Soft Power: The New Great Game by Robert Winder

Soft Power: The New Great Game by Robert Winder


This book explores how modern powers increasingly assert themselves not through traditional hard power, such as military and economic means, but through soft power.

Winder vividly portrays how countries leverage sports, education, music, food, and diplomacy to attract and influence others. I like how he writes with great clarity, wit and humour (the dry-British sort), offering a nuanced perspective of the evolving soft-power dynamics across the major powers.

What I Internalized

Soft Power is invisible but undeniably potent.

Take this story as an example.

The Stimson Doctrine, Then and Now | National Review
Stimson, the man who inadvertently decided the fates of many Japanese

After Oppenheimer delivered the atomic bombs, the American military brass drew up a target list of Japanese cities.

Japan’s ancient traditional capital- Kyoto topped the list, meaning it was the first city to be bombed by the ‘destroyer of worlds’.

But, in early June 1945, Secretary of War Henry Stimson persuaded then-President Truman to exercise his powers as Commander-in-Chief to circumvent the military and remove Kyoto from the list.

It was replaced by Nagasaki.

Journalists are fond of saying that an enchanting honeymoon opened Secretary Stimson’s eyes to the rich cultural heritage of Kyoto and, thus, gave him a soft spot for the city.

Expert historians posit that removing Kyoto would help America dull the postwar animosity of the Japanese.

Either way, the soft power of Kyoto saved its citizens and doomed those of Nagasaki.

Every country has a brand.

To build a brand, you need a compendium of fables. Fables are memorable stories laden with values.

The stories a country tells itself and acts out inform everyone else what the country is.

Do things that contradict your values, and you will weaken your brand, thereby reducing your ability to influence others.

For example, Zimbabwe is known to be famously corrupt and ill-governed. What was the tell-tale sign? The inaugural winner of the $100,000 Zimbabwe’s National Lottery prize was the President himself, Mr. Robert Mugabe.

Zimbabwe President Wins Lottery. 9–27–16, Adil | by Five Guys | Five Guys  Facts | Medium
Robert Mugabe complaining about not winning enough money (probably)

Main Takeaways

  1. To understand a country’s soft power, look at its institutions.
  2. Soft power is not a zero-sum game, but a positive-sum game. It is not about dominating others, but about attracting them. It is not about imposing one’s will, but about sharing one’s vision.”
  3. The world is a “marketplace of ideas, and the most successful nations are those that can sell their stories to others.”
  4. America As The Cultural Contradiction. One may rail against ‘American Imperialism and Interventionism’ yet crave its products, movies and even its ‘dream’.
  5. China As The Authoritarian Contradiction. In the pandemic, both the vices and virtues of an authoritarian rule was in play. Without open politics, information about the COVID-pandemic did not spread fast enough. But, China's ability to self-isolate and manage the fall out of the pandemic also laid in it's central rule.
  6. Metropolitan Catfishing. Paris Syndrome is the sense of extreme disappointment exhibited by tourists when visiting Paris, who feel that the city was not what they had expected. This might be the first soft-power illness.
  7. Countries that focus excessively on hard power will fail to wield it well. In being uncompromising, these countries will be alienated. Ironically, their hard power will become less effective. For example, as we are seeing now, Israel’s hardline stance on the Palestine question has neither won it friends nor influence in the world.
  8. Why we like Aussies. I suspect so many of us like Australians because they embody the spirit of being a good sport. They take no prisoners but always ‘have a beer afterwards with no hard feelings, mate.'
  9. India's Demographic Dividend. India's new enormous population is driving new industries as old ones. UN estimates that India will have the largest working population by 2030. And, it has a 'mighty nation in-exile' it can call upon (i,e the Indian diaspora). With most Indians speaking English, it's inevitable India will play a key role in shaping our global future.
  10. Why it's problematic to measure soft-power. Robert Winder in the epilogue, "I spent most of the time writing this book thinking about exactly how much, in practical terms, soft power weighed. It was elusive. But when I reached the end, I concluded that... it was too ambiguous and broad to be put in the scales in any simple way. It was not something solid that could be possessed or wielded (much to the frustration of governments). It was a process, a culture, a habit: the means to an end rather than the end itself."

Subscribe to feed your mind.