Charm Offensive: How China's Soft Power Is Transforming the World.
In 1958, William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick, in their best-selling roman a clef The Ugly American, introduced the world to the fictional character of Louis "Lucky Lou" Krupitzyn, Soviet ambassador to the equally fictional Southeast Asian country of Sarkhan. Krupitzyn, in contrast to his bumbling American counterpart, had learned Sarkhanese and knew both how to interact with the locals and take advantage of American ignorance. In the Cold War battle for hearts and minds, Krupitzyn was the model of everything that was right about Soviet diplomacy and wrong with its US competitor.
American concerns about Soviet influence in Southeast Asia--personified in the fictional Krupitzyn--have long disappeared. However, in Charm Offensive, Joshua Kurlantzick offers us a new challenger: the skilled diplomats of the People's Republic of China (PRC). As Kurlantzik tells us, "Top Chinese diplomats in nations like Cambodia or Thailand now often have done three or even four rotations in those countries before rising to the tank of ambassador, developing extensive contacts in the local business and political communities and building language skills to the point that locals sometimes think they are native speakers" (p. 66). This he compares to US diplomacy, which suffers a "lack of skilled core professionals familiar with the language, culture, and political-military climates" (p. 66).
To his credit, Kurlantzick creates a remarkable collage of anecdotal stories, poll data, and investigative reporting. He has traveled extensively through many of the regions he discusses--including Southeast Asia, Central Asia, China, and Africa--and personally spoken with an impressive number of key actors. Unlike The Ugly American, Charm Offensive employs real statistics and describes the experiences of actual personages. Kurlantzick documents the ways in which the PRC diplomatic corps and PRC economic actors have become more active in the world and more skilled at conveying a message of benevolence and respect to developing and neighboring states.
All the same, it is surprising how many of the themes of The Ugly American find their echo in Charm Offensive. American diplomacy has alienated friends with its arrogance and ignorance and is losing ground to an adversary that is more adept at deploying policies of respect and assistance; the United States needs to better engage the developing world and remain true to its core values. Charm Offensive is as much about the United States as it is about the PRC; examples of PRC diplomatic, economic, or cultural success are consistently juxtaposed with counterexamples of US setbacks, and to drive home the point, Kurlantzick devotes a chapter to the theme "America's Soft Power Goes Soft."
Like The Ugly American, Charm Offensive seeks to play on American fears to generate support for its preferred policy measures. The underlying premise of The Ugly American was that the United States was locked in a zero-sum struggle for influence with an aggressive adversary that directly challenged US interests. The question is why we should accept such a premise regarding the present or future of USPRC relations. Granted, Kurlantzick does make caveats; for instance, he concedes that "China's soft power often has benefited the United States" (p. 201). But the overall thrust of the book is that growing PRC popularity and economic relations present a strong potential threat to the United States and its interests. PRC soft power is a "potent weapon in Beijing's foreign policy arsenal" (p. 5). Kurlantzick tells us that "when China discovers that its interests do not overlap with America's, it now has the tools to build allegiances to Beijing" (p. 201).
Kurlantzick highlights three areas in particular. The first is "the growing clash over resources" (p. 208). But if a showdown is coming over energy reserves, any country with energy needs will be a competitor to the United States--including Japan, India, Brazil, and Germany. Kurlantzick, however, focuses only on the PRC as an adversary in the energy game and conjectures not only that it will use its soft power to suck up oil resources, but that such resource concerns will even encourage the PRC to project military power into Latin America (p. 210).
The second area is US alliances. Kurlantzick hypothesizes that the PRC could attempt to leverage its soft power to diminish or replace the US relationship with states such as the Philippines, Thailand, or even Australia. The logical problem here is that forcing these states to choose between the PRC and the United States is exactly the type of heavy-handed behavior that would violate the soft-power strategy Kurlantzick claims is so successful.
Finally, Kurlantzick suggests that the PRC's soft-power efforts at engaging regimes the United States wishes to isolate can counteract US efforts at democracy promotion. Kurlantzick tells us that "this is the most dangerous part of China's soft power" (p. 216). This is despite the fact, as Kurlantzick himself acknowledges, that the United States has undermined its own efforts and credibility by engaging corrupt regimes (p. 212). Nor does Kurlantzick delve deeply into the possible causes for PRC behavior in these cases--such as the desire of the regime to receive noncritical foreign acknowledgment, the PRC's own fears of being cut off from energy resources that would push it to seek resources in states shunned by the United States, or the fact that the PRC opposes sanctions because it has long been at the receiving end. None of this is to condone PRC behavior, but thinking about why the PRC leadership acts in the manner it does, as opposed to simply taking its existing and potential actions as a threat, would allow for possible compromises or reframings that could meet both sides' perceived needs.
Indeed, I am concerned by the tendency of the book to repeatedly speculate from relatively understandable behavior--such as peaceful PRC efforts to assure regional actors that it is not a danger--to extreme scenarios like "a Chinese Monroe Doctrine for Southeast Asia [that] would make Beijing the major influence over regional affairs and reduce US alliances in the region" (p. 11). The PRC is growing economically and becoming more engaged politically, and as it does it will naturally be a more significant actor both regionally and globally. Despite what one thinks of the PRC regime, it may have legitimate worries about energy resources, its regional relations, or future US behavior in the region. One could even argue that a "soft-power" strategy is the least disconcerting and threatening of possible PRC responses.
In truth, it is not even clear what soft power, particularly when understood as "brand popularity," really offers states in terms of "weapons" to pursue their foreign policies. The underlying assumption of the book is that soft power somehow provides a toehold for accomplishing more sinister aims, such as seeking to "drive a wedge between America and its closest allies" (p. 214). Public opinion is notoriously fiche, and the book presents much speculation but little evidence that recent fluctuations in relative "brand popularity" can be a springboard for gaining allies to challenge the United States, let alone push it out of Southeast Asia.
Charm Offensive is not an academic work, nor does it pretend to be. It is a stylistically well-written, easily readable piece of policy-oriented journalism. Its goal is to create a sense of urgency in order to push a specific set of foreign policy recommendations. In many ways, Charm Offensive offers us a polished remake of Lederer and Burdick's classic. Nevertheless, I cannot help being concerned that Krupitzyn's new replacement is a miscasting.
Postdoctoral Fellow, China and the World Program
Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University
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|Publication:||Journal of East Asian Studies|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2010|
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