To be great you have to be good. India, US show strength – and the limits – of soft power


Make no mistake, American and Indian diplomats are conscious of the limits of soft power. Just the other day, a mixed group was discussing the likely fallout of a country devaluing its own currency.

India indeed.

And the United States of America.

Both India, country of my birth, and the US, my adoptive country, illustrate the strength and the limits of soft power. As the country that produced the Mahatma, India rejoices in a worldwide image as a peaceful, non-violent and deeply spiritual force for good. The US, 241 years after it threw off the yoke of imperialism, is seen as a free, intensely individualistic and egalitarian society.

The immense strength of India’s soft power is obvious when an opposition march in Turkey invokes Mahatma Gandhi and thereby acquires immense moral authority.

So much so that the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not bar its progress from Ankara to Istanbul, 250 miles away. Along the way, the opposition march picked up tens of thousands of people, ending in a more-than-a-million person rally on July 9.

As for the US, almost every country and every people would want in some way to see their governments and their systems reflect American values. For these have long been seen as universal values. It doesn’t matter that it was Thomas Jefferson and other American founding fathers who asserted “All men are created equal”. Everyone agrees with those words. Everyone wants to live them. America’s traditional support for the global community – one of shared values – also made it possible for the world to submit to its leadership.

No longer.

Those who have soft power must needs guard it jealously. It is as easy to lose as it is hard to build.

Right now, Narendra Modi’s India doesn’t seem to be the country of Mahatma Gandhi and ahima (non-violence) so much as a land that lynches Muslims and allows a vicious and divisive Hindu nationalist cultural agenda to take hold.

Right now, Donald Trump’s America doesn’t seem like a beacon of liberty and equality that has inspired admiration and imitation for more than two centuries.

The US president’s embrace of authoritarian leaders and white Christian nationalist values, his stated opposition to a free media, to legislative and legal checks on his authority, his transactional approach to moral issues, his nepotism, narcissism and self-dealing are in violation of everything one considers American.

Back to India and as Adam Roberts, The Economist’s former South Asia correspondent and author of ‘Superfast Primetime Ultimate Nation: The Relentless Invention of Modern India’, recently wrote: “India’s tolerant, secular character forms the bedrock on which a strong economy can be built.”

For the US, tolerance, secularism and its widely admired long-held basic instincts are the only way to continue its strong economy and leadership of the world.

The change in the Indian and US national mindset have happened slowly – over three decades. Prime Minister Modi and President Trump are a manifestation of a deeper malaise. They are the result of a coarsening of national character. This could erode Indian and American soft power.

 When countries devalue their brand, the world ceases to see them as a worthy investment or worthy of emulation.

Or just worthy at all.