Haiti’s sprawling capital, Port-au-Prince. Image source: Short Term Memory: Tandem in the Foreign Service

Haiti is a country in the Caribbean, one of the parts of the world most beloved by tourists and outsiders in general. It has glorious palm-fringed beaches, coral reefs, lush tropical forests, lots of rum, a colorful history, cultures that blend influences from Europe and Africa, great music and dancing, and a lifestyle that ranges from easygoing to partying hard — lubricated by all that rum. Haiti has all of these and more, but it also has a dire reputation as the most problem-plagued part of the Americas. Foreigners are far more likely to visit as aid workers than to relax.

This reputation is mostly deserved, and Haiti does face enormous obstacles before it can reach the levels of its Caribbean neighbors. This blog post will shed some light on arguably the Americas’ most maligned nation and provide some perspective on how it came to this.

Originally, Hispaniola (the island Haiti is on) was inhabited by the Arawaks, who lived in villages of varying size governed by chiefs and subsisting on horticulture of root vegetables, fishing, and barbecue (which they invented). Then Cristobal Colón came by in 1493, and everything changed. It is obvious how much Spanish colonization changed the Americas — probably nowhere else in the world has gone through such a drastic change — but Hispaniola got the first, most intense dose of it. Eager to exploit its gold, the Spanish enslaved the natives and worked them to death in mines. Revolts were put down ferociously. To top it off, the Spanish introduced diseases the Arawaks had no resistance to. By the 1540s, the Arawaks were pretty much extinct, making this episode probably history’s most successful genocide. Today only faint traces of Arawak culture, like canoes and cigars, survive, although the Spanish predilection for rape at least ensured the survival of some Arawak genes.

But for the most part, Haitian history has been shaped by a different group of outsiders: Africans. To replace the native population they had wiped out, Spain imported African slaves instead, turning the Caribbean into an interesting outpost of African culture in the long run. The western part of Hispaniola was less-developed than the east, making it easy prey for the French when they got around to sailing in the Caribbean; they seized it in 1697 and named it Saint-Domingue (the Spanish colony being called Santo Domingo).

Thanks to intensive sugar cultivation on plantations, St-Domingue became France’s most profitable colony, and the island developed a class of rich, conservative French planters. It also had free blacks and mulattoes, or mixed-race people. But over 80% of St-Domingue’s people were slaves, and they worked under horrible conditions and were subjected to constant brutality. A steady flow of slaves from Africa ensured that slaves’ lives were cheap. Revolts were common — machetes are awfully sharp — but they never caused the French too much trouble.

… Until the French Revolution, that is. Stirred by that movement’s calls for liberty and equality, a mulatto named Vincent Ogé called for the same ideals to be introduced in St-Domingue. When he was ignored and thrown out of the National Assembly, he resorted to a revolt in 1791. Although it was short-lived, it helped inspire a much longer, more violent one. Stoked by the cruelty with which they were treated and coordinated through secret societies imported from Africa, the revolt could not be put down. The story of the ensuing Haitian Revolution is an involved and interesting one; it includes a three-way war between St-Domingue’s different racial classes, the whites’ political confusion as the home country tore itself apart, rank betrayal, the unification of Hispaniola under black rule, British and Polish (!) intervention, outbreaks of yellow fever, a prominent starring role by Napoleon, accomplished generalship by Haiti’s national hero (Toussaint L’Ouverture), and a LOT of grisly violence, torture and destruction. When it was all over in 1804, St-Domingue was independent at last, as Haiti (an old Arawak term). It was only the 2nd country in the world (after America) to throw off colonial rule, and the only successful slave revolt in history, 2 facts that give Haitians enormous pride to this day. On the other hand, its white population mostly fled during the war, except for a band of Polish soldiers who stayed behind to farm.

