Home Diplomatic Pouch Soft Power in Diplomacy: An Ideal Strategy for Small Island Developing States

Soft Power in Diplomacy: An Ideal Strategy for Small Island Developing States


By Ms. Sonia Marville-Carter, Consul General of Barbados in Toronto

The term “Soft Power in Diplomacy” is considered by some as new wrapping on an old practice. Since the term was coined by Joseph Nye back in the 1980s, it has birthed a conscious and deliberate expansion in the strategies of diplomacy which very much mirror the techniques, skill set and precision employed in the art of successful marketing campaigns. As it relates to diplomatic relations, the successful execution of soft power practices in diplomacy can often be seen as an acknowledgement of the age old adage that a ‘soft word can turneth away wrath’.

Diplomacy by its very definition is the art of managing international relations in a tactful, sensitive, subtle, delicate yet effective manner. And “Soft Power in Diplomacy” by extension is defined by Nye as “…the ability to affect others to obtain the outcome one wants through attraction rather than coercion or payment.” This for the small island developing state, is our most effective diplomatic strategy.

It is important at this stage I believe to qualify “Soft Power Diplomacy” as a process and not a product. As with anything else it is not what is done but how it is done. Some have asked, where does Cultural Diplomacy, a main pillar of Soft Power Diplomacy end, and Cultural Imperialism begin? I posit that there is a major difference between cultural diplomacy and cultural imperialism and the latter cannot be considered a factor in the discussion of soft power practices. The mere use of the word “impose” in the definition of cultural imperialism negates it as a soft power diplomacy practice, if we consider the definition of soft power diplomacy given by Nye.

Most Barbadian envoys engaged in diplomatic relations across the globe, though possessing diverse and often times specialized skill sets in areas of arbitration, trade, policy, sustainable development, technology and economics to name a few, all engage in forms of cultural diplomacy. When one considers the many facets of soft power diplomacy, some may question the overlap in the mandates of our Foreign Affairs, Tourism and Cultural Ministries. The sometimes blurred lines in responsibility of execution are however usually made clear by the fact that all government departments and agencies work together to achieve a common goal and whereas clear lines may be drawn for national duties, international or diplomatic duties cancel out any territorial demarcation that may have otherwise been called into question.

Enhanced by the digital and social media age, soft power diplomacy programs such as infomercials on the political practices and foreign policies of a country, as well as art exhibitions, concerts and other cultural showcases which once required large capital to execute, can now be accomplished with less financial investment and reach a much larger audience, all facilitated by technology.

A successful event is no longer solely dependent on the marketing, advertising, budget and promotional skill set, but also high on the list is a technology driven skill set, as the virtual component is crucial. The curiosity of the average human being is peaked when attracted by taste, experience, smell, sight or even information. They search to replicate that positive emotion and are then generally endeared or drawn to the source of that positive experience.

The same principle applies when navigating international relations. One must so well promote one’s country, its foreign policy, practices, culture and people that in effect a ‘brand’ is created; a positive reinforcement which becomes synonymous with one’s country and creates a ‘feel good’ effect with the mention of its name. As a representative of Barbados, it is my job to ensure that when you hear BARBADOS you automatically think of an island paradise with strong governmental structures, a wonderful place not just to vacation, but to invest, live and raise a family. And if you didn’t feel that way before at the mention of BARBADOS, I am sure it will pop into your mind from now on. That was definitely soft messaging, but hopefully powerful enough for you to stop and maybe google BARBADOS.

For diplomatic representatives of Small Island Developing States, navigating our way through international relations, constrained by the effects of climate change and more recently the economic devastation of the COVID 19 pandemic, it is imperative to find cost effective and innovative ways to carry out the mandates of our governments and therefore techniques and methods which may not have traditionally been employed within our diplomatic offices are rising to the fore.

There is not a tenet of Soft Power Diplomacy which exists that is not best managed and executed by a strong marketing campaign; may it be cultural, ideological or institutional. The ideological and institutional pillars of our soft power diplomacy practices have long been employed, the cultural pillar may now be emerging as the crucial stabilizing factor for small island developing states in this era.

Essay assigned  to distinguished students. Dr. Eugenio Matos G., senior diplomat and lecturer of public diplomacy at the University of Ottawa, Canada. Mastering Public Diplomacy Certificate, May 2021 session. 

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