Exploring Soft Power of Bangladesh

What is soft power and why should Bangladesh be concerned about it? And what can be considered Bangladesh’s major sources of soft powers? This write up is an attempt to explore these pertinent questions. In fact, the term “soft power”was first coined by Joseph S. Nye in his 1990 book called Bound to Lead. It is basically ‘the ability to get what one wants through attraction rather than coercion or payments’ as described by Nye. It arises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies. More specifically,Soft power is associated with intangible power resources such as culture, ideology and institutions as argued by Nye.

Throughout history, power played significant role in the domain of international relations as canonical figure of International Relations, Hans J. Morgenthau views international politics is nothing but “power politics”. Traditionally, power has been defined as military power. The states with the most military power were designated as “Great powers” and the game of international politics was played primarily by them. In the 18th century, the power of individual states was measured by certain factors, including population, territory, natural resources/ wealth, armies and navy. In the ensuing years, this approach evolved into the “elements of national power” approach to power analysis reflected in Hans Morgenthau’s influential book, Politics Among Nations.

But coming into 21st century, to a larger extent, hard power has been replaced by soft power and promoting soft power has occupied significant place in the foreign policy formulations and implementations of many countries. If one looks at our neighbouring country, India, where 3C mantra, i.e. commerce, culture and connectivity is the prime objective of Indian foreign policy in this contemporary world. India is promoting its culture, as a part of its soft power strategy which is demonstrated through the declaration of International Yoga Day, promotion of Bollywood, Sufi music and so forth. China has also taken the promotion of soft power seriously and invested heavily for much of the last decade. For instance, China intends to expand the current number of Confucius Institutes from 480 to 1000 by 2020.

Recently Portland, a communications and public relations firm, studied 50 nations and ranked the top 30 in terms of soft power – the UK ranked first; South Korea, 20th; and China, 30th. While India does not make the top 30, the report singles out India’s Narendra Modi with a special profile. Analysts suggest hard power is about “push” and soft power is about “pull”. Hence, the power configuration has been changing in the global scenario.

Race for soft power: Portland examined 50 nations and identified the world’s 30 soft power leaders; here, the leaders in six areas. (Source: Portland 2015, cited in Pant 2015) 

Now, it is pertinent to look at the soft power of Bangladesh. Imagine, defeating a country like India, Pakistan, South Africa, Australia or even England acquiring hard power is not an easy task for Bangladesh. But defeating any country in the world in the game of cricket is quite possible for the country. In fact, winning ODI series against Pakistan, India and South Africa reveals the soft power of Bangladesh. Cricket can be one of the major sources of soft powers of Bangladesh. There are huge potentials of Bangladesh cricket which needs to be nurtured and promoted. If this progress in cricket is sustained, the day is not far away when Bangladesh will be able to bring home the world cup Trophy. Though, very often Bangladesh makes headlines in the areas of climate change, political violence, garment factory collapse and so forth, there are some positive issues as well that makes the headlines too. Cricket is one of them. It is no wonder that the number one all-rounder, Shakib Al Hasan is in Bangladesh. In this context, our Prime Minister’s love for the game and her contribution to cricket is quite appreciable. At the same token, to sustain the current glory in cricket, It needs to be free from corruption, nepotism and any kind of politics.

Second, the brand of “Made in Bangladesh” can be another major source of Bangladesh’s soft power. In this age of free market economy and economic globalization, branding matters. In fact, in ready-made garment (RMG) sector, Bangladesh is doing great;this RMG can create a positive branding for the country, though the challenges remain. We need to take care of our garment sector to promote our soft power worldwide.

Third, the positive image of Bangladesh in UN peace-keeping missions is one of the prime sources of Bangladesh’s soft power which needs to be promoted. The role of Bangladesh in international peace and security is well recognized which I think is ultimately increasing the soft power of the country.It is pertinent to note that the headline like “Bangladesh troops lead global peacekeeping” in Al Jazeera on 29 May 2012 certainly accelerates the positive image of Bangladesh around the globe. In addition, Bangladesh is already on track as the pioneering member of the UN Culture of Peace resolution adopted in the 52nd session of the General Assembly in 1997 proclaiming the year 2000 as “International Year for Culture of Peace.” The agenda was bolstered by successive resolutions-again pioneered by Bangladesh that resulted in declaring 2001-2010 as the “International Decade of Culture of Peace and Non Violence for the Children of the World”.

In addition, perfect leadership can also be sources of positive image. While Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been identified as the “global pride”, that is certainly soft power of Bangladesh. As ranking member of the US Congress Yvette Diane Clarke contends, “Sheikh Hasina is not only your (Bangladeshis) pride, she also is our pride . . . She is the champion of all of us”.

Fourth, there is long-standing tradition of maintaining poor quality of Bangladesh’s diplomacy. But in recent time, Bangladesh is doing quite good in conducting its foreign policy. Particularly, the recent height in Bangladesh-India relations, the reinvigorating “Look East Policy”, active role in sub-regionalism in South Asia particularly in the areas of trade and connectivity underscores the dynamism in Bangladesh foreign policy. Bangladesh’s maritime diplomacy with Myanmar and India is notable one. At the same token, in soft power, digital diplomacy (which is also called transformational diplomacy) is emphasized which needs to be properly cared by Bangladesh.

Fifth, Bangladeshi diaspora around the world, their hard work, honesty, integrity and above all their contributions to the world economy and peace demonstrates the soft power of Bangladesh which needs to be properly nurtured and promoted. If Bangladesh can train-up her young generation and sending them to the labour hungry countries like Japan, South Korea this will be one of the major soft powers of the country.

Sixth, today Bangladesh is often cited as one on the successful countries in case of women’s empowerment, socio-economic development, maternal mortality rate reduction and so forth. Needless to mention, Bangladesh did achieve a great success in terms of women’s empowerment and particularly in girls’ education. In addition, recent recognition by the UNEP and ITU through its award to our Honourable Prime Minister, i.e. “Champion of the Earth” in recognition to success in combating climate change and the “ICT Sustainable Development Award” in recognition of her contributions towards harnessing Information Communication and Technologies for Sustainable Development demonstrates the positive image of Bangladesh. Certainly these are soft power of Bangladesh. But still there is long way to go considering the growing level of violence against women to some extent.

Seventh, ideas like “micro-credit”, “social business” can be considered as soft power of the country which is followed by others around the world. Besides, our literature particularly the works of Kazi Nazrul Islam, Jasim Uddin, Sufia Kamal, Shamsur Rahman and other’s needs to be translated in English, and be promoted around the world. Visual and performing arts, fashion, cuisine and folk tales are also elements of soft power of the country. In addition, in recent days, some of our films are acquiring world name and fame and expanding our soft power across the world which needs to be nurtured.

Finally, “Bangladesh is a moderate, peaceful democratic country” this brand needs to be sustained and if necessary effective measures need to be taken into account. Certainly, the increased level of devastating political violence in the beginning of the year badly affects Bangladesh’s image around the world which needs to be addressed for the greater benefits of the country so that it is not repeated. Furthermore, cultural diplomacy and public diplomacy might be imperative to enhance the soft power of Bangladesh.The bottom line is that Bangladesh needs to explore and promote its soft power in the changing power dynamics which require further studies along with effective, visionary long term strategies and actions.

Md. Shariful Islam is a Lecturer, Department of International Relations, University of Rajshahi, Bangladesh. He can be reached at shariful_ruir@ru.ac.bd. 

2 thoughts on “Exploring Soft Power of Bangladesh

  • March 2, 2018 at 6:29 pm

    এই সব গুরুত্বপুর্ণ বিষয়ে লেখার সময়ে কি দালালী করা লাগে? সফট পাওয়ার কনসেফট আপনার ক্লিয়ার কিনা সন্দেহ আছে?

  • October 6, 2015 at 9:37 am

    beautifully explained, concise but in-dept analysis…well done sir


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