Sergio Restelli

Soft power and new tools to project Israel’s image

Source wikipedia, fair use

Israel’s foreign policy has not been overly famous for its employment of soft power. Instead, Israel puts a strong emphasis on protecting its national security in a regional and international environment which it perceives as overwhelmingly hostile through direct diplomacy and alliances.

However, Dr. Claudia Baumgart-Ochse, senior researcher and editorial director of the Peace Report at Peace Research Institute Frankfurt, argues that in the context of certain civil society groups in the United States (Israel’s most important ally), Israel seeks to influence these communities’ opinions and actions through the use of religious soft power., a US based platform, recently published an article on Israel’s upcoming use of audio-visual culture as soft power. Franthiesco Ballerini in the article “The Israeli Bet on Audiovisual Culture as Soft Power” argues that direct diplomacy and military action have not helped Israel’s image abroad. A myriad of new TV shows, which are extremely popular world wide, from Fauda to Tehran or Shtisel to Fauda, have now become the primarily communication channels to understand Israel and its people overseas. The audience loves it! Fauda has a global cult following and Shitsel demystifies religious orthodoxy by following the lives of Shulem Shtisel (Doval’e Glickman), a teacher, and his son Akiva (Michael Aloni), who discuss moral issues such as arranged marriage, pride, feminism and religion. Its style that combines the influence of This is Us and Downton Abbey’, ‘Shtisel’ has generated so many debates over the internet about fundamentalism – not only Jewish, but also Christian and Islamic.

The collateral damage to soft power is competition and specially from countries who have been at it since a lifetime. Global powers have traditionally used  soft power for increasing their influence over smaller or more distant countries countries. Various cultural mediums employed by western states most notably the USA and France, yielded rich dividends across the globe during the second half of 20th century. The main carriers of their cultural export included art, movies, language and academic institutions. These channels of wide publicity ensured a great deal of endorsement for the western powers and eventually enhanced their strategic influence over their weaker counterparts.

The mechanism has since thrived but the contemporary world of 21st century has changed realities and a shifting balance of power. The most visible change in the last three decades has been the emergence of new superpower in the form of China; a historically great nation eager to reclaim its place in the modern world order. Beijing’s strategic manoeuvring has been aided by its policy of rapid industrialisation, hard-nosed diplomacy, unfavourable trade patterns, development of offshore infrastructure through debt trapping the smaller countries. Though the policy has brought remarkable success for the country, it has been prone to a close global scrutiny and criticism for its adverse impact on the geopolitical order.

However, what has generally evaded popular attention is China’s simultaneous thrust over building its soft power in various regions and countries having significant dealings with it. The rapid expansion in the reach of Chinese media in the digital age has armed Beijing with a potent and effective tool in promoting its culture and views worldwide. In Europe, Chinese footprints are most visible in the Eastern European states which have developed close trade and investment ties with Beijing during the recent years, despite the language divide. While Israeli producers are as comfortable in making content in English as in Hebrew, China lacks on the language component.

A recent example is in Eastern Europe. For much of the 1990s and early 2000s, China was not a major focus for the V4 states (Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia) in Eastern Europe. The Visegrád Group (also known as the Visegrád Four, the V4, or the European Quartet) is a cultural and political alliance of four Central European countries: the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia. This began to change after the 2009 financial crisis. Further impetus for the V4 countries to engage with China came with the establishment of the China-CEEC Cooperation platform and the Belt and Road Initiative. An examination of the role played by Chinese soft power in these countries reveals a lot about the template that can be expected to be used more widely in the coming years. Chinese imports to the Czech Republic are rising fast with the country already being Slovakia’s third, Poland’s second, and Hungary’s largest trading partner outside the EU.

Various media platforms are being used for spreading Chinese propaganda/narratives in V4 states. These include CRI (Chinese Radio International) and Halo Noviny in Czech Republic, Nove Slovo and Dimenzie in Slovakia and Trybuna in Poland. Chinese embassies are also using social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook for spreading their narratives. Further, they regularly push favourable news articles (both in English and local language) across media outlets.

Educational institutions are being actively utilised to promote the Chinese point of view on various issues in Slovakia. Slovak Academy of Science has a joint research centre with the North-Western Polytechnical University of China. On similar lines, a technical University in Zvolen cooperates with the Nanjing University of Science and Technology. The University of Zilina and the Technical University in Kosice maintain relations with the Beijing Institute of Technology. Moreover, the Slovak University of Technology in Bratislava has the most partnerships (up to 17, including hosting the Confucius institute). In 2018, there were also reports about China’s plans to open Cultural Centre in Bratislava, Slovakia. Reportedly, Slovakia had demanded a bilateral agreement between the two countries along with further clarification regarding the proposed centre (number, status and occupation of its employees). At present, the biggest Chinese Cultural Centre in Europe is in Belgrade, Serbia.

Another popular soft power channel is of influencers (vloggers and bloggers). They dominantly use YouTube for videos and publish their posts at Bilibili platform. A student named Martina Gdovin is among famous vloggers in Slovakia who presents online content under the nickname PopMatta. She speaks fluent Chinese and apart from the “lifestyle” topics posts videos dealing with ongoing geopolitical affairs. Here, she presents Chinese point of view/narratives. Similarly, there are influencers in the name of Lada and Pepa in Czech Republic. Both are Chinese, using Czech nicknames in order to get closer/more familiar to their followers.

Various soft power tools are being used to deflect the adverse public opinion on Chinese role in global problems. While in 2019 Beijing actively spread its narratives amid Hong Kong protests, in 2020 it was seen communicating a positive image in connection with the Covid-19 pandemic. During the peak of the Covid, the Chinese strategy was to present itself as a responsible and cooperative player trying to help communities. Different Chinese organizations networked across V4 states and gathered necessary material to fight the pandemic. When number of infected people increased in China, material was effectively shipped to mainland China. Later, when peak of pandemic was observed in Europe, Chinese diaspora received help from China. Overall, China used the relief supplies for repairing its image of being the focal point of Covid while also attempting to portray the west as incompetent in fighting the pandemic. As Beijing has managed to counter Western influence and successfully spread its message, such should be Israeli attempts at countering anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli propaganda.

Israel’s soft power revolution probably started when Gideon Raff’s Hatufim, was remade by Hollywood as “Homeland”. Since a culture of remaking Israeli shows has become common. However unexpectedly this opened, also due to popularisation of OTT platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, a new market for Israeli content. Israel must make full use of this proven power, which should be the cornerstone of its digital diplomacy. New wars are now mainly fought in the information sphere.

About the Author
Sergio Restelli is an Italian political advisor, author and geopolitical expert. He served in the Craxi government in the 1990's as the special assistant to the deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Justice Martelli and worked closely with anti-mafia magistrates Falcone and Borsellino. Over the past decades he has been involved in peace building and diplomacy efforts in the Middle East and North Africa. He has written for Geopolitica and several Italian online and print media. In 2020 his first fiction "Napoli sta bene" was published.
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