Shreyas Isaac explores the concept of soft power and the importance of soft power in global politics in his latest article.
I was walking on Church Street, one of the posh areas of Bangalore one Sunday evening, when I suddenly heard Korean music from one of the many eateries on the road. The song was familiar to me yet it was unfamiliar. It took me a while to realize that it was K-Pop or Korean Pop Music. As I walked away, I kept thinking to myself, how Korean music has become so popular in India along with Korean drama and Korean movies. I did not fully understand why and how Korean culture had become so popular in India, Korea is quite far away from us and India does not have a very large diaspora in Korea nor does Korea in India. Most of us were only familiar with Korean brands like Hyundai, who sold budget cars in India and Samsung, because we bought their mobile phones. But the 21st century is a beautiful world, thanks to the internet, thousands if not millions of Indians, especially younger generation Indians are now familiar with Korean culture, drama, art, music, language and even food. Korean and Japanese art and culture have seen a tremendous boom in India. BTS is undoubtedly as popular a band in India as it is in Korea. Restaurants and cafes selling Korean and Japanese food have mushroomed across Indian cities. Institutions teaching Korean and Japanese have seen huge rises in enrollment. But what exactly explains this increased fan base?
The answer to this takes us to a term in International Relations called 'Soft Power'. This was a term coined by noted scholar Joseph Nye, who argues that apart from the military and economic power that a country has, countries also have another type of power, the power to attract. Soft Power includes variables like culture, language, art, food and is the 'appeal' that a country has. In simpler terms, soft power is the brand value of a country. By giving huge grants and incentives to the art and culture industry and by promoting anime, K-pop and K-drama abroad, countries like Korea and Japan have quite effectively created a massive high value brand for themselves. This may explain why the United Nations, in order to promote the Sustainable Development Goals, asked a popular Korean band, BTS, to come perform at the UNGA!
By making their culture popular, these countries have created a favourable opinion towards their country abroad. This favourable opinion has a lot of importance, not only does this help them economically but it also allows these countries to push their political agendas in the International level, it is therefore an extremely important part of their foreign policies. Soft power allows countries to influence the behaviour of other countries without using coercion or violence. Politically, this favourable opinion can do wonders for a country, say Japan wants to have a military alliance with India, the Indian Government would be more than willing to sign an agreement as the Indian public would not object much to it.
Economically speaking, the popularity of Korean and Japanese culture has lead to a huge boost to the economies of these countries, exports of merchandise related to popular culture has boomed and the domestic arts and culture industries have seen a huge boost, it was not surprising to me that when a store selling Korean accessories and merchandise opened up in my city, it saw huge crowds of young people, hoping to buy items ranging from skin care products to pillows, sourced from Korea. In Japan, the animation and gaming industry is one of the biggest and quite easily competes with Disney and other American companies. In Korea, the cinema industry has seen great success, so much so that 'Squid Games', Korean production has now become the most watched show on Netflix. The tourism sectors of these countries too have benefitted with thousands of people flocking to see the home country of their favorite artists and musicians.
While countries focus on having strong hard power (military power), the 21st century is a much more dynamic world and mere military or economic power may not be enough if countries have to keep up with the world. Countries have to invest and nurture their soft power and invest in promoting their culture abroad. The story of Japan and Korea have many important lessons for countries, one that foreign policy does not only depend on what ministers and bureaucrats do and two that the public is an important part of any foreign policy decision, the success of a country therefore depends on much more than the economic gains of a country and the number of nuclear warheads a country has, it could well depend on how popular your cinema is and how many people are willing to watch your movies!