That soft-power crisis | Sunday Observer

That soft-power crisis

19 March, 2023

Sri Lanka is now among the lowest in the global Brand Finance soft-power Index say news reports. The country ranks 115 among 121 countries which means basically that we are perceived these days as a bit of a basket case.

But wait a minute, are we indeed perceived as a soft-power basket case and if so does it make a difference? Apparently the Index is an indicator of how countries can exercise soft-power and influence other countries, and is also called a perceptions Index.

It’s a bit hilarious in this context that this year we have the world’s best performing currency and the second best performing stock market. When you lie at the bottom of the barrel you got nowhere to move but up.

We exercise little soft-power these days obviously but as an ancient Buddhist country in this part of the world we have made friends that have stood the test of time. Japan is one of them, and of course as the cliché goes India is not a friend but a relation. Then there is the strategic positioning so called.

But is this an overestimation? In the decades past this writer can remember an iconic editor of a bygone era who has now passed on joking about the Trincomalee Tank Farms and the strategic value of the harbour. The nub of the joke was that Sri Lankans were far too enamored with the strategic value of Trincomalee and other so-called strategic ports and sites in the country.


But it’s not mere geographic strategic value argue others. They say that the country exercises soft-power because it acts not as a physical but as a figurative buffer of sorts between various power blocs. For example the country has been accused almost sometimes, of playing China and India against each other.

In that context the country may have been too big to fail, some may wager. That phrase is borrowed from the 2008 financial crash which gave rise to the expression ‘too big to fail’ because certain banks in the US were deemed too big to fail and given bailouts by the then administration. Sri Lanka certainly cannot be too big to fail in that context.

It’s not as if we are a global financial powerhouse — we are in fact anything but, and to suggest anything that’s even remotely suggestive of the fact that we are too big to fail as the particular US Banks were, is risible.

But we are on the other hand a country that’s a bit of a bellwether in terms of how the middle-income nations perform in times of crisis. Aren’t we in that sense too big to fail? Of course not, but to the extent that our soft-power in the past has built soft-power among friendly countries means we are not a nation that may fail and fall through the cracks all that easily.

But the Perceptions Index that was quoted at the beginning of this article now seems to indicate that as a country we are poised to lose this type of soft-power. Does that mean that certain major powers that have supported us are about to un-friend us to borrow a vogue term from social media?

It is unlikely, to put it plainly that China, Russia or the US would un-friend us even though the friendships with these countries have undergone varying degrees of stress in the past. We have certainly had our differences with India particularly during the uncertain days when the LTTE held sway in the North and East — which this writer for mischievous reasons used to refer to as the ‘Northeast’ of the country once upon a time to the chagrin of many.

Various regimes have reacted variously to the influence the US wields over us vis-à-vis the UN Human Rights Council and our standing there. Latterly we have had some apprehensions about China and our debt restructuring program and so no relationship between the major powers and us seems perfect.

But we have lived a charmed existence even though this Brand Finance soft-power perceptions Index is putting all of that to a real test these days. Does that mean that future generations would not have the legacy that we enjoy now because previous generations before us built positive soft-power and great relationships with important nations but we didn’t?

In all of these calculations it’s the opinion of this writer that it’s our strategic positioning that’s our greatest asset even preceding the fact that we wield considerable soft-power as a pacifist citadel — a Buddhist nation that eschews aggression, at least against other countries. It means of course that despite the pacifist Buddhist culture we have got a bad rap as a nation that has been divided, polarised and regularly riven by internal conflict. But that doesn’t always necessarily bother our benefactor nations even though during wartime in particular it bothered them enough to make accusations of human rights violations and so on.


The biggest minus for this country at least in comparison obviously to India, and Bangladesh for instance is our size, population and the fact that we do not have any appreciable natural resources. Geographical size is almost a guarantee that there would be some natural resources that emerge from somewhere in a large land mass. It’s true for Russia as it’s true now for Bangladesh to some extent, and nobody would have guessed that the US would become the world’s largest oil producer, but that has got to do with size too.

There is absolutely no interest in this country as a nation of hidden resources because there are none. They now say that it’s a great place to launch rockets from because we have the lowest gravitational force anywhere, but this all seems to be a bit of a joke.

Having said all that we would not have survived perhaps without our considerable human resources which have been sold to the highest bidder in terms of domestic labour and so on. So there is so much that friendships can do for the country if we do not have our own sources of revenue.


But there are devices such as currency swaps that are important when we face a balance of payments crisis and run short of foreign currency for imports including basic imports to sustain the economy at the most rudimentary level.

So losing soft-power is probably not a major scare in the context that we have some solid friendships, because some opinion makers can say what good does it do if Sri Lanka wields influence among smaller countries?

That would be cynical because if nothing else, we depend a great deal on tourism which is a major earner except in times of crisis, which in the last few years of course has been almost always. We need the tourists from Belarus as much as we need the tourists from Russia, and we cannot afford to be perceived as some kind of basket case.

The compilers of the soft-power Index have ventured the opinion that Sri Lanka though it fell some 42 places in the Index this year would gain rapidly. Sometimes the indexes act as self-fulfilling indicators at least from the point of view of the compilers. Already we have been told that the authorities here are in touch with the compilers of the soft-power Index so that we can improve our immediate standing. Aha, and who gains from that you may ask?

So while these perception numbers are interesting it may not be a great idea to over-rely on them because there are other perceptions of this country which are not necessarily on shifting sands.

Numbers also may not matter on the short run. The tourism factor discounted, if we have some reliable friends that keep reposing faith in us, we could make it through some dark times.