Haiti struggled from the beginning. The revolution left it split in 2, with Henri Christophe ruling the north as a king and reintroducing slavery and Alexandre Pétion ruling the south as a president and encouraging small-scale subsistence farming. Unsurprisingly, slavery was unpopular, and the kingdom crumbled in 1820, leaving the republican system ascendant. But the shift from sugar plantations to small cassava farms hobbled the Haitian economy. America despised Haiti for setting a “bad” example for its own slaves and refused to recognize it. France demanded 60 million francs in compensation for all its colonists had lost (and to assuage its own wounded ego); Haiti spent over a hundred years paying it off, bankrupting the economy. Like other ex-colonies later in history, Haiti was deprived of crucial knowhow and leadership by the violence of its revolution. Its politics were highly unstable, and its presidents kept getting overthrown and assassinated. Santo Domingo successfully revolted in 1844.

The early international isolation of Haiti had subsided by the 1900s, and a small German community gained disproportionate influence over its economy. That unnerved America, which was determined to control the Caribbean and safeguard the Panama Canal nearby. It occupied Haiti in 1915 after its dictator was lynched and essentially recolonized it. According to Hans Schmidt in his study of the occupation, it “embodied all the progressive attributes of contemporary Italian fascism” — better roads, bridges, and buildings than Haiti had before, plus a more productive economy, but with all power in the hands of the American army, censorship and arbitrary arrests, forced labor, sugar production oriented for America’s own benefit, and systemic racism along the lines of America’s “Jim Crow” system of segregation. The occupation ended in 1934 — either because America wanted to promote better relations with its neighbors or because growing resistance in Haiti had made it unpopular at home, depending on your level of cynicism. Still, the Haitian treasury remained under American supervision for another decade.

After this, Haiti was ruled by a series of weak, incompetent dictators who tended to get forced out by street protests. They were succeeded in 1957 by a strong one: François Duvalier, usually called “Papa Doc” since he was a folk doctor. He promoted blacks in the government (mulattoes had been dominant ever since the revolution) and by encouraging their culture, even styling himself after the Vodou spirit Baron Samedi. He also pillaged the government for his family’s gain and terrorized the country with his private militia, the Tonton Macoute (named after and dressed as another spirit who kidnaps kids). America sponsored him because he was anti-Communist. The Duvalier regime continued after Papa Doc’s death in 1971 through his son, Baby Doc, until he was ousted by a coup after popular revolts against his accepting payments from the Dominican Republic to send migrant workers over. (He ran off with the money.)

Tonton Macoute

Image source: Pinterest

The main political drama since the Duvalier era was the rise and fall of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. A populist priest who won a following among the poor with his impassioned sermons, he won the election in 1990 but was overthrown in a coup only a year later. He moved to America and lobbied it for an intervention to restore him to power. A flood of Haitian refugees fleeing the dictatorship added to the pressure. American president Bill Clinton relented in 1994, and once again US troops marched on Port-au-Prince. Yet Aristide failed to turn around the economy, and he and his successor agreed to IMF-imposed terms that gutted Haiti’s subsistence farmers. The political situation and crime had grown so bad by 2004 that the UN intervened, the only UN occupation force in the world outside of a war zone.

As if all this wasn’t dire enough, Haiti was battered by God in 2010, when an earthquake struck Port-au-Prince. At magnitude 7, it would be difficult for any country to deal with, but with Haiti’s shoddy infrastructure, most of the capital was in rubble, including the presidential palace. To make matters worse, much of the foreign aid Haiti needed to clean up afterward never arrived or was slow in arriving. To make matters even worse, UN troops from Nepal introduced cholera through lackluster sanitation, killing another 10,000 Haitians. And to make matters even worse, it has become increasingly obvious that foreign aid workers indulged in sex slavery rings.

Given this dismal history, it is easy to conclude that Haiti has been “cursed by one thing after the other,” as the American preacher Pat Robertson once claimed. And it continues to face huge challenges. Only half the population can read or access basic health services. Most Haitians rely on informal jobs or farming small plots to get by. The contrast with Haiti’s neighbor, the Dominican Republic, is glaring, leading many Haitians to head east for work, despite the racism (both petty and official) they face by its lighter-skinned population.

