6 June 2024

 Soft power. The United States has Hollywood, jazz and Facebook while South Korea can boast K-pop, kimchi and taekwondo. For Thailand, pad thai, tom yum kung and Muay Thai pack a global punch. Mango sticky rice is the most recent addition to that list after Thai female rapper Danupha “Milli” Khanatheerakul grabbed a bowl during her set at the Coachella festival in California.  

Countries around the world use soft power to spread their appeal and influence, though some have proved more successful in achieving this than others.

Wealthy and powerful states tend to be better at projecting their soft power internationally, though certain smaller ones — like Singapore and Switzerland — have achieved similar success, say experts.

What is soft power?

Coined by American political scientist Joseph Nye in the late 1980s, the term soft power means “the ability to get what you want through attraction and persuasion rather than coercion or payment” — in contrast to “hard power”, which refers to the use of force or military action.

“If a state can make its power seem legitimate in the eyes of others, it will encounter less resistance to its wishes. If its culture and ideology are attractive, others will more willingly follow,” Nye argued.

Countries value soft power because it makes them attractive and helps push their agendas via a mix of culture, values and foreign policy that serves their national interests.

According to the Global Soft Power Index 2022, a country’s soft power depends mainly on its familiarity, reputation and influence in such areas as culture and heritage, international relations, governance, business and trade, education and science, media and communication, and people and values.

Bid to boost Kingdom’s standing

Thailand’s efforts earned the country 35th ranking among 120 countries in this year’s Global Soft Power Index.

Thai food, Thai massage, and Muay Thai have pushed up that ranking, along with the Kingdom’s reputation as the “Land of Smiles”.

Now, the government is looking to expand its soft power further through food and cuisine, fashion, sports, television series and films, and festivals.

However, critics insist more needs to be done to boost Thailand’s global soft-power outreach. They say efforts should expand beyond conventional Thai culture and traditions to cover creative content and innovation.

Leader in soft power

The United States, which tops the index and has been described as the “best implementer of soft power”, uses soft power alongside its military and economic might to push its foreign policy. This is done through exporting American culture via movies and music, soft drinks, fast-food chains and more.

Through soft power, the US spreads its core values – including liberal democracy, free-market economics and human rights – across the globe.

“Cultural exchanges repeatedly impress foreign nations with the freedom and openness of US business and communication dynamics,” wrote Professor Steve Jones of the US Southwestern Adventist University.

During the Cold War, Hollywood movies were used as a soft-power tool to spread US ideology in the struggle against the Soviet Union and communism, according to Yigit Guzelipek, a political scientist at Karamanoglu Mehmetbey University in Turkey.

“The ‘American dream’ image is distributed by Hollywood in the sense of America’s so-called invincibility,” he wrote.

Nowadays, American tech giants like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are dominating cyberspace, spreading US soft power through the Internet and reflecting America’s core value of free speech.

Why Thailand’s soft power is not as successful as South Korea’s

Overcoming geographical limits

South Korea is another soft-power success story, despite being a small country whose hard power has been limited throughout its history.

The East Asian nation has created the “Korean cultural wave”, popularly known as Hallyu, which swept across the globe over the past two decades. A state invention, Hallyu relies on the South Korean government’s support and incentives.

Ranked 12th in the Global Soft Power Index 2022, South Korea’s cultural influence has spread globally through its popular music — known as K-pop — as well as television dramas, movies and food.

The popular boy band BTS, the megahit TV series “Squid Game”, and the Oscar-winning film “Parasite” are just a few examples of how South Korea successfully employs its soft power.

The success of Hallyu has contributed tremendously to South Korea’s economy, but it is difficult to calculate its benefits precisely.

However, BTS alone contributes an estimated US$3.54 billion (116.8 billion baht) per year directly and $1.26 billion (Bt41.6 billion) indirectly to the economy, according to a 2018 Hyundai Research Institute study. Meanwhile, South Korean tourism benefits from the hordes of foreign visitors drawn each year by locations in movies or dramas, as well as their favorite K-pop bands.

Top Asian nation on the list

China has won impressive success after spending the past decade building its soft power. The communist country ranks 4th in the Global Soft Power Index 2022, up from the 8th spot last year, overtaking other Asian powerhouses such as Japan (5th) and South Korea (12th).

In 2007, then-Chinese president Hu Jintao declared at the 17th National Congress that “cultural soft power” would be a key factor in boosting the country’s competitiveness. “Building cultural soft power” was duly listed in China’s 12th Five-Year Plan for National Economic and Social Development (2011 to 2015).

After President Xi Jinping took power in 2012, he endorsed the concept and linked it with his China Dream vision.

“Enhancing national cultural soft power is crucial to the realization of the centennial goals and the China Dream of national rejuvenation,” Xi announced.

China, the world’s second-largest economy after the US, is the rising power in terms of technology and trade. Chinese tech brands are now popular all over the world. Meanwhile, China also has its own social-networking platform to rival Facebook and Twitter.

TikTok, a popular video clip-sharing service, is viewed as another important source of Chinese soft power.

Milli: Thailand’s dissident rapper serves a bittersweet message for government

Size doesn’t matter

Singapore, an island state only slightly larger than Phuket, has mustered disproportional soft power on the back of its status as a global business hub.

Despite its small size, Singapore is the only Southeast Asian country above Thailand in the Global Soft Power Index 2022, ranking 20th compared to Thailand’s 35th.

“Where Singapore has found success in using soft power is in areas where not just values are aligned, but interests. Both at home and abroad, rule of law has been critical to Singapore’s development, security, and prosperity,” Singaporean academic and retired diplomat Bilahari Kausikan wrote in 2019.

“Singapore’s strong rule of law, predictable and stable system of government and business-friendly regulation have all helped it attract international companies, foreign investment, and global talent,” he added.

Singaporeans take pride in expanding their soft power by providing education and training for people from other countries. Their universities offer scholarships to students from ASEAN countries.

Former governor of the Singapore International Foundation, K Kesavapany, credited his country for aiding China’s rapid progress from an impoverished nation in the 1980s to the world’s second-largest economy today.

He said several thousand Chinese had trained in Singapore after Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping visited the island state in 1979 and told his people to “go south and learn”. The trainees returned with knowledge and know-how that contributed to China’s rapid growth.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk