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Oversimplification of nuance

Media’s imagined or real power notwithstanding, Pakistan cannot be perceived as a soft power without actually being one

Oversimplification of nuance
Looking beyond the smokescreen: the two sides at the Islamabad sit-in by Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYR) in November 2017.

Government functionaries in Pakistan are often fond of claiming promotion of the ‘soft image’ of the country when they are essentially merely screening a film, inaugurating a cultural festival, launching a sports competition or attending an arts exhibition. Or some such.

Their unarticulated raison d’etre for this desirability is that the country is known for the reverse — that we are recognised for being a violent or introvert society (‘hard image’?) that is miles away from a spirit of creativity and inquiry that would allow for a pluralistic, and therefore, a more engaging society that is of interest and benefit to the outside world.

And the underlying assumption behind claims of promoting a soft image here is that promoting cultural and social pursuits, endeavours and achievements are the most effective way of fashioning a soft image.

Until Pakistan jettisons its military and security obsessions in favour of human and social development priorities the country cannot be mistaken globally for being a ‘soft power’ when in reality it is a ‘hard power’.

While both the assumption and understanding are not wide off the mark in terms of their desirability and purpose, there is a naiveté at play here that renders it a reductionist perspective. Just like a solitary swallow does not a summer make, the vehicle of implementation here — cultural events in themselves — is merely a case of oversimplification of a more nuanced notion.

The socio-cultural events in themselves do little in promotion of a soft image for a country — after all states like North Korea and Syria conduct a lot of officially-supervised socio-cultural events without being perceived as ‘soft powers’ by anyone.

Whereas permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — all armed with a veto to frustrate any initiative by the rest of the world — are all generally perceived as ‘soft powers’ despite the fact that they are simultaneously the largest makers, sellers and buyers of deadly arms in the world.

The hard path to soft

So how come some countries have a better soft image than others? There is a purpose and process that needs to be employed before a country gets one. The primary function of a modern state is capital creation so that the wealth can be used for welfare of its citizens and to optimise its influence in the larger world.

The best way to do this is through optimal human resource development — improving the human development indicators — so that a skilled citizenry can create wealth through private enterprise and pay taxes so that this money can be used, in large part, by the state to fashion as much disproportionately high influence in the world as possible.

This can be to either project political or economic power to enhance its markets. And the best way to do this is to partake in some of the largest industries in the world — tourism, entertainment, manufacturing and knowledge (Pakistan is distinguished for none of these).

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The optimal way to achieve this is through branding. Country branding is a complex business. Strong image building that renders a country attractive both economically and culturally is brought about by state policies that allow optimal engagement with the broader world through shared goals and values and common ground. This is where media comes in.

In an open world at its most communicative and interactive ever in human history, policies of exclusion and exception of the kind that Pakistan espouses cannot be spun into acceptability by any media to create a soft image. Countries in conflict with their neighbours and those espousing state policies and public sentiments that run afoul of global values centered on progressive, secular, pluralistic and inclusive tenets will never engender a soft image.

And that’s simply why Pakistan’s international image is not a ‘soft image’. Pakistan’s obsession with its nuclear prowess as a means of its self-styled importance does not impress anyone. Boasting of one’s nuclear status became passé after the end of Cold War. But apparently Pakistan never noticed.

Old values in a new time

Pakistan’s case has been made worse by the fact that it has spent a better part of the new millennium not on new opportunities but on an old-style military dictatorship and has remained obsessed with its paranoiac security interests in Afghanistan and never-ceasing obsession with India — all at the cost of its human resource development at home.

Even after transition from military rule to greater democracy, the Pakistani state’s continued undermining of full democratic values and aspirations of its people lie at the heart of the country’s perception as a country with an uncertain future and a state incompatible with a rapidly interconnected world around shared values.

The image that is reflected of Pakistan in world media is an outcome of the national identity that it has forged for itself driven by security considerations — that of being ‘not India’ rather than ‘like India’ in terms of democratic credentials, civilian supremacy, social development, economic ascendancy and pluralistic cultural power premised on secular values.

Media is independent everywhere in the developed world where states don’t run or influence it like it does in Pakistan. Media is not supposed to be the guardian of national interest but of public interest. The latter never changes while the former changes with time.

A media that allows itself to be manipulated into underwriting security interests of the state rather than focus on public interest and development issues, like it happens in Pakistan (witness the army of retired soldiers serving as current affairs analysts on the 130 daily talks shows on local TV channels, espousing anti-politics, anti-pluralism, anti-democratic perspectives), means that any chance of a ‘soft image’ for the country simply drowns in angry sound bites and disturbing imagery.

Soft pedaling reality

Pakistan cannot get a ‘soft image’ globally if the state fails to honour some of its best citizens feted and adored globally like the incredibly potent symbol of hope, Malala Yousafzai. Countries would do anything for a citizen like her with her ability to get the attention of any world leader anywhere, any time — witness the half a dozen of the world’s most developed countries offering her citizenship.

If the Pakistani state cannot even host and fete her officially for winning the world’s foremost peace prize and facilitate her to visit her home safely, then little wonder the country is not considered a ‘peaceful’ state by the world.

If the country allows its prime ministers to be hanged, assassinated, exiled and ousted on patently frivolous grounds while military dictators get state honours despite dishonouring the constitution, little wonder Pakistan does not fool anyone it is a ‘democratic’ state.

If Independence Day supplements published by Pakistani embassies in newspapers abroad usually boast about the country’s self-styled military might rather than features on global peace icon Malala Yousafzai, global democracy icon Benazir Bhutto, global human rights icon, Asma Jahangir and the country’s unsung but increasingly influential entrepreneurial youthful classes, then why be surprised at the country not being perceived globally as a ‘soft power’?

Until Pakistan jettisons its military and security obsessions in favour of human and social development priorities the country cannot be mistaken globally for being a ‘soft power’ when in reality it is a ‘hard power’ in a world that no longer values military might as a primary national identity. Simply put, media’s imagined or real power notwithstanding, Pakistan cannot be perceived as a soft power without actually being one.

Adnan Rehmat

Adnan Rehmat
The author is a political analyst and media development specialist. He can be reached at adrehmat@gmail.com.

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