order. It is a set of rules, norms, and institutions, which have guided how states behave and interact with one another. Founded by Western powers led by the United States, the rules-based order enshrined in the United Nations Charter affirmed the sovereignty of states, encouraged cooperation, and advocated for peaceful resolution of conflict. But as the international system undergoes transformation facilitated by rapid globalization and the emergence of new major powers, the continuing relevance and legitimacy of the rules-based order is intensely debated. Its erosion has become more imminent with the relative decline of US influence and the rise of China.

China's peaceful rise is no longer warranted given its defiance of international law as evidenced by its expansive militarization in the South China Sea. Such deliberate effort of transgressing the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, indicates its long-term ambition to advance its own version of world order: a new set of arrangements fueled by China's historic claim of its destiny as a global power. The erosion of the rule of law is further exacerbated by potential signs of abandonment and isolation from its key purveyor—the United States. 

It can be argued that mitigating the relative decline of the US-led rules-based order will require strategic might premised not only on hard power but on the legitimacy of ideas and values that create the overall narrative. This is a complicated task that could be addressed ultimately through the instruments of soft power.

Soft power

Soft power is the ability to influence others through persuasion and attraction of ideas, which leads to acquiescence. It aims to co-opt behavior and shape the preferences of others to achieve desired outcomes. Applied in this context, the endurance of the rules-based order will depend on the belief and confidence by the leaders and citizens particularly in the Indo-Pacific region.

More than just an abstraction or a rhetorical device, the rules-based order must create a powerful story that reflects the growing needs and desires in the region. Simply put, let the rules, standards, and norms underpinned by the rules-based order highlight the shared values and common interests to bring peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific. It becomes imperative that the purveyors of the rules-based order must reiterate why it remains relevant to be the governing standards in regional and international politics.

In addressing Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, the United States and its allies sail and fly to assert freedom of navigation and overflight. In soft power currency, this tactic yields short-term gains and limited returns. To a certain extent, it even carries the risk of an outright conflict if miscalculations occur.

Soft power seeks the long-term view – the weaving of a powerful narrative that avoids the use of force and coercion but instead utilizes inducement. Its approach is not only focused on "might versus might" of geopolitics but capitalizes on international attractiveness or appeal of ideals and values. Countries that wield soft power can influence others to emulate or believe in it. And in the long run, those who consent to it will protect and contribute to the maintenance and exercise of such norms and ideas.

But soft power goes beyond affinity to cultural and economic influence engendered by pop culture references such as McDonalds', Apple, Hollywood, NBA, or New York. Soft power is rooted in public diplomacy cultivated through decades of constant interaction and cooperation between countries and its people. Its common forms include joint development projects, educational exchanges, and leaders and government officials participating in annual summits and forums. 

US and China: Soft power game

The area of soft power is an arena where the United States has had a proven track record since the end of World War II in the Indo-Pacific region. Through its development aid programs, it has supported civil society movements, including a strong, open, and free press, which advocates for democratic values and the rule of law. US foreign aid programs have a huge impact on poverty reduction, humanitarian interventions, as well as fostering people to people linkages through cultural exchanges and educational scholarships and trainings.

But in recent years, the US government's investment in its soft power initiatives has undergone a downward trend. For its 2019 budget proposal, the Trump administration only allocated a combined $39.3 billion for the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development. This figure is in sharp contrast to military and defense spending which received a dramatic boost of $686.1 billion. Thus, in Trump's America First policy, intelligence and military power – not diplomacy – are the primary tools in pursuing US foreign policy. 

On the other hand, China is reportedly spending approximately $10 billion per year for its public diplomacy programs alone, through the Confucius Institutes, educational exchanges, and even international media. Although it is hard to verify Chinese spending on its soft power engagement, it is crucial to recognize China's aspiration for soft power to complement its economic and military strength. 

It would be an overstatement to expect soft power as the only tool that could save the rules-based order from eroding. But it is a crucial element in the entire equation along with hard power. The US and its allies must accommodate the rise of China and understand that the post-World War II rules-based order must also be refashioned to adapt to the needs of the changing times. Perhaps, through an approach that emphasizes the role of soft power in managing China's rise, China can learn how to understand the limits and boundaries of its newfound status. Through continuous dialogue, China can be led into harmonizing its interests with the international system. A harmonious coexistence between two superpowers will be the most ideal scenario and for us to get there, both China and US must first take their seats at the table. – Rappler.com

Mark Manantan is a research affiliate of Asia Pacific Pathways to Progress Inc. He is also a contributor to the Office of Strategic Studies and Management of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.