Yet this is only one aspect of Haiti. It offers picturesque scenery like all the other Caribbean islands. Its heritage is evident in sites like the massive Laferrière Citadel built on a prominent peak and the colonial architecture in its towns. The ethnic cleansing in Haiti’s past means that African culture has been better preserved here than anywhere else in the Caribbean, although it has blended with European and Arawak influences. That means its language, Creole, is basically French but with different grammar and a smattering of vocabulary from Spanish, Taino (an Arawak language) and West African languages. Haiti also has its own religion, Vodou, which is descended from a similar faith in Benin; it is a blend of Catholicism with the worship of unique spirits called lwa, which can possess adherents in lengthy ceremonies. Vodou’s tight-knit secret societies makes the religion a potent political crucible, but it’s also led to a lot of bogus portrayals overseas since its priests are said to perform magic.

Haiti art

An example of metalworking art in the artists’ neighborhood of Croix des Bouquets. Image source: Students Rebuild

Vodou is a major source of inspiration for Haitian culture, and Vodou images, paraphernalia, flags and clothing are important preoccupations of Haiti’s vibrant arts scene. Haitian painting is colorful and creative, but the most interesting thing about Haitian art might be how its artists use whatever stuff they can find to make something strange, ghoulish or beautiful. Street and even bus art is everywhere. Music is also a Haitian highlight: rara uses crude instruments like drums, bamboo trumpets and maracas to bang out simple but infectious beats, while Cuban son, Dominican merengue and American rap are also popular and filtered through Haiti’s more African sensibilities. All of these art forms come together in wild Carnival parties, which rival any other of the Caribbean’s many wild parties.

Haitian culture also places a big emphasis on solidarity and community spirit. Urban neighborhoods and rural villages are tight-knit and mutually supportive. Haitians are resourceful and used to making do with what little they have. They are hardworking and, out of necessity, patient in the face of adversity. This has made Haitian workers crucial for the Dominican Republic and the American state of Florida, as well as other Caribbean countries. Haiti also may hold promise as a low-wage manufacturing center and already has a textile industry.

That being said, Haiti resembles Africa in other ways too. It is the poorest part of the Americas, and by quite a margin too (its average per capita income is $719 a year). Damage from the earthquake is still evident 8 years later, and some still live in tents in “temporary” camps. Living conditions in general are shabby: power and water are scarce, roads are potholed, and public transit is unreliable and crowded. Port-au-Prince’s vast slum, the Cité Soleil, was once considered one of the world’s most dangerous places and was basically ruled by warring gangs until the UN took control in 2007. Crime and violence are still very high. About 150,000 Haitians have AIDS. Sanitation is in a dire state: trash and poop are dumped in ditches and canals, which means they get in houses when there are heavy rains. Most Haitians have to skip meals or eat basic foods like yams, plantains and rice. 200 years after the revolution, a racial divide between mulattoes and blacks persists.


Yet another problem is pell-mell deforestation, caused by a lack of regulation of Haiti’s many poor hill-dwellers. From the air you can see quite clearly where the Haitian-Dominican border is.

At the root of all of these problems is the government, which struggles to provide even basic services. It is caught in a classic African trap: it has very little tax revenue to spare, but its people have very little money to tax. This means it is very dependent on foreign aid, even if that means accepting crippling conditions from the World Bank and IMF. For example, the government is currently buckling under protests against a slash in fuel subsidies that makes the kerosene many Haitians depend on unaffordable. This is not new in Haiti: as the historical background should make clear, Haiti doesn’t exactly have a stable political tradition, and civil disorder can make the country ungovernable sometimes. The usual corruption and mismanagement of developing countries hollows out government resources even more.

Haitians are optimistic and stoic in even the worst of circumstances, and there are far worse neighborhoods than the Caribbean. But it will be a long time before Haiti becomes a place most people want to go to instead of a place they’d rather leave.



Sri Lanka soldier

Tamils can have Scouting events again… but ONLY with armed guards there. Image source: National Geographic

Sri Lanka, a teardrop-shaped island just off the southeastern coast of India, occupies a peculiar place in the global imagination. For the most part, it evokes positive images: lush jungle, frolicking elephants, picturesque hills covered in tea plantations, glorious beaches, peaceful Buddhist temples, and a laid-back lifestyle. And indeed, it’s thrived as an international tourist hotspot, offering visitors a culture similar to India’s without the crowds, hassles and abject poverty that besmirches its neighbor’s reputation.

But there’s another side to Sri Lanka, and it’s almost as well-known: the terrible civil war that gripped the island for 26 years. This was a large-scale, serious conflict with heavy weaponry and lots of civilian casualties. Although tourism has certainly picked up since the end of the war in 2009, Sri Lanka remained a tourist destination for most of the war, and dire reports of terrorist attacks and fierce battles didn’t do much to dent its image.

The war may be over now, but it’s left a lasting legacy of ethnic estrangement and damage. This blog post will delve into how the war started, how it ended, and where the ethnic politics of Sri Lanka stands now.

Like oh so many wars in the postcolonial world, Sri Lanka’s civil war was an ethnic conflict. Most of Sri Lanka’s people — 75% — are Sinhalas, a Buddhist ethnicity unique to the island. The rest are almost all Tamils, an ethnic group based in the far south of India — unsurprisingly, the part that’s next to Sri Lanka. They are based in the north and along the east coast.

Sri Lanka has an ancient history, but modern conflict has shrouded its nature in some degree of mystery. Both Sinhalas and Tamils originally came from somewhere else: the Tamils, obviously, from neighboring Tamil Nadu, but the Sinhalas from somewhere in north India — they are racially Aryan like the people of north India. Buddhism thrived in India in ancient times (especially under the Maurya dynasty of the 200s BCE), but diminished in popularity during the Middle Ages, so the Sinhalas’ fervent Buddhism points to a migration sometime before then. Whether the Sinhalas were there first, or whether they were mainly responsible for the impressive civilization whose monuments dominate the island’s central plain, is a contentious debate. Suffice it to say that for most of Lanka’s* history, the two ethnic groups coexisted.

Sri Lanka has a strategic location next to India and along the trade route that spans the Indian Ocean, connecting Arabia and Persia in the west with the Malay archipelago (modern Malaysia and Indonesia) in the east. This meant that various foreigners stopped by throughout its history, including possibly Greeks and Romans. Arabs introduced Islam and converted many Tamils, but most of the population stayed Buddhist or Hindu. In modern times, the Portuguese, Dutch and British each conquered part or all of the island (which they called “Ceylon”), with the latter making the deepest, most permanent inroads, seduced by its ideal climate for growing their all-important tea. Ceylon became a colony where Britishers could get a taste of India without having to deal with its complicated religious conflicts, huge population and political unrest.

That’s not to say that Ceylon didn’t have these things, of course. Like their counterparts in India, British colonists in Ceylon sponsored a minority group in the civil service — in this case, the Tamils — to create a loyal cadre of locals to help stymie native opposition to their rule. Thousands of Tamils were also brought in from India to help pick the tea too, creating a pocket of Tamils in the south (today called “Indian Tamils”). Tamils were better-educated and more likely to speak English than the Sinhalas, further creating the sense of a gulf between them and a connection with their masters.

As a result, when a Ceylonese nationalist movement did emerge in the 1920s, it was mostly Sinhala-led. Sinhalas formed the first government of an independent Ceylon in 1948. In 1956, faced with Sinhalas disgruntled that 2/3 of the civil service was represented by Tamils, the prime minister, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, introduced a “Sinhalese-only” policy: Sinhalese, and only Sinhalese, was to be Ceylon’s official language. Tamils, who rarely speak Sinhalese, protested, and Bandaranaike tried to conciliate them at first, but when Ceylon’s revered Buddhist monks protested in force in favor of the law, Bandaranaike backed down, which incited riots.

The situation continued to deteriorate into the ’60s and ’70s. Politicians found that discriminatory policies played well with Sinhalas, and since they make up such a big proportion of the country their votes were enough to carry elections. So curbs on civil rights continued. Tamils found themselves passed over for university admissions. The army became Sinhala-dominated. Indian Tamils were denied citizenship and encouraged to head back to India. Links with India — student exchanges, media, trade — were severed on socialist grounds, which hurt Tamils disproportionately due to their cross-strait links. Tamils were marginalized economically. The government encouraged Sinhala migration to Tamil areas.

This all contributed to a tense and edgy atmosphere. Parties were split along ethnic lines, and the main issue for Tamil ones was how to cope with the discrimination. Some wanted to work within the system, others argued for a federal system to protect Tamil autonomy, and by the late ’70s an independence movement had emerged. The burning of a library in Jaffna, the largest Tamil city, in 1981 was provocative, but what really pushed Sri Lanka (which had been renamed in 1972) over the edge was a riot in Colombo, its biggest city, in 1983. Provoked by the massacre of a military patrol, Sinhalas took out their anger on ordinary Tamils all over the city by beating, burning, raping and murdering them. The government turned a blind eye to it and never punished anyone for it. To Tamils, the message was clear — they were not welcome in the country any longer.

Some Tamils reacted by emigrating, but the immediate result was civil war. The group that had carried out the ambush in the first place muscled rival parties out of the political arena, sometimes bloodily. The Tamil regions of Sri Lanka were reorganized as an independent country, Tamil Eelam. It had its own flag, government, courts, bank, radio and TV stations, and most of all, military. This military dominated the ersatz country and shaped its life for the next few decades, and although it was called the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the world knew of them as the “Tamil Tigers.”

Tamil Tigers

The Tamil Tigers’ flag made it clear they weren’t anyone to f*** with.

The Tamil Tigers were hardcore. Led by an intense guy called Velupillai Prabhakaran, they knew there was no way of achieving their objectives by being nice. They perfected the art of guerrilla warfare, living in the jungle and pouncing on their prey at opportune moments, only to melt away again before reinforcements arrived. They recruited soldiers from throughout Tamil Eelam and focused on children to indoctrinate them at an early phase. They learned to survive in rough conditions on basic food and to absorb devastating attacks. They targeted Sinhala civilians far away from the war zone with suicide bombs — back in the ’80s, before anyone else did. They tunneled deep underground to withstand air raids. They even developed their own little air force and navy, complete with a homemade submarine. They exulted in a cult of martyrdom, self-sacrifice and martial heroics.

The war raged on, mostly monotonously, for 2 decades. The Tigers were never powerful enough to pose much of a threat to the Sinhalas, but they were too tenacious to be defeated, either. India, eager to play a role as regional hegemon, intervened in 1987 with a peacekeeping force meant to separate the 2 sides long enough for talks to be held. It didn’t work: the Tigers saw the Indians as uninvited interlopers and attacked them, while Sri Lanka stood back and let them die, anxious for their departure as well. After only 3 years and no progress with those talks, the Indians left, and Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi paid for the whole episode with his life (he was assassinated in 1991 by a Tiger agent).

The Tigers put up a good fight, and gained fame/infamy internationally for their intensity/cruelty, but they were always on the defensive. Sri Lanka simply had too many resources. After 2005, when a hardline president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was elected, their fate was sealed. He bulked up the army with a massive recruitment drive until Sri Lanka had a military 30 times bigger than it was in 1983. He attracted military aid from a random mix of friends (China, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, Russia) tired of the fighting and waiting to invest in Sri Lanka’s development. He stocked up on ammo, vehicles, and new weapons like multi-barrel rocket launchers.

Norway and Sweden had negotiated a ceasefire in 2002, but it was tense and no one really wanted to stop fighting yet. By 2006, the war was back on, and reached its final phase. The army was ruthless and held the territory it reclaimed from the rebels. Aid from sympathetic Tamils in India was interdicted. Since Sri Lanka is an island, the Tigers had nowhere left to escape. By May 2009, they were cornered on a beach in the northeast with no hope of a comeback. Prabhakaran and his remaining groupies died in a blaze of glory, or after surrendering, or while trying to escape by sea — journalists were barred from the war zone, so once again the true story is unknown. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were trapped in the crossfire, and many of them died. But with a finality rare among long-running guerrilla wars like this, the Sri Lankan Civil War was over. The Tamil Tigers and their regime passed into the history books.

