Peacekeeping as a source of Nepal's soft power

Published On: November 24, 2021 06:30 AM NPT By: Dr Surendra Singh Rawal

The UN peacekeeping mission is a powerful platform for creating and maintaining soft power for Nepal. However, while soft power may seem less risky than economic and military power, it is difficult to use and easily lost without preservation. It requires time and effort to restore after being lost.

American author cum blogger Faith Hunter beautifully put it, "You don't have to shout from the mountaintops. Sometimes power comes in a soft, calm, compassionate way, like a quiet warrior." Also in international relations, 'soft power' has been advocated for quite some time, apart from the longstanding twin hard power exerted by states - economic and military. Despite being relatively a small country, Nepal has endeavored to wield soft power through its UN peacekeeping participation for almost six decades.

Hard-power is the power of 'coercion and intimidation,' whereas soft-power is the power of 'persuasion and attraction.' Yet, soft power is not the derivative of idealism. In his book 'The Future of Power,' political scientist Joseph Nye Junior asserts that "there is no contradiction between realism and soft power. Soft power is not another form of idealism or liberalism." The soft power of any country depends on its culture, political values​​, and foreign policies.

But countries cannot create soft power unless they convert resources. The transformation requires a full-throated effort from the government that involves creating attraction, agenda-setting, and persuasion to turn resources into soft power. The conversion is manifested in many forms, such as the country's intelligence service, information system, diplomacy, and public diplomacy.

Although the military is generally seen as a hard power, not all the powers employed by the army are necessarily hard. Civil-military cooperation, military diplomacy, humanitarian rescue, and reliefs are the military sources of soft power. The production of soft power using the United Nations peacekeeping mission is another dimension of the military instrument's application. 

Nepal has been attempting to mobilize the army as a soft power tool in the world arena since the Second World War. In 1958, just three years after securing the membership of the United Nations in 1955, Nepal sent military observers to maintain world peace. After the deployment of the first contingent in 1974, Nepal's participation in the peacekeeping force became more widespread.

Nepal, one of the top troop-contributing countries for a long time, has recently risen to the second position. Being second is not a mere coincidence or the result of immediate circumstances. In fact, for almost half a century, Nepali peacekeepers have been one of the most sought-after contingents in UN missions. The key reason is the honesty and loyalty of the Nepali soldiers. When it comes to maintaining international peace and security, the Nepali peacekeepers have fulfilled almost all their responsibilities with no ifs and buts. While some other peacekeeping contingents make excuses to step outside their comfort zone after receiving uninteresting or challenging tasks, assuming any missions without hesitation are rooted in Nepali contingents' peacekeeping culture.  

Another striking reason for Nepali peacekeepers' worldwide demand is their ability to intermix with any society and environment quickly. No matter how difficult the situation is, Nepali soldiers present themselves as the pillar of strength of UN peacekeeping with minimal resources. This Unique Selling Proposition (USP) of the Nepalis -- adaptability in any social, cultural, and geographic setting -- further creates their dominance in the supply chain of peace and security business. Nepali youths have been serving not just in British, Indian, Brunei, and Singaporean armed and police forces, they have also been serving as a security guard and private army in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other insecure parts of the world. Due to these personal traits, about three million Nepali workers are employed in various professions in the international labor market, and their demand is growing day by day. In a way, these personal qualities of Nepalis are the 'raw material' of soft power.

Certainly, the contribution of the Nepali Army to world peace is viewed from different angles. While some have argued that the peacekeepers go to conflict regions with the motive of earning lucrative income and increasing the army's welfare fund, these are only analyses from personal and organizational perspectives. The national interest is at the heart of Nepali peacekeeping, which is often overlooked. Participation in the peacekeeping force is part and parcel of Nepal's foreign policy goals. In the years following World War II, when Nepal struggled to endure as a sovereign nation, peacekeeping participation became an important tool to recognize it in the international field. The same contribution also enabled Nepal to become a temporary member of the UN Security Council in 1969 and 1988.

Today, the Nepali peacekeeping participation remains the main talking point of any Nepali delegation to the UN headquarters. The peacekeepers have an exceptional contribution behind membership or chairmanship opportunities that Nepal gets in various organs and agencies of the United Nations.

Undoubtedly, the peacekeeping force is the most potent and reliable medium used to project Nepal's soft power in the past. Using accumulated soft power, Nepal successfully pursued its foreign policy and protected its national interests. The Nepali Army also benefited institutionally. In terms of organizational benefits, the Army Welfare Fund created by the amount of money (levy) deducted from the Nepali peacekeepers and reimbursement from the United Nations has now reached some Rs 50 billion. It has helped to raise the morale of the rank and file of the army by conducting various military welfare activities.

Surely, there are many other dimensions to the national army's participation in peace missions. The experience gained by Nepali soldiers, enhanced professionalism, and awareness is just one aspect. Participation is also a reliable means of bringing money into the national exchequer. Peacekeeping was the vital source of earning foreign currencies before the Nepali youth became a significant part of the international labor market. 

The UN peacekeeping mission is a powerful platform for creating and maintaining soft power for Nepal. However, while soft power may seem less risky than economic and military power, it is difficult to use and easily lost without preservation. It requires time and effort to restore after being lost. Therefore, diplomats must make conscious efforts to preserve it. In the past, Nepal worked hard to convert its participation in peace missions into soft power. But after the political changes of 1990, peacekeeping is seen only as a private matter of the Nepal Army and is not being transformed into soft power.

Peacekeeping participation cannot be converted into soft power by the hard work of the army alone. Political and diplomatic efforts are equally crucial. The elephant in the room is revitalizing the active role of these two entities in transforming the Nepal Army's energies into soft power. Suppose the peacekeeping matter is confined within the army as its private domain, and politicians and diplomats think it is a privilege of the military and should not be interfered with. In that case, the participation in peacekeeping loses its steam and cannot be converted into soft power. While it is rewarding for soldiers to make money and the country to earn some foreign currency, it is not a big deal from a national interest perspective. It is also not a diplomatic feat to pick up a few low-hanging fruits at the United Nations and its agencies, funds, and programs (AFP). The actual 'return on investment' of participating in peace missions is to create the soft power needed to fulfill the national interest. Power is the hardest currency in international politics. Therefore, the government must make a solid pitch for transforming UN peacekeeping participation into soft power.


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