A supporter of Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) holds a national flag during an election campaign rally in Phnom Penh on July 27, 2018. Photo: AFP/Mahan Vatsyayana
A supporter of Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) holds a national flag during an election campaign rally in Phnom Penh on July 27, 2018. Photo: AFP/Mahan Vatsyayana

Increasingly, the arena of international affairs is being shaped by soft power. Where traditional economic and military might once reigned supreme, a nation’s strength may now be derived from the appeal of culture, political values and policies. For smaller states like Cambodia, this “second face of power” provides an opportunity to gain international prominence for the purpose of supporting international peace and security.

Soft power, as conceptualized by Joseph Nye, is the ability to influence the perception of others through the power of ideas and attraction. This co-optive force can be derived from multiple national features, but is traditionally guided by the pursuit of a state’s objectives.

One such objective that lends itself credibly to the development of Cambodia’s reputation is the kingdom’s contribution to international peace and stability missions.

During a recent Peacekeeping Ministerial Conference at UN Headquarters in New York, Defense Minister General Tea Banh reaffirmed that Cambodia would continue its commitment to providing troops for peacekeeping operations under the United Nations framework.

Cambodia’s commitment to the promotion of global peace serves as a core component of its soft-power strategy, in spite of this utilization of a traditional hard-power base, that is, military engagement. Soft-power theory outlines that military engagements can contribute to soft power when its implementation is intended to ensure humanitarian relief and peace building under the United Nations framework.

In order to translate Cambodia’s peacekeeping engagement into the desired reputational effect, it must be adequately promoted.

First and foremost, Cambodia must position its efforts around the international agenda of peace and security pursued by the United Nations. After 74 years of operation, the UN, while imperfect, is widely seen as playing a positive role in world development. As noted by Nye, when a nation’s policies are seen as legitimate in the eyes of others, soft power is enhanced.

Accordingly, the Cambodian government’s provision of peacekeeping forces is commensurate with the international community’s expectation of increased Cambodian involvement in promoting peace and stability. Activities such as peacekeeping, emergency response, and disaster relief all enhance the country’s image.

In 20 years, Cambodia has gone from requiring peacekeepers to contributing more than 6,000 troops specializing in de-mining and engineering to work in the Central African Republic, Sudan, South Sudan, Chad, Syria, Cyprus, Lebanon and Mali. In addition to peace and security, Cambodia’s operations under a multilateral framework should be more strongly promoted globally in order to demonstrate Phnom Penh’s acknowledgement of its commitment to the global rules-based order.

At the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen reaffirmed this position and stated: “Cambodia, as a small economy, believes in the interests of rule-based international cooperation and we need to jointly maintain and strengthen multilateralism.” In practical terms this means that Cambodia believes that it must make a contribution to multilateral security arrangements if it is to derive security from such arrangements itself.

As a small state, Cambodia is well positioned through participation in multilateral engagements under the UN framework to develop its international reputation. In 2017, Secretary General António Guterres thanked Cambodia for its contributions to UN peacekeeping operations, in addition to assuring future cooperation. In addition, the UN’s resident coordinator in Cambodia, Pauline Tamesis, has discussed how Cambodia has exhibited the necessary political will that is crucial for the success of UN peacekeeping missions.

These formal recognitions of Cambodia’s peacekeeping work help to support the projection of Cambodia as a nation committed to the promotion of peace and cooperation. One hopes that continued engagement could lead to the promotion of Cambodia as a non-permanent member of the Security Council at some point in the future.

This is the right time for the Cambodian government to demonstrate peacekeeping operations as a soft-power strategy by affirming and promoting its continued commitment in governmental documents on foreign policy, including the defense white paper, defense strategic review, and rectangular strategy. Foreign states will increasingly perceive Cambodia in a more positive light, that is, as a responsible, active member in the global community.

Chan Sam Art is a junior research fellow at Future Forum, a public policy think-tank based in Phnom Penh. He has been undertaking a number of research projects on Cambodia’s soft power.

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