Tamil Eelam

The territory of Tamil Eelam at its maximum extent.

There was some disgruntlement among the Tamil community about their government’s ignominious trampling, but for the most part the war really did end suddenly. After 26 years of mostly continuous fighting, Tamils were exhausted, and Sri Lanka has undergone a demographic shift that favored more sober 30-somethings and not fiery, violent 20-somethings. Northern Sri Lanka went through the process of rebuilding. Landmines are gradually being removed. IDP (internally displaced persons) camps are being emptied. Shattered infrastructure is being mended or rebuilt.

Peace, and all its attendant blessings, has dawned on Sri Lanka. Tourism has always favored the south, but links with the former Tamil Eelam are now rebuilt. Foreign investment is pouring into the Tamil cities of Jaffna and Trincomalee. Kids are going back to school instead of boot camps in the jungle.

But there’s still an air of disquiet and sadness in the Tamil lands. The war grew out of Tamil disenfranchisement, after all, and little has been done to reverse this since the war ended. The government is still Sinhala-dominated. Sri Lankan society still promotes a Sinhala-dominated national discourse that dismisses minorities and crows over the Sinhalese victory. Buddhist monks, like their counterparts in Myanmar, stoke a siege mentality and a chauvinistic interpretation of Buddhism. The military is still thick on the ground in the north, and valuable properties expropriated from Tamils during the war remain in its hands. The language barrier is still high, and since the government, police, military and courts are so Sinhala-dominated, many Tamils can’t even understand them unless both sides speak English.

The most obvious positive step in terms of reconciliation so far was the 2015 election of Maithripala Sirisena, mostly because Rajapaksa and his brothers were behind the most egregious policies. The military presence in the north has become less stifling, and thousands of Tamils are no longer abducted in the middle of the night. Sri Lanka’s constant denial and protests over any international criticism of its conduct of the war, which by most accounts involved torture, massacres of civilians, bombings of hospitals and rape, have abated, and Sirisena has promised to allow a more impartial accounting of war crimes. Tamils are allowed to talk openly about their problems, and a Tamil press has revived.

But the fundamental problems remain. Sinhalas continue to see Tamils as foreigners and cling to their own self-congratulatory narrative. Riots in March between Sinhalas and Muslim Tamils show that religion remains a flashpoint and source of distrust. Tamils traumatized by years of carnage find it hard to see their southern neighbors as friends. The military still occupies the north, jails dissidents without charges, and gets subsidies in its businesses there that crowd out locals. Sirisena shielded a popular general, Jagath Jayasuriya, from war crimes charges to cater to his Sinhala base. For now, Tamils are too worn out and beaten to raise much protest, but if their grievances are not heard, political conflict and war might erupt again.

Two very different perspectives on the war.



Soft power

Image source: VCG via Getty Images


We all know that countries aren’t really created equal. Yes, the principle of sovereignty, the practice of diplomacy, and the formats of most international institutions uphold the idea that countries are equal partners and that each one has an equal say in the running of the world. But it shouldn’t be too much of a controversy to state that some countries are more powerful than others. Even the UN recognizes this, with its Security Council that neatly aligns with the victorious powers of World War II.

What makes these countries more powerful than others? Their militaries, of course. Big armies and scary technology have been used throughout history to coerce weaker countries into doing what the strong country wants. When backed up by a smoothly functioning political system and bureaucracy, the power imbalance can be steep. Followers of the “realist” school of international relations say that this hard power is all that really matters: international relations is a contest for supremacy, and barring an unexpected event like a stupid political decision, the strong countries win and boss around everyone else.

This is basically true, but it would be inaccurate to just boil international relations down to that. (Otherwise, small, weak countries would have no chance.) Soft power plays a role as well. This concept, pioneered by the Harvard professor and former American defense official Joseph Nye, emphasizes other aspects of international power: culture, values and foreign policies. They may not make you tremble like nuclear weapons or aircraft carriers do, but subtly and over a long time, they are effective too.

