Think Out Loud

"We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience." -John Dewey

Social policy and soft power: How institutions can boost a nation’s international status 

Joseph S. Nye of Harvard University popularized the concept of “soft power” when addressing the growing importance of China in the Asian community.  More traditional modes of power, e.g. economic and military might, are considered “hard power.” These are the common means by which states throw their weight around in the global community.

The rise of international media and globalization, however, has helped bring about a new means of influence.  The components of “soft power” may include anything from cultural products, political values and ideas, foreign diplomacy and institution-building.  Taking China as an example, the Confucius Institutes that help propagate Mandarin learning at international partner-universities is an oft-cited example of China’s soft power initiatives.  Regarding political norms and ideas, the “Beijing Consensus” indicates the strongly-held Chinese value of national sovereignty; whereas Western sources of foreign aid require recipients to conform to certain institutional-political standards (democratic governance, market liberalization, etc.), China doesn’t demand structural changes from its aid recipients.  It characterizes this position as an unwillingness to intervene in domestic affairs, just as it asks the international community to do the same in relation to its persistent issues with Falun Gong adherents, Tibetan and Uighur separatists, and other human rights challenges.  The Beijing Consensus, of course, also has important implications for China’s foreign policy strategy.

So how might institution-building become a soft power tool, and what is the role of social policy specifically?  Generally speaking, improving governance through developing institutions increases state power internationally because it enhances that state’s reputation.  Before China’s economic boom was underway, the CCP increased international confidence in the PRC as a site for trade and investment by revising the constitution to protect private property and establishing a fledgling legal system.  Without these stabilizing institutional developments, China could not possibly enjoy its rapid economic growth rates.  Thus, a soft power initiative enabled the development of China’s hard power (economic strength).  Some theorists argue convincingly that effective social policies designed to develop human resources and alleviate inequality will also enhance a nation’s economic credentials.  I think the potential of social policy as a soft power tool is even more interesting than all that.

Imagine an environmental China, a China that — through sustainable technological innovation and ingenuity — could maintain it’s billion-plus population to a higher standard of living without destroying the planet.  Imagine a China with a robust array of social policies that provided comprehensive universal healthcare for rural and urban districts, or policies that solved quality housing shortages, rural unemployment issues, and established high-quality equal-access public education programs.  This China will have earned considerable prestige on the international stage.

On the other hand, take America’s soft power as a contrary example.  Disregarding the loss of U.S. credibility following its military conduct in the Middle East or economic bullying via “free-trade” policies with developing countries (soft power consequences from hard power manipulations), America’s social policy is in many ways a stain on its soft power arsenal.  The U.S. health care system, for instance, is infamous for its astronomical cost to consumers and the unethical practices of health insurance providers.  Lack of regulation preventing the predatory sale of mortgages to low-income people fueled the housing bubble and financial meltdown of 2008, exacerbating housing programs that were already stretched as more and more people faced foreclosure.  Indeed, as more and more politicians openly advocate the slashing of social policy initiatives to balance state and federal budgets, there is less and less room for the kind of institutional innovation with the power to enhance U.S. legitimacy and reputation by adequately addressing the needs of its people.



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