How pandemic shifted meaning of a government’s ‘soft power’

Chiang Ying-ying/AP
A couple stand in front of the Love sculpture, inspired by the iconic design by American artist Robert Indiana, in Taipei, Taiwan, May 30, 2020.

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The old definition of soft power is this: the foreign aid, cultural exchange, and communications programs governments have used to project not just raw power, but the power of ideas.

Yet amid COVID, it has come to describe a power resting not with governments, but the people they govern. It draws on mutual trust, a shared sense of responsibility, and civic commitment.

Why We Wrote This

Sometimes world events redefine a long-standing concept. In the case of soft power, it’s broadening to include a sense of civic strength – the kind seen in countries that moved quickly to confront COVID-19.

The measure has cast a harsh light on some countries’ efforts. But it has highlighted success elsewhere: Taiwan, New Zealand, and Hong Kong; southern European countries like Greece and Portugal; Washington state in the U.S.

It is not the only explanation for success. Yet there is a compelling “soft power” pattern.

In Taiwan, effective public policy was indispensable. But so was public receptiveness and active participation and support in executing the strategy.

New Zealand’s prime minister has been praised for providing direction, clarity, and empathy. In Greece and Portugal, leaders and public health officials have also shone. But the popular buy-in to measures in all three countries were crucial. And with the immediate threat being seen as having passed, “soft power” connections may prove even more important.

“Soft power” has long been part of the diplomatic toolbox in international affairs. Yet COVID-19 is giving it a new meaning, which may help explain why some places have succeeded in containing the pandemic while others are badly struggling.

It could also provide an important guide to how different countries, or areas within them, will fare amid economic reopenings now underway, especially if they’re hit by further waves of COVID-19 cases.

The old definition of soft power is this: the kind of foreign aid, cultural exchange, and communications programs governments have used to project not just raw power, but the power of ideas and of example. 

Why We Wrote This

Sometimes world events redefine a long-standing concept. In the case of soft power, it’s broadening to include a sense of civic strength – the kind seen in countries that moved quickly to confront COVID-19.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Yet in the age of COVID, it has come to describe a power resting not with governments, but the people they govern. It draws on fellow-feeling, mutual trust, a shared sense of responsibility, civic commitment and pride. It’s the connective tissue of community.

Amid the violent confrontations in the United States over recent days, it has been coming under enormous strain.

And it is proving a critical asset in the ongoing challenge of the pandemic, as nations around the world seek popular buy-in for drastic restrictions on economic activity and other aspects of everyday life to help contain the virus.

It’s a measure that has cast a harsh light on some countries’ efforts to limit the numbers of COVID victims. But it has highlighted success elsewhere: Taiwan, for instance, New Zealand, and especially Hong Kong; southern European countries like Greece and Portugal; or particular regions of hard-hit nations, such as Washington state in the U.S.

It is not the only explanation for the success stories. Practical steps have been key, including early response, clear messaging, and testing and tracking. Yet there is a compelling “soft power” pattern in places where, at least so far, the battle is being won – all the more striking because the pandemic came at a time when politics in many countries have become more fractious and volatile.

Taiwan, which sits just 80 miles from China, was on the front line when the coronavirus began spreading from the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year. Though politically at odds with Beijing, which has vowed to “reunify” it with the mainland, the island receives nearly 3 million Chinese visitors annually. More than a million Taiwanese live or work in China. Yet so far, it has had fewer than 500 cases, with only seven lives lost.

Like in other countries that have managed to limit COVID-19’s spread, effective public policy and public health measures were indispensable. But so was the “soft power” component: public receptiveness, as well as active participation and support in making sure the strategy worked.

In Taiwan’s case, a shared identity has been strengthened in opposition to Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s public calls for reunification and his declaration last year that Beijing would not renounce the use of force, if necessary, to achieve it. Capturing the sense of cohesion in fighting the pandemic, Taiwanese Health Minister Chen Shih-chung late last month led hundreds of people who had gathered at a beach resort in chants of “We’re Taiwan!” The crowd responded: “We are proud!”

Elsewhere, the message may have been less explicit. But the cooperative spirit has been no less important. In New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been praised for providing direction, clarity, and empathy in locking down the country before COVID began to spread. In Greece and Portugal – both only recently emerging from the effects of the world economic crash of 2008 – individual ministers and public health officials have also shone. But the popular buy-in to measures announced in all three countries were crucially important. Also shared has been a national pride in having so far kept case numbers far lower than in neighboring countries.

While the federal government in the U.S. has left much of the pandemic response to local governments, in states like Washington, where the first significant outbreak occurred, limiting the number of victims also hinged on communal support and participation.

In New York, too – although in New York City the pandemic had taken hold before major restrictions were announced – the effectiveness of the lockdown relied on a shared sense of “New York strong.”

Yet the most dramatic example is Hong Kong. Even more than Taiwan, it might have been expected to suffer hugely from the pandemic – not just because of the volume of traffic with mainland China, but because its 7 million people are nearly as densely packed as in New York City. To date, it has had barely a thousand COVID cases, and only four lives lost.

This is despite a halting response by the city’s government, which had no concerted strategy to deal with shortages of protective gear, for instance, and at one point discouraged people from wearing face masks. The political background was many months of prepandemic public protests against the pro-Beijing government.

But that also powered the response. Whether in providing protective equipment, sourcing and almost universally wearing face masks, tracking cases, even helping the residents of migrant hostels, the lead was taken by the people themselves – acting through the internet and social network connections established during the months of protest.

Elsewhere, governments remain the principal actors. And in most countries that have been fighting back COVID-19, a reopening is now underway. 

For that to sustain itself, however, especially with the immediate threat being seen as having passed, “soft power” connections may prove even more important.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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