Soft Power Is Making a Hard Return

Days before the recent NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, the host country’s foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, who has been outspoken against Russia’s war in Ukraine, welcomed an unusual side event. He tweeted that he was “[p]roud to open the NAFO summit.” That wasn’t a typo.

The North Atlantic Fella Organization is an internet meme and a social media movement that bases its name on NATO. They call themselves “fellas,” in their view a gender-neutral term, and identify their accounts with cartoon avatars of Shiba Inu dogs.

It may sound like fun and games, but it’s no joke. After Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, this decentralized group of activists came together to raise money for Ukraine and demolish Russian narratives on social media. They even have their own version of NATO’s Article 5 for mutual assistance, with the hashtag #NAFOArticle5, a cry for other fellas to pile in on social media posts. The fellas took a big step toward recognition last month by staging the NAFO summit in Vilnius. Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas congratulated the group on its first summit and tweeted, “Behind every Fella is a real person who believes in #Ukraine’s victory.”

The world has changed markedly in the more than three decades since political scientist Joseph S. Nye Jr. popularized the term “soft power” in the pages of Foreign Policy. When that article was published in 1990, the dust had barely settled on the ruins of the Berlin Wall, most American homes didn’t have a personal computer, and the first internet meme of a dancing baby was still a few years in the future. The notion of government ministers attending a wartime summit and taking time to praise smack-talking cartoon dogs would have struck many political observers as far-fetched.

​​Although the modern vernacular of soft and hard power implies opposition, since the earliest civilizations it has been more of a continuum. In ancient times, Hellenization spread throughout the known world in the wake of Alexander the Great’s army. Proselytizing priests followed in the footsteps of Spain’s conquistadors. Imperial China presented a cultural wall against the steppe as powerful as any fortifications. The information age has modified the nature of soft power but not human nature. As Russia’s full-scale war in Ukraine grinds on and governments in West Africa fall to coups, it’s evident that no surfeit of wishful thinking will reduce the appeal of hard power for some.

Today, many world leaders still reach for sports, language, food, music, and movies to advance their interests. These efforts aren’t inherently more persuasive than bullets or blockades, but it’s a much more pleasant and humane way of seeking to influence world events. Occasionally, soft power seems to work like a charm. The United Kingdom is widely viewed as having benefited from the recent royal pageantry, despite it coinciding with some messy political infighting in London’s Parliament. India certainly benefits to some degree from the widespread popularity of yoga and Bollywood, but the country’s status as a rising Asian nation and counterweight to China explains much of its appeal in the West.

Increasingly, some political representatives are taking the extra, and risky, step of engaging directly with global popular culture. China’s ambassador to the United States, for example, recently tweeted, “An American friend asked me: what kind of flower will grow out of China?” A torrent of responses cast doubt on this anecdote and questioned whether the ambassador had any notion of how Americans actually speak.

Advancing soft power through pop culture may get more difficult as the internet evolves. The NAFO fellas, for example, generally organize themselves on Twitter, which has been a popular platform for social movements from the Arab Spring to Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement. But Elon Musk’s rebranding of Twitter as “X” raises the question of whether the fellas will still be able to “tweet” and if anyone will notice if they do.

In a similar vein, Hollywood, which arguably did more in the 20th century to promote a beguiling image of the United States than the Marshall Plan or the Apollo program, is struggling with challenges at home and abroad. Labor strife casts doubts on new productions, artificial intelligence is encroaching, and competition from overseas is increasing. Content from Nigeria, Mexico, Germany, Japan, South Korea, and, of course, Bollywood is clamoring for the global attention span. Filmmaking can also backfire: Sony Pictures Entertainment suffered a major hack in 2014 that included threats to terrorize cinemas showing The Interview, a comedy about a plot to assassinate North Korea’s leader.

North Korea may be a touchy Hermit Kingdom. But South Korea’s K-pop, its brand of popular music, furnishes Seoul’s leaders with a deep well of soft power to draw from. In September 2021, when the United Nations opened the first fully in-person General Assembly in New York after lifting COVID-era restrictions, South Korea’s then-president, Moon Jae-in, invited the group BTS to sing and dance (and speak) their way through the U.N. headquarters as his special presidential envoys for future generations and culture. At the time, South Korea was riding high, having recently been catapulted into the top 10 largest economies in the world. Now, it has just been elected to the U.N. Security Council.

Russian-born ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov leaps with his arms spread wide along with other dancers as he performs with the American Ballet Theatre company in 1978.

Russian-born ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov leaps with his arms spread wide along with other dancers as he performs with the American Ballet Theatre company in 1978.