“Liberals” and “constructivists,” the other factions in the academic world of international relations, have always emphasized the importance of values. If a country is seen as sharing your values, you’ll be more likely to ally with them or at least rely on them as a partner. If a country is not seen as sharing your values, the fear and suspicion that underlies much of diplomacy is only increased. Similarly, the way countries behave towards each other influences perceptions, even among bystander countries. A country with a track record of bullying, unpredictability and/or unreliability will find its diplomatic efforts stymied compared to one known for promoting peace, human rights and fair play.

I find culture to be the most fascinating aspect of this, since it’s such a slippery subject — hard to quantify, hard to evaluate, it’s usually overlooked or dismissed as a relevant factor in the cold hard world of international relations. But I think it subtly affects IR too. (This is one reason this blog occasionally covers cultural topics in addition to more newsworthy stuff.) For the most part, countries are drawn to those that share their culture, or have a similar one. History is littered with examples of alliances forged through shared cultural understanding: Imperial Germany’s interests may have lain with an alliance with powerful, influential Russia, but it ended up choosing Austria-Hungary mostly because of a shared Germanic culture and disdain for Russia’s Slavic culture. America and Britain may have important shared interests, but their alliance is cemented by a shared culture, language and history. The Commonwealth, Britain’s post-imperial club, mostly runs on these factors.

In the long run, the sense of a “superior” culture worth emulating accords certain countries a special status and deference from those who might be their equals or superiors politically. For most of ancient history, Greece was a mess politically speaking, but its sophisticated culture earned it a cachet from its neighbors and respect from its stronger adversaries, Persia and Rome. China commanded similar awe and emulation (although in that case it was helped by its size, strength, and resources). In general, religion is a particularly strong glue; the Arabs clashed numerous times with their neighbors, but the wide appeal of Islam and the prevalence of Arabic elevates them above their sometimes chaotic political situation.

The most subtle, underappreciated form of soft power might be plain and simple recognition. Let’s face it: not all countries are equally well-known, either. Guinea-Bissau is not as familiar as Mexico. Mozambique probably sounds like a made-up country to most of the world, but almost everyone has heard of China. Fame gives European countries in particular extra clout; Britain, France and Germany are among the most well-known countries in the world, and it’s very common for members of the global elite to at least visit them. Countries of similar size elsewhere, like the Congo, Iran or the Philippines, don’t get as much attention, which surely has an effect on the way they are treated.

When it comes to which country commands the most soft power, the question is hardly in dispute: America rules the roost. It may be proud of its enormous hard power, but soft power is the other tool in its arsenal. America’s political and economic systems are widely used models. It attracts lots of immigrants, increasingly from all over the world. Its universities are top-of-the-line. The globe is in thrall to American pop culture: look at how familiar American superheroes, American rappers, and American sitcoms are from the rich West to poor Africa. Thanks in part to the prevalence of English, even relatively mundane happenings in America attract international attention. It is true that American foreign policy doesn’t always command respect — George Bush’s cowboy attitude and dumb decision to invade Iraq made it rued around the world, and as Joseph Nye himself points out, America’s current president has done a lot to remind everyone of America’s negative qualities like vanity, ignorance and bullying bluntness. But it is famous, and its values and culture are broadly attractive.

The West in general commands a lot of soft power. Thanks to European imperialism, the world as a whole has been shaped in the Western image, and it would be nearly impossible to teach recent world history without discussing the West in some way. Europe is still the world’s biggest tourist draw. Its lingering historical prestige, combined with its present-day combination of cozy antique villages and a comfortable modern lifestyle sustained by generous welfare, go a long way in masking its long-term decline as an international player. Thanks in no small part to their colonialism, Britain and France are more familiar to many countries than their own neighborhoods. Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and Canada have become immigrant magnets despite their light hard power credentials.

