SOFT power and hard power are concepts in international and foreign affairs that describe ways in which nations influence one another to achieve certain outcomes.

Hard power refers to the visible exertion of force against other nations in ways that include war, territorial invasions or blockades of borders through actual physical intervention.

Military force has historically been the arrowhead for hard power. 

Conversely, soft power is a relatively new idea conceived in the 1980s by Joseph Nye as a means of explaining how force can be exerted through tacit ways that possibly avoid violence and confrontation.

Soft power, therefore, can include sanctions, withholding donor funding and other bilateral or multilateral financing.

This concept suggests that institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank use soft power or the power of finance and debt, to influence decisions of (indebted) member states.

So instead of militarism, the preference to now apply financial pressure takes precedence and becomes pronounced.  

Furthermore, soft power alludes to the global reach of political bodies like the European Union (EU) as evidence of a trend that prefers financial influence over military intervention.

Indeed, in most cases the EU advances the liberal agenda including free speech, press freedom, human rights and such as conditions for their support.

Despite most of Western Europe being member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, they have kept the global agenda outside Europe more financial than militaristic.  

From a developing nation perspective, Africa, Asia, parts of Eastern Europe and Latin America have been at the uncomfortable end of both soft and hard power.

Civil wars, liberation wars, genocide and other devastations plagued these continents socially and economically.

Socially because the loss of lives alone from man-made catastrophes remains incalculable; and economically because wars require financing with huge resources that are not typically found in developing countries.

Noticeably, the era of hard power with its world wars and cold war created a debt trap. The countries that were not at war were either strained to support refugees or freedom fighters at their own expense.

In the end, the reality was that most developing nations were in debt and needed help. 

This scenario partly led to the pivotal and increasing role of the IMF after the 1990s when liberal politics became the global norm.

Almost every country that became a democracy in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America became a member of the IMF.

Furthermore, most of these countries were subjected to sets of pre-conditions necessary for them to be eligible to either borrow or have historical debt forgiven. 

The power to influence the life and destiny of other nations moved from the battle fields of guns and missiles to the artillery of contracts that took political and economic control of debtor nations.

To this end, indebted nations lamented against IMF conditionalities particularly that the Fund had one-size fits all policies that did not consider the different prevailing domestic conditions of indebted states.

Everyone was subjected to Structural Adjustment Programmes and other stringent debt acquiring conditions.

To its credit, the lure of commerce and globalisation actually worked well in some cases. Still, the interesting thing about soft power was that the economic value of most countries was determined externally.

The value of resources like copper and diamonds, for instance, was determined by western markets more than the host nations. For example, when Zambia sought to confront the power of the global mining industry by refusing to sell the previously nationalised mining portfolio whole, to a single conglomerate in the mid-1990s, the result was that global prices of copper fell. 

The value and contribution of mining to Zambia’s economy declined to negative 22 percent in 1998 and negative 21.3 percent in 1999 which was some of the worst economic performance after liberalisation in 1991.

Global sentiment was that Zambia would run out of copper in 10 years – ending 2010. This, of course, was false and demand for the country’s copper surged after 2006 thanks to the rise of China.

Improved demand for copper largely helped to cushion the country from the global financial crisis of 2008-2009, even making it Africa’s number one producer of copper by 2010. 

Other casualties of soft power are countries like Malaysia that suffered a frenzied withdrawal of capital in 1997/8 leading to a near-collapse of that economy. Zimbabwe was another example and numerous others. We do not yet know if Russia will be added to this category. 

This is partly why the go-east policy became a rallying call for Africa because China was becoming an economic powerhouse. Chinese loans did not have the same preconditions as western loans and did not require structural changes.

Some even argued that Chinese loans were larger and gave the borrowing country a longer period to repay. By 1997, Zambia had opened the first Bank of China in Africa as a prelude to rebuild the old friendship; and apply the abundant resources to modernising and expanding infrastructure. 

Fast forward to 2022, Zambia owes about US$5.75 billion or more according to China and US$3.25 billion to western markets in the form of Eurobonds, according to Government.  

Both sides have potential to either devastate or rebuild our economy using this financial leverage.  China has been a steady ally of Zambia even when other nations refused to help.

We cannot ignore that the IMF supported Zambia’s growth when the economy had crippled in the 1980s, leading to an expanded economy in the 1990s.

Ultimately, the decision to borrow will always erode a country’s ability to dictate its own future when those loans are not invested or applied with deliberate intention to become eventual masters of our lives.

Whether through soft or hard power, the question to ask is what are we giving up every time we borrow, are we eroding our own ability to govern for the benefit of citizens of our nation?

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