Soft power: the great storyteller

Soft power counts for little without a credible hard power

Dr Muhammad Ali Ehsan December 05, 2021
The writer is Dean Social Sciences at Garrison University Lahore and tweets @Dr M Ali Ehsan

Robert Winder, the author of Soft Power: The New Great Game, describes soft power as a “storytelling competition” that produces a winner or a loser. He believes that in today’s world victory depends not on whose army wins but on whose story wins. Our country is in the grip of a storytelling competition in which narratives or “stories” are carefully designed to persuade the public on the righteousness of a given cause, capturing their hearts and minds and brainwashing them to a point where they are not able to think for themselves. Soft power targets belief systems because beliefs shape our way of thinking and in turn influence our behaviour. Political parties often utilise the media to attract and co-opt the general public through their stories. It is fine as long as political parties are doing this, but what if state institutions indulge in this “storytelling competition”?

States and their institutions are recognised, admired and appreciated for a behaviour that is consistent. Consistency creates awareness and builds trust, but what if the performance of state institutions no longer remains consistent? If that happens, public trust will erode. An inconsistent institution will not behave in the same way every time a similar situation occurs. Such institutional inconsistency can be witnessed by how Pakistan’s judicial system has responded to the various military takeovers — not outright condemning and rejecting them but bowing down and giving them graceful accommodation. It is in this context that the story we hear now from the judiciary about military commercialisation was not being told when this commercialisation was actually taking root and expanding. Why stay quiet and allow the building of the Titanic only to stop it when it is finally time for it to go to high seas and sail?

Similarly, demolishing buildings built on encroached lands is not a bad idea. Even telling the military to re-analyse the fact that the land allotted for defence purposes is being utilised (read misused) for commercial use is not a bad idea at all. But what is condemnable is the inconsistency with which our judicial system has been dealing with this issue. It has taken the military decades to build and establish consumer centres. Their engagement in commercial activities is not something that has suddenly and unexpectedly popped up. Why stay mute on the subject for decades and allow for such commercial expansion to carry on in the first place?

The military deploys close to 150,000 troops on the Western front and an equal number or so guard the Eastern front and the frontier on the mountains of Kashmir and the Himalayas. Our soldiers stand tall with great ease because they know that their families back home are safe and their children go to schools in the protected environment of the cantonments. If the courts start questioning the legality of “living spaces” and “education institutions” within the cantonments, then where will the families of the soldiers reside? Have we forgotten that fighting against terrorists can have a blowback effect on the families of those who fight for the country? Haven’t we had an unfortunate demonstration of how an Army Public School was attacked in Dec 2014?

The blood that is willingly spilled on the borders with good grace by our soldiers for the sake and defence of the motherland is based on an institutional paradigm that the Pakistan military has been able to build and create — one that reads, “the families of the soldiers on border duties, or those that are injured or embrace shahadat will be taken care of.” Any attempt to shift this existing institutional paradigm will have a great effect on the morale of the military of this state. What makes a state militarily powerful is not the military machines, the tanks, the aircraft carriers and the possession of state-of-the-art military equipment, it is the readiness and willingness of the men and women in the military to use and operate them. And that is why the man behind the gun has always been more important in military warfare than the gun itself. The continuity of marriage halls, cinema halls and other such activities on military lands may be questioned by the court but the setups that reside, educate and sustain the families of the military personnel in the cantonments are essential in order to maintain and sustain military morale and self-esteem.

The spirit behind any action is important and so is the importance of spirit behind any story that we tell. Given the circumstances, any sporting spirit may be equated to the judicial spirit. If “form” and “style” matters highly before any sporting success, why shouldn’t they matter for any judicial success? Form comes through a series of successes and not through an absent, delayed and denied justice system. Style is but “the manner and the way” and our judicial system has a lot of catching up to do on this front. So, if you neither have form nor an appealing style, all you are left with as an institution is just the spirit and the zeal — and at the end is a misty notion that requires a lot of catching up to do.

Pakistan has been suffering from an institutional “word-action gap” and narrowing down that gap is the responsibility of all institutions of the state — the judiciary more so because it acts as the great hegemon with authority to administer punishment and the responsibility to prevent institutional failures by guiding and channelising the behaviour of other institutions. At the Asma Jahangir Conference, the judiciary could have rolled out a great story with the judges getting up and leaving the forum on the plea that a person punished by the courts and declared absconder should not make a speech while they sit on the stage.

So, it is not just rage and frenzy that can bring down in minutes what prudence, deliberation and foresight has taken years to build. It can also be reason and rationale that can help pinpoint and label the corrupt instead of allowing them to glorify themselves through their actions and speeches, allowing their story to win. One great lesson that history professes is that soft power counts for little without a credible hard power.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 5th, 2021.

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test | 1 year ago | Reply

One great lesson that history professes is that soft power counts for little without a credible hard power. Agreed

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