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Soft Power may be a Very Important Concept in the 21st Century

Dr. Gamso Jonas is an assistant professor of international trade and global Studies at Arizona State University’s Thunderbird School of Global Management. His research interests focus on trade and its impact on sustainable development and governance. His most recent publications include China’s Ivory Ban: Enhancing Soft Power through Wildlife Conservation and The Rise of China and the Right to Personal Integrity in the Developing World.

Gamso Jonas:Soft Power may be a Very Important Concept in the 21st Century

The Winter Olympics held in Beijing in February was the most-watched winter Olympics to date, generating heated discussions around the world and presenting a unique Chinese culture to the world. What role do big sporting events such as the Winter Olympics play in cultural transmission? What role will the cultural soft power symbolized by it play in international communication? We interviewed Dr. Gamso Jonas to get his thoughts on these issues.

Sports can certainly play a role in the dissemination of culture, as particular sports spread from their countries of origin, as athletes move across countries to participate in sporting events and leagues, and as certain athletes and symbols become culturally iconic beyond the borders of the nation that they hail from. We have seen sports like baseball and basketball spread from the West to the East and sports like polo spread from the East to the West and there can be little question that some degree of cultural diffusion has accompanied the globalization of these sports.

Large-scale sports events, such as the Olympics, have the potential to be especially powerful conduits for the dissemination of culture, as they bring athletes, journalists, and spectators together from all over the world and because they are widely watched on televisions across countries (over three billion people watched coverage of the 2020 Olympics, according to the International Olympic Committee). Thus, the Olympics create opportunities for direct cultural exchanges and for the indirect diffusion of cultural artifacts to spectators watching from their homes.

The Olympics create opportunities for cultural diffusion through the popularity of sporting events, athletes, and mascots, but those opportunities do not always translate into the effective dissemination of culture, as some foreign practices do not generate significant interest – even when many people are exposed to them. Sociologists have emphasized that foreign cultural practices are more likely to take hold when they are compatible with the local culture, as this fosters a familiarity that eases adoption. Even then, a cultural practice may fail to be adopted if there is insufficient institutional support, exposure, or instruction – and a practice that does take hold in a new setting may look rather different than it does in the origin country.

The Olympics can also affect the ways that foreign audiences view the host country, thereby offering a powerful soft power tool. This is not lost on hosts and there is typically a purposeful effort to present the Olympics in ways that amplify the host’s rich history and culture, as well as its talented citizens. This is most pronounced during the opening ceremonies, which are designed to present a positive image of the country to viewers while maximizing the spectacle. For example, China spent approximately US$100 million on its four-hour opening ceremony in 2008, which was directed by filmmaker Zhang Yimou and featured 15000 performers. While the Olympics clearly have soft power value, hosting them can also lead to the amplification of negative press coverage and to calls for political change. Thus, there is some risk for governments, even as the potential for soft power rewards is high.

Soft power, which refers to the shaping of others’ preferences through co-optation, as opposed to coercion, has an important position in international exchanges and this position has only grown as cultural globalization and the information revolution have accelerated. Various countries have experienced improvements in their international reputations as a likely result of interest generated in their cultures through creative media (films, music, books, etc.), cultural exchanges, and, of course, sports. For example, European countries have achieved soft power through art, fashion, and music, while the US entertainment industry has been a source for American soft power. China’s soft power has emanated from its ancient culture, art, and cuisine, among other things, while Japan and South Korea have attracted foreign interest through film, television, and music. As discussed above, sporting events can be a powerful source of soft power, as they provide opportunities for countries to showcase themselves to the world.

While there are critics of the soft power concept and skeptics of its impacts, evidence points to tangible benefits that soft power brings to countries. For example, researchers have found that countries receive higher amounts of foreign direct investment from partners that host their national cultural exchanges than from partners that do not. Cultural interest also generates tourism and attracts international students, with financial implications. Cultural proximity between countries (e.g. shared language or shared religious traditions) are also associated with higher rates of international trade and investment.

Soft power is also likely to carry benefits that are more difficult to quantify but may be quite significant in political and economic terms. For example, nations may be more inclined to cooperate with a partner that its citizens have a positive image of or share a cultural affinity with. This cooperation may lead to lucrative bilateral trade or investment agreements, or to support in international negotiations that, in turn, helps a nation to advance its geopolitical goals.

The importance of soft power is likely to grow as barriers to cultural exchange and engagement fall. Technology has made it easier for people around the world to communicate with one another and to share cultural values and practices. Likewise, easy access to foreign media has grown through streaming services and social media platforms. Crucially, this will facilitate the enhancement of soft power by those who traditionally held it as well as by others that have faced barriers to sharing their cultures in the past. Thus, soft power may be a very important concept in the 21st Century.

Interviewer: Li Yuxuan

Interview date: February 22, 2022

Organizer: Luo Jing



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