BRICS’ Public Diplomacy and the Nuances of Soft Power

Photo © Joseph King/ Flickr
The annual Carnaval in Rio exemplifies the appealing popular culture that forms part of Brazil's "soft power" potential, which has not yet translated into concrete politcal gains for the BRICS member.

How effective are the BRICS in inspiring confidence in their public diplomacy? This question lies at the heart of their soft power.

A state’s foreign policy needs an enabling environment built on strategic trust and shared values in order to be successful over the long term. American academic Joseph Nye characterises this as ‘soft power’, the ability to attract rather than coerce other states, and it is a concept that BRICS countries increasingly recognise as a crucial feature of their own public diplomacy ambitions.

It is a proposed topic at the 2014 BRICS Academic Forum – an exchange platform for policymakers, academics and think tanks – held in the lead up to the actual summit in Rio de Janeiro. Similarly, in 2013, SAIIA co-hosted an event on India-South Africa relations where the power of ideas and shared experiences of democracy were identified as possible ways such countries could lead. The dearth of soft power also featured in SAIIA discussions with Russian academics during 2013 who lamented the lack of Russian cultural centres in Africa.

At the same time, the concept itself is a topic of heated debate amongst emerging countries. While attending the 3rd China-Africa Think Tank Forum (CATTF ) in 2013 – where soft power was a featured theme – the discomfort amongst some of the attendees in using this ‘catchphrase’ to describe their public diplomacy efforts became apparent. A former Chinese policymaker responding to Nye’s article, What China and Russia don’t get about Soft Power, noted that the article belittled China’s engagement by emphasising only the negative aspects of its public diplomacy efforts. The Chinese respondent suggested inventing new concepts that countries whose efforts are marginalised in this way could employ. One African participant supported the need for ownership of ideas and knowledge, noting that only 7% of the research and commentary on China-Africa relations is produced by Africans.

There is clear acknowledgement in BRICS research circles that the rapid expansion of the countries’ trade and high-level engagement with the rest of the world is in contrast to ill-informed public perceptions of their policy intentions. The key challenge facing them is moving away from the narrow political slant that characterises the current application of the concept of ‘soft power’ to efforts that will reap real socio-economic benefits for developing countries. However, a more constructive approach to this dilemma of expanding BRICS influence through soft power means should not lie in adopting new concepts to project their power but rather to focus on building intra-group trust between the BRICS.

Constructive persuasion and confidence-building measures can bring a country practical gains in political and economic terms. A positive image can help a nation achieve its goals cost-effectively without the necessity of monetary or military force. In cases where hard power is necessary, persuasion can also supplement wider influence. It is such benefits that raise interest in enhancing national attractiveness. However, international influence is notably intangible and difficult to quantify, and alleged soft power success is notoriously open to subjective interpretation.

At the same time soft power cannot guarantee an enabling environment for foreign policy objectives – particularly for countries with middle power aspirations. A 2013 study by the graduate business school, INSEAD, noted that Brazil is an attractive country in the traditional soft power sense. It has an appealing popular culture (from samba to soccer) and a multicultural society whose people interact well with others.

Still, Brazil’s popularity has not enabled the achievement of some of its global aspirations like a permanent seat at the UN Security Council or World Bank Presidency. On the other-hand, a Brazilian did manage to win the World Trade Organisation Director-General post. This questions whether enhanced popularity is sufficient for achieving positions of influence, particularly in cases where others’ national interests are at stake.

New circumstances

The importance of soft power influence has been well recognised in traditional approaches to political action and resonates strongly historically in the approaches of the BRICS countries. The famous Chinese strategist Sun Tzu advocated mind over force. Gandhi, whose ideas on non-violence were developed during his twenty-year stint in South Africa, noted that ‘…leadership at one point meant muscle; but today it means getting along with people’. The Southern African concept of Ubuntu, based on the spirit of cooperation and unity, also emphasizes relationship building. But an overriding challenge is how such influence could be advanced in an increasingly interconnected world. Furthermore the changing mosaic of states has rendered the promotion of public diplomacy even more challenging. The ideal soft-hard power combination also remains difficult to achieve.

Some states are stronger in their moral standing in the world (Mandela’s South Africa being a prime example), in the way their societies are organised or simply in how their popular image resonates internationally. Finding a unique blend to communicate effectively to the target state and its population may require a set of distinctive messages if they are to inspire and attract a sympathetic response, confidence and mutual attraction.

To further complicate matters, emerging players are also competing with each other. Take for instance the growing interest in adopting the media as public diplomacy instruments in the digital age. New voices – from Brazil’s TV Globo Internacional, Russia Today, China Central Television to other alternative voices like Al Jazeera and African players themselves – are challenging both the prevailing Anglo-Saxon narrative on continental affairs, but also contributing to a more complex counter-flow of information generated by themselves.

Soft power via BRICS

It begs the question how soft power could be applied in the midst of rising (and sometimes competing) national drives between emerging countries. Perhaps the BRICS platform could develop as such a testing ground. Instead of playing catch up with the West and reacting to prevailing global structures, there is greater scope for improving communication and connectivity between the BRICS. It is this space where the traditional sense of soft power (i.e. people, culture and values) remains limited and the greatest gains could be made in solidifying a group identity.

These geographically dispersed countries have already started public exchanges amongst journalists, academics and think tanks but also at the level of the individual through the rapid growth of tourism, filling spaces where people are gradually dispelling long-standing myths about each other. Such opportunities exist further when Brazil hosts the 2014 World Cup as well as the BRICS events. In this way, views of one another can possibly change over time.

Still the reality for emerging nations is that government support and commitment remains vital. But, the challenge is to move beyond engagements solely at government levels, which can only kick-start the process leading to growing attraction between their peoples. The BRICS have the motivation and funding that are pivotal to drive the BRICS publics closer. They are investing a great deal in enhancing mutual knowledge of each other’s societies and are complementing the learning that has taken place so comfortably through Western sources.

Nonetheless, until the time there exists real attraction for one another’s university programmes, connectivity between each country’s public and respective diasporas and mutual appeal of their unique modern ways of life, the strategic trust necessary for BRICS to act effectively on the global stage as a transformative source for contemporary international politics will be limited. Therefore, centering public diplomacy efforts on intra-BRICS relations is a key litmus test for both individual country image building and improving solidarity. Only this inward directed effort can effectively lay the foundation for enhanced global credibility in a fluid world order.