Soviet-born ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov performs with the American Ballet Theatre in New York on April 17, 1978. Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images

Sports and pop culture don’t have a monopoly on soft power. A little more than a decade ago, Russia was viewed favorably by nearly half of Americans. (Russia’s favorables have since dropped to single digits in the United States.) But with the possible exception of the dissident punk-rock band Pussy Riot, Russian pop culture was almost entirely unknown, then and now. Americans are more familiar with the cannons of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and the works of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov came to define classical dance; ironically, these Soviet defectors made ballet cool for a generation of Americans enrolled in classes during the Cold War. Only much later would some balletomanes understand that Nureyev self-identified as a Tatar and Baryshnikov as a Latvian.

Some government cultural campaigns are deliberately nostalgic. In 2020, Spain’s food ministry launched a campaign with the slogan El país más rico del mundo—which translates as either the “richest” or “tastiest” country in the world—plastering the motto on billboards in train stations and at bus stops. Centuries have passed since Spain had the world’s silver at its fingertips, but Spanish food and chefs are ubiquitous.

Language, and the pleasure of wordplay, is one of the most enduring aspects of a culture. Romance languages, a Roman legacy, flourished in medieval Europe. Many of the top-ranked countries in a recent survey of soft power subsidize global language schools, including Spain’s Cervantes Institute, Germany’s Goethe-Institut, China’s Confucius Institute, Italy’s Italian Cultural Institute, and the United Kingdom’s British Council. The guidepost has been France’s Alliance Française, which was founded independently by a circle of preeminent late 19th-century Parisians that included Jules Verne, Louis Pasteur, and Ferdinand de Lesseps, a French diplomat, developer of the Suez Canal, and leader of the plan to bring the Statue of Liberty to New York. French President Emmanuel Macron feted the 140th anniversary of the organization’s founding on July 21, remarking at a celebration at the Élysée presidential palace that the hundreds of schools scattered around the world, mostly underwritten by student fees, are “absolutely key for the diffusion of French culture but also of our values.”

Brigitte Macron, France's first lady, leans down to look closely over a short glass wall at panda cub Yuan Meng. A woman stands next to her admiring the new addition to the zoo.

Brigitte Macron, France’s first lady, leans down to look closely over a short glass wall at panda cub Yuan Meng. A woman stands next to her admiring the new addition to the zoo.

Brigitte Macron, France’s first lady, looks at panda cub Yuan Meng, born at the Beauval zoo, during its naming ceremony in Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher, France, on Dec. 4, 2017. Thibault Camus/AFP via Getty Images

Soft power may be pricey, but world leaders continue to pour money into a range of cultural offerings because they can’t be certain what will resonate. Last month, Macron and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi watched the Bastille Day parade in Paris, including a flyby of three French-made jets in the Indian Air Force. Modi’s visit concluded with an announcement that India would buy 26 more Dassault Rafale jets and three additional Scorpène-class submarines. This year, during a state visit to Beijing with plenty of cultural baggage, Macron sealed commercial deals for aircraft, cosmetics, financial products, and pork. Soon thereafter, a French television station called it a “jackpot” when the news broke that China had agreed to extend the stay of a pair of giant pandas at the ZooParc de Beauval in France’s Loire Valley. The zoo’s director had been among the entourage that had recently accompanied Macron to Beijing, which has a monopoly on pandas around the world.

Sports, especially hosting global events, can be an expensive and risky way to project soft power, and in some cases, countries have been accused of “sportswashing.” None of this is new. Adolf Hitler wanted the 1936 Berlin Olympics to showcase his Nazi regime; it showcased instead the superlative skills of Jesse Owens, the African American athlete who walked away with four gold medals. More recently, pro-Tibetan protesters stormed the field during an Olympic torch-lighting ceremony ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Last year, Qatar faced widespread criticism when it banned soccer fans from wearing rainbow gear into games because visible support for LGBTQ rights is prohibited in the socially conservative kingdom.

Currently, the thorniest debates center on the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes and how to handle it when they face Ukrainian competitors, a headache that host countries probably had not envisioned when they bid for these events years ago. Some star Ukrainian athletes are refusing to shake hands with competitors from Russia or Belarus, which Moscow has used as a staging ground for its war in Ukraine. Some tennis fans, who may have thought they were witnessing poor sportsmanship, booed at the end of matches at Wimbledon and the French Open. Ukrainian fencer Olga Kharlan was disqualified after winning a world championship match in Milan for refusing to shake hands with her Russian opponent. She later posted a video on Instagram saying that what happened “raises a lot of questions.”

One question that hasn’t been answered is whether the fellas are making a real impact. Their social media messages have been so pointed, at least in part, because they echo the agitprop communication style developed by the Soviets to agitate nonbelievers and motivate the like-minded. But the fellas didn’t get their most cherished wish at NATO’s Vilnius summit, which ended without a major advance in Ukraine’s bid to join the security alliance.

The term “soft power” evokes more than wishful thinking, although that was certainly part of its appeal after the barbarism of the 20th century. Alongside other forms of persuasion, it can help a country cut trade deals, win friends, or join new clubs. Or not.

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