Since 1998, Thailand has suffered two successful coup d’états, widespread unrest, brutal military crackdowns, and two decades of on-and-off protests. In the very same period, its GDP has risen from $114 billion to $505 billion, an almost five-fold increase propelled primarily by tourism.
Speak to the average Westerner about Thailand, and you’re more likely to hear about Pad Thai, wild weekends on the Khao San Road, and cascading waterfalls than about political unrest, military despots, and absolute monarchy.
As Thailand has become less stable, the world’s image of it has become more romantic. In turn, investment has followed, delivering prosperity and opportunity for ordinary Thais. How has the country managed such a remarkable feat?
The answer is simple - soft power. Cultural outreach and influence have helped Thailand to punch above its weight, using its immaterial strengths to deliver material outcomes.
The country has been open for tourism to decades, insulating backpackers from the worst excesses of its political instability. The government in Bangkok recognises that day-trippers and billionaire investors respond to an attractive, colourful international brand. At the same time, its ‘Global Thai’ programme has successfully boosted the number of Thai restaurants worldwide from around 5,000 in 2002 to over 15,000 today, a textbook case of culinary diplomacy.
Of course, Thailand’s success isn’t entirely cultural. It has supported these efforts with a programme of ambitious infrastructure- building and has adjusted its legal climate to invite greater foreign investment.
But the lesson that cultural perceptions of a country shape its economic and political fortunes shouldn’t be overlooked. On this front, Pakistan has lessons to learn.
Search for Pakistan in the pages of any worldwide newspaper, and you will find stories of political unrest, danger, and natural disasters. The world’s perceptions of Pakistan are inextricably tied to the actions of a few radicals,
A change in narrative is vital. If Pakistan’s government is to deliver prosperity for its people, it should channel its efforts towards a great, global soft power initiative, building international good-will and generating investment in the process.
This isn’t about obscuring Pakistan’s political and economic realities; it’s about telling the full story. A country isn’t defined exclusively by the activities of politicians and governments; each is a rich tapestry of peoples, families, and communities, bound together by shared customs and common habits.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs should shift its focus towards building cultural bridges, and away from controversial geopolitical issues. Look to successful examples – South Korea, Qatar, Rwanda -, and build an engagement strategy which puts cultural ties at its centre.
First and foremost, it must construct a vibrant, unified global brand. It must use vivid colours and be plastered across every one of the nation’s embassies, proudly displayed on billboards and beamed onto television screens.
Celebrate the nation’s love of cricket. Showcase the vivid colours of a hand-crafted Salwar Kameez. Use bright colours, upbeat music, and happy faces.
Next comes the need to showcase the country itself. A narrative shift only requires a trickle of holidaymakers to visit the country, to experience it first hand, and to fall in love. Target different kinds of tourists. For the adventuring tourist, hiking in the Margalla Hills. For the backpacker, the busy streets of Karachi. For the history buff, the ruins of Mohenjo-Daro.
And finally – most importantly – is culinary diplomacy. As every good ambassador knows, if bellies are full, business becomes easier. A series of food fairs in the world’s great capital cities should bring fresh mangoes, Biryani, and world-class chai to politicians, senior businesspeople, and civil society leaders. The politics can wait – the warm glow of a satisfying meal will do the work for you.
Build it, and they will come. Give the world a taste of Pakistan as it should be. This piece would not be complete without acknowledging the great Indian elephant in the room. The Delhi government has been ruthlessly effective in exporting Indian food, music, art, and dress. Its G20 premiership has given it a platform to showcase traditional dance, serve Indian food to the world’s most influential leaders, and even put delegates through their paces at a yoga session on the side-lines of a recent summit in Goa.
It’s no coincidence that this charm offensive has been accompanied by a warmer reception for India’s political agenda in capital cities across the world. There’s no reason why this success should be confined to one side of the border.
Indeed, Pakistan enjoys many of the same conditions that allowed India’s campaign of global outreach to succeed. Its membership of the Commonwealth could serve as the ideal mechanism for this soft-power campaign. Here is a global club of fifty-six countries who share common law jurisprudence, the Westminster Parliamentary system of governance, and a commitment to national sovereignty. Crucially, it is also home to some 700 million English speakers, and to many of the world’s largest Pakistani diaspora communities. This latter group is Pakistan’s secret superpower, a ready-made vessel for cultural engagement with the world.
But whether its focus is on the Commonwealth or further afield, Pakistan must leverage its vast cultural wealth to deliver prosperity for its people, and peace on the international stage. The world must come to know Pakistan for its art, food, and landscapes – most importantly, it must know first-hand that the tea really is fantastic.
by sam bidwell
–The writer is a Parliamentary Researcher, and Director of the Centre for Commonwealth Affairs. The Centre is a London-based think-tank focused on pan-Commonwealth policymaking. The writer can be reached at director@commonwealthaffairs. co.uk