The other soft power titan? Japan. With a constitutional restriction on its hard power projection capability, Japan has pretty much banked on soft power to increase its clout. It has worked very well: Japanese technology is used all over the world, Japanese culture is among the most familiar outside of the West, tourism is booming, and Japanese characters from Pokemon to Gundam are the strongest rivals to America’s pantheon of pop culture icons. Although it is now a bit passe, in previous eras Japan was widely admired for modernizing rapidly along Western models while keeping its culture intact. While all this is important, Japan’s soft power is hobbled somewhat by various, mostly minor issues that regularly appear in the news (suicides, creepy fetishes, overwork, etc.), its hostility to immigrants and foreigners in general, and its terrible reputation among its immediate neighbors.

Probably the most discussed topic in soft power conversations these days — as in so many foreign policy discussions — is China. As mentioned earlier, China has historically been a soft power giant, exporting everything from philosophy to urban planning to its neighbors. But lately, its image has suffered somewhat, aside from die-hard Communists in the Maoist era. It is as often associated with rampant greed and bossing around its neighbors as it is with anything positive. For a long time, China didn’t really care, but beginning in the ’90s Nye’s theory started circulating in Chinese intellectual circles. Eager as always to compete with America and cultivate an image as a peaceful power, China has begun to aggressively promote its soft power. Confucius Institutes all over the world teach Chinese language and handicrafts; Chinese cultural performances are heavily marketed; the Chinese New Year is celebrated overseas; even Confucius (Master Kong), once demonized by the Communists, has been rehabilitated and rebranded as an icon of a gentle, wise China.

These campaigns are only a little over a decade old, so their efficacy is probably too soon to judge. Whatever their merits, China already has a great deal of soft power on account of its fame and attributes like dim sum, taiji, and Jackie Chan. But China’s efforts seem doomed to fail, or at least disappoint, for 2 reasons: 1, they’re state-led, while the vibrancy and appeal of, say, Japan’s pop culture is organic; and 2, it is unclear whether an appreciation for a country’s culture will necessarily lead to an endorsement of that country’s values and foreign policy — which is the point of all of this. Plenty of people enjoy The Big Bang Theory and KFC while railing about American imperialism.

Other countries also wield outsized clout thanks to their soft power. South Korea’s movies, pop groups and TV dramas have won it many fans throughout Asia. India’s movies, religious practices, and — to a lesser extent — music have gone a long way in giving it a more benign image than China and ameliorating negative impressions of India abroad. Even countries like Nigerian and Turkey, who are more often thought of as places to emigrate from, have acquired a bit of a “cool” status thanks to their pop cultures and vibrant societies. These countries would do well to encourage their creative industries to cash in on their burgeoning cachets.

So what, say the realists. Why does any of this matter? At the end of the day, it’s hard power — military might, diplomatic skill, and cold, hard cash — that settles things. Why does it matter that Russia (for example) has a dearth of soft power? If it wants to, it can step in and smoosh its neighbors. Would a fondness for French wine make one less willing to resist a French invasion? Would cute Japanese mascot characters make one more likely to surrender in a trade dispute?

Probably not. Hard power continues to be the most important element of international relations. But I think that in the day-to-day conduct of international affairs, when countries aren’t always at each other’s throats, soft power does play an important role. What academics call “normative biases” do affect thinking and decision-making. Even if governments use a more rational calculus of their interests, their citizens are affected by soft power, and governments usually reflect the popular will. American pop culture saturation makes it hard to conceive of the Philippines actually breaking its alliance with the US. Peaceful images like meditating sadhus and damsels warbling love songs make it hard for anyone but Pakistanis to think of India as a truculent power. Cultural and media exposure have created a bond between North America, South Korea, Japan and Europe that does much to reinforce their formal alliances. And frankly, soft power makes it more likely for people to care about other countries. Sometimes, simple awareness makes a lot of difference.

NOTE: There seems to be some disagreement whether economic power counts as “hard” or “soft.” On one hand, money is definitely powerful, and a state of economic dependence can be as crippling as military occupation. On the other hand, “hardness” is often equated with force or the threat of using force, while money is seen as a way to persuade rather than coerce. The best answer seems to be that it depends on how economic power is used, as this article argues.