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Trump and the WHO: Why 'soft power' is important

May 29th, 2020
Trump and the WHO: Why 'soft power' is important
Dr. Hendrik W. Ohnesorge from the Center for Global Studies (CGS) at the University of Bonn. Credit: Barbara Frommann/Uni Bonn
Actors on the international stage try to assert their interests and resolve conflicts with military force or economic sanctions—in other words, with "hard power." But the breakthrough is often achieved with "soft power": China is courting sympathy with its panda diplomacy, the Fridays for Future movement has received a huge response, and joint action is needed in the coronavirus pandemic. In his doctoral thesis, the political scientist Dr. Hendrik W. Ohnesorge from the Center for Global Studies (CGS) at the University of Bonn examined how soft power is used as a strategic means to achieve objectives in the global competition for power and influence.

Power is the ability to enforce one's own will against others. While "hard power" relies on military or economic sanctions or incentives, "soft power" is based on attraction and persuasion. "Exerting soft power is thus about drawing upon persuasion and one's own attractiveness to influence the behavior of other states in a way that ensures one's own goals can be achieved," says Dr. Hendrik Ohnesorge from the Center for Global Studies (CGS) at the University of Bonn, who wrote his doctoral thesis on this topic.

For instance, China is known for its "panda diplomacy." Particularly important strategic partners receive one of these adorable black and white bears as a gift from the rising power. "This is intended to help convey a positive image of China throughout the rest of the world," says the political scientist. Germany practices soft power with its foreign cultural and educational policy, for example through the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation or the Goethe Institute. Ohnesorge says, "Germany wants to increase its attractiveness overseas in this way, for example in order to attract top talent." For the United States after the Second World War, Hollywood, McDonald's or Coca-Cola were important bearers of soft power that are still influential today.

Further development and refinement of the concept

In his doctoral thesis the scientist further developed and refined the concept of soft power, which was developed under the leadership of Harvard Professor Joseph S. Nye. Ohnesorge emphasizes the importance of the "personality" factor: "My observations indicate that it is political decision-makers in particular, but also people from society, the media and sports, who have a decisive influence on the image of a country."

This also works in the negative: The current president has caused the USA to suffer severe losses of soft power, Ohnesorge cites an example. For instance, Donald Trump recently threatened the World Health Organization (WHO) with a permanent suspension of funding in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic—because of an "alarming lack of independence" from China. "The US seems to be further isolating itself," says Ohnesorge. "In view of the complex global problems, persuasion and cooperation are needed instead of threats."

The political scientist is certain that the importance of soft power in international relations will continue to increase. "The hard power-based approach of coercion or incentives in a do-or-die manner alone is not enough," says Ohnesorge. "Rather, decision-makers in politics and diplomacy also have to resort to soft power." In view of the advancing globalization and interdependence of states, the hard power of even the most powerful states is constantly reaching its limits. "Solving some of the most pressing problems of international politics today, such as climate change, extremist terrorism or global pandemics, is beyond the reach of hard power instruments."

Soft power is on the rise in the 21st century

Impressive proof is the experience of the United States in combating terrorism with primarily military means. On the other hand, the example of Greta Thunberg shows that soft power can be far more potent. "In the world of the 21st century there is a growing need for soft power, based on the forces of persuasion and attraction of nation states as well as that of other actors, such as international organizations, non-governmental organizations or individuals," concludes Ohnesorge. A commitment to multilateralism and the primacy of diplomatic instruments over military force and economic sanctions could be seen as an expression of soft power, while at the same time increasing one's own credibility.

More information:
Hendrik W. Ohnesorge: Soft Power - The Forces of Attraction in International Relations, Springer International Publishing, 307 p., hardcover: Euro 90.94, eBook: Euro 71.68

Provided by University of Bonn

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