The game of influencing others

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By Maleeha Lodhi

Prime Minister Imran Khan has frequently spoken about Pakistan’s tourism potential with its historical sites, scenic beauty and some of the world’s most spectacular mountain ranges and highest peaks. He has vowed to promote tourism to the country and rightly pointed out that many countries’ economies benefit substantially from tourism and so should Pakistan. But at the same time, he has criticized those who argue that the country should use its soft power resources to enlarge the country’s international influence and enhance its global image.
For example, in a speech a few months ago he spoke at some length about the insignificance of soft power. He said people should not bother with creating a ‘soft image’ of Pakistan only to please outsiders, by which he meant Western countries. He asked what a ‘soft image’ really meant and then gave this answer. Will creating such an image mean the “world will consider us as very good?” This, he argued, only reflects an inferiority complex and the hallmark of people who lack self-confidence. 
More recently he made similar remarks at a film awards ceremony reiterating that pleasing ‘others’ brings the country no credit. These comments reflect the thinking of a section of Pakistani society that misconstrues what soft power is and how it can be deployed to achieve the country’s foreign policy goals and economic objectives. It also mistakes projecting the country’s image as an effort to please outsiders. Influencing others is not “pleasing others” in some kind of goodwill gesture. It is shaping positive perceptions about the country in pursuit of national objectives.
Showcasing the positive features of a country is a means to win hearts and minds abroad by seeking to ensure that these aspects are acknowledged and appreciated. It involves a country defining itself so that others including its adversaries do not mischaracterize it or seize the narrative to that country’s disadvantage. When Prime Minister Khan says he wants to promote tourism he is actually seeking to use a soft power resource to attract people to the country. Yet he rejects the idea of soft power.

Kaghan and Naran, tourist attractions in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province

The problem is that much of the discussion of soft power in the country and the media doesn’t seem to be based on a real understanding of what it means and how it can benefit the country. Big and small countries all use soft power to build favorable international perceptions about themselves. Global powers that possess substantial military and economic strength integrate soft power in their strategies, and spend generous resources on this as this helps to expand their influence and complement their ‘hard power.’ They do this not from lack of self-confidence as the Prime Minister suggested, but because it is regarded as crucial in the battle for influence. China is now engaging in vigorous soft power projection and making increasing efforts to shape the global narrative. Western nations have of course been doing this for a longer time. 
Everyone accepts that international perceptions are consequential to a country’s standing in global affairs. When soft power is deployed as an integral part of a country’s diplomatic strategy, it pays rich dividends by building trust and influence. This in turn helps the country to more effectively promote its foreign policy goals. The growing shift in recent decades from hard power (military and economic strength) to the importance of soft power means that being ‘liked’ helps nations to increase their international clout. ‘Nation branding’ is today undertaken by the majority of countries.
Pakistan has many soft power resources but unfortunately in any index of soft power drawn up by international businesses or Think Tanks it figures at the bottom of the league. For example, in the Global Soft Power Index 2020 put together by the London based company, Brand Finance, Pakistan is among the bottom ten, at 53 out of 60 countries.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Located at the intersection of three regions – South Asia, Central Asia and South West Asia, Pakistan’s culture evolved as a confluence of several civilizations. This fusion of different cultures informed Pakistan’s rich heritage. The banks of the Indus River have been home to one of the world’s oldest civilizations. From historical sites to the country’s majestic peaks there is much to project as part of Pakistan’s soft power strategy as the Prime Minister has often pointed out. Its soft power resources include its rich art, music and literature, and increasingly its films which have seen a renaissance in recent years. 
All of this requires in the first instance an acknowledgement of the importance of soft power in Pakistan’s diplomacy and then the identification of soft power resources and their imaginative incorporation in foreign policy. Today narratives at the international level are shaped by such strategies especially as a hyperconnected and multipolar world offers unprecedented opportunities to influence multiple actors across the world. For Pakistan it is particularly important to raise its diplomatic game as it has long suffered from international image problems due to mischaracterizations but also because it has not crafted and implemented a soft power policy.

(Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha)