U.S. vs. China: which is the stronger "soft power"?

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Baku, January 15, 2014 –

The geopolitics welcome new terms from time to time, and the ''soft power'', introduced by J. Nye, is one of those. It is now used in the analysis of different aspects. This is the particular issue that experts focus upon while analyzing China’s foreign policy. It is beyond doubt that China’s economic growth plays a central role here. On the other hand, struggle for world leadership is becoming fiercer. It is no secret that this problem is undergoing certain substance change, which brings into spotlight the topic of the motives behind the usage of the ''soft power''. Can this notion really lead to change of quality in the geopolitics?

Silence the arms; let the culture ''talk''!

When American historian and publicist Joseph Nye introduced the term ''soft power'' in the 1990s it was yet unknown whether it would be embraced by the political-diplomatic quarters. Today, the term is frequently referred to while assessing geopolitical performance of the states with global leadership aspirations. In the broader sense, ''soft power'' is associated with the extent of realization of the cultural, economic, and political potential by a given country. Along with the domestic policy, it is the foreign one that is taken into account here.

Western analysts have started to refer to ''soft power'' more frequently, when characterizing foreign policy of China and Russia. In addition, Russian and Chinese experts are growingly turning to this notion. J. Nye suggested several theses, aiming to elaborate on the essence of the Chinese ''soft power''. Analysis of viewpoints from Washington and Beijing is quite fascinating.

An article by Nye titled ''What China and Russia Don’t Get About Soft Power'' was published in the ''Foreign Policy'' magazine on 29 April 2013 (see Joseph S. Nye. What China and Russia Don't Get About Soft Power / "", 29 April 2013). In his article the American analyst accuses Moscow and Beijing of pursuing ''state soft power''. Namely, Nye believes that it is the spirit of a civil society that has to be the locomotive of propagating cultural, domestic and foreign political values whereas Russian and Chinese authorities employ ''soft power'' with respect to the goals identified as conformant to the state interests in the given historical phase.

According to Nye, when Vladimir Putin speaks of disseminating Russian language and literature he primarily implies the means of accommodation of Russia’s imperial aspirations. During the Chinese Communist Party Congress in 2007 Hu Jintao spoke of the need to step up the efforts to boost the country’s ''degree of attractiveness''. Nevertheless, both leaders meant not the direct attraction but payment and coercion (see same article).

Still, Nye admits that owing to its potential the Chinese culture can be embraced globally. Since ancient times, the very cultural system not only helped to protect the Chinese society from the external influence but also managed to be disseminated around the world. Today, over 400 Confucius Institutes teaching Chinese language and culture are scattered throughout different continents (see Chen Wei. China’s Soft Power Deficit / ''The Wall Street Journal'', 8 May 2012). Thus, a contradiction emerges in the position of the renowned analyst that is more evident in Nye’s interview given in Beijing. He voices positive views of China’s ''soft power'' in the context of the ''Chinese dream''.

By saying that ''China must solve its own problems'' Nye emphasizes the viability of the ''Chinese dream''. Beijing can demonstrate its economic and cultural prowess around the world and while doing so, it must uphold economic factors underpinned by cultural traditions. This is where American and Chinese ''soft power'' has to be differentiated. From the ancient days, the ''Yin and Yang'' philosophy has played a central role in the Chinese culture. If ''Yin'' is a start of something soft, ''Yang'' is conversely hard and gross. Nye uses his own terms to describe the philosophy - a need to balance ''soft'' and ''hard'' power. Tradition of the Chinese culture offers vast opportunities to that end but that by no means denotes a clash of the American and Chinese ''soft power'' philosophy.

What about the principle of justice?

Joseph Nye thinks that it would be more accurate to speak of the synthesis of those powers as they may complement each other. The idea may be underpinned by the current state of relations. Apparently, Nye believes in the prospect of China becoming a strategic partner of the U.S. in cultural, political-ideological and economic fields.

Interestingly, there are many in China itself whose opinions slightly intersect with the ideas of the American analyst but still are largely opposite to Nye’s view in terms of East-West cultural comparison. They believe the Chinese ''soft power'' potential exceeds that of the West and attribute it to the peculiarities of the very Oriental culture (see Чжань Дэсюн. Запад и ''мягкая сила'' китайской культуры (Zhan Dexiong. The West and ''Soft Power'' of Chinese Culture) / '''', 25 March 2010). The Chinese author believes that the Western culture has gone into recession. It was the great Einstein who once said: ''The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking…'' Renowned scientist thus underscored that the West failed to grasp the idea of wise usage of science. In 1948, the American general Omar Bradley said: ''We have men of science, too few men of God... Our world is the one of nuclear giants and ethical infants'' (see previous article).

Evidently, possessing vast power is not a problem for America. Its challenge is to preserve wisdom and moral-ethical values and uphold them in life. This is the very source that the Western culture’s problems originate from. Such an approach is conditioned with an absolute individualism in the Western culture. The quote ''the greed is good'' by a leading character in one American movie of the late XX century defines it all. The personal success was the key criteria, which led to marginalization of social factors and readiness of the people to do their utmost for the sake of personal interests.

It should be reiterated that ideas of Einstein and Bradley were the reaction to the nuclear bombing of two Japanese cities by the U.S. Alas; it had no impact on Washington’s future policy because millions of people went on to lose their lives in Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Afghanistan and finally in Iraq.

Dexiong attributes it to weaknesses of the Western culture while highlighting advantages of the Chinese cultural traditions, citing the altruist essence of his culture. In the East, serving the country is the pinnacle of self-perfection. True citizen must uphold family interests above personal and national interests above all. This tradition defines a founding pillar of the Chinese society.

Finally, the Chinese author specifically underscores the need of bolstering mutual relations between the Western and Chinese cultures. Thus, similar to Nye, Dexiong also projects the possibility of not confrontation but cooperation between the U.S. and China. What does it mean in the geopolitical sense?

Apparently, both China and the U.S. are inclined towards finding common language. In any case, societies in both countries demand that. They can agree on the world leadership arrangements too. Proponents of the synthesis of the American and Chinese cultures hint on the ''joint soft power'' option. What would reality be? Only time will tell. There is one notable aspect – both American and Chinese analysts forget about justice. One can’t help but wonder why.

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