Last week saw the launch of a new global #softpower report, ranking the UK at the top of a 30-country index. Compiled by Portland, Facebook and ComRes, the report is described by Joseph Nye (who coined the term in 1990) as “the clearest picture to date of global soft power”, and has ranked countries in six categories (enterprise, culture, digital, government, engagement, education).
There are quite a few of these indices around now, with varying methodologies – nevertheless, this is the first to incorporate data on government’s online impact and international polling. Who’s at the top of the tables isn’t really surprising (the top 5 countries – UK, Germany, US, France, Canada – are identical to the top 5 in the Anholt-GFK Roper Nation Brand Index, but with a slight reordering of ranking). The US, Switzerland and France topped the specific categories, and although not first place in any of the categories, the UK ranked highest overall, reflecting its strength in culture, education, engagement & digital. More on the UK later.
What is really surprising is that China finishes last. Following a 2007 directive from Premier Hu Jintao, China has been investing heavily in soft power assets (such as the Xinhua news agency, aid/ development projects), at a time when others have been paring back their ambitions. Nevertheless, the impact of this investment isn’t borne out in the results, likely hindered by negative perceptions of China’s foreign policy, questionable domestic policies and a weakness in digital diplomacy. China came out strongest in the culture, likely reflective of the many Confucius Institutes dotted around the globe.
There are a few other interesting nuggets:
· Broader power trends are increasing the need for soft power – 3 factors driving global affairs away from bilateral diplomacy and hierarchies and toward a much more complex world of networks:
1. Rapid diffusion of power between states
2. Erosion of traditional power structures
3. Mass urbanisation
· Digital diplomacy has been the predominant approach… – The interlinked megatrend of increased online access has meant that governments have had to step up their digital diplomacy (“…155 countries that have a world leader or ministry of foreign affairs with an active Facebook page. Over 190 countries now have some presence on Twitter with more than 4,000 embassies and ambassadors boasting active accounts”) – with mixed results. “The use of technology is restricted too often to amplifying offline events, rather than making a real impact on audiences online… …The record of two diplomats shaking hands in front of an oil painting… …is not digital diplomacy. It is simply a concession to modernity without the risk that greater engagement or transparency entails.”
· …And it’s the way forward – The US came out on top in the digital category, followed by the UK. Israel (4th) and South Korea (6th) stand out as high performing in digital diplomacy, particularly on social media engagement.
· Increased importance of economic diplomacy – A growing number of governments are putting greater emphasis on prosperity linked objectives .
· Smaller countries can punch above their weight – Both Ireland (19th) and New Zealand (16th) performed well, and have an outsized influence given their size. They may be the most effective soft power states pound for pound. Many of these countries, see their diasporas as soft power assets, believing that their citizens living overseas can improve the country’s reputation, increasing tourism, consumption of exports and more. Earlier this month Ireland launched their 2016 Global and Diaspora Programme specifically aimed at their 70+ million diaspora, commemorating the 1916 Easter Rising through arts events, digital engagement, documentaries and lectures.
· Brazil and South Korea are the ones to watch – As an early adopter of soft power among Asian nations, after Japan(9th), South Korea (20th) is the only Asian country in the top 20. That’s due to much more than K-Pop and Psy – the country has invested heavily in its culture and creative industries, innovation, and is a consumer electronics powerhouse. Brazil (23rd) is the best performing BRIC, and hosted the 2014 World Cup. The 2016 Rio Olympics will be a crucial soft power opportunity for the country.
· French is the language of diplomacy – France is the best networked state in the world and is a member of more multilateral organisations than any other country. Only the US has more diplomatic missions abroad than France.
· Lots of interesting examples – Indian PM Modi’s use of social media (more Facebook engagement than any other world leader, including Obama), the Canadian NATO delegation’s trolling of Russia (with a response) on Ukraine, British Ambassador to Lebanon Tom Fletcher’s social media engagement (dialogue, rather than documenting his daily schedule), the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs development of a concerted digital strategy, the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ evaluation (multi-country polling) of public diplomacy to combat misconceptions / negative stories linking Swiss banks and Nazi gold from World War II.
On the UK soft power win, The Economist published a good article summarising the drivers of the success. The UK is high in engagement (high visa-free access to 174 countries), culture (music, football) and education (universities), but weaker on enterprise (low spend on R&D) and governance (gender gap). The article also highlighted some potential threats to British soft power, mentioning immigration, the EU referendum and a reduced role for the BBC. However, as some readers have noted in the article’s comments section, the article neglected to mention the immense contribution of two key assets – the GREAT Britain Campaign and the British Council. (Note that these are mentioned in the report itself).
1. GREAT Britain Campaign – The £113.5 million campaign (2012 – 2015), is the government’s major branding campaign to promote the UK as a destination for tourists, trade and investment and students, in order to secure economic growth. Conceived and coordinated from the Prime Minister’s Office in Downing Street (but working with UKTI, the FCO, British Council, VisitBritain and VisitEngland), the campaign was recently commended by the National Audit Office, which reported a return on investment (so far) of £1.2 billion. It has also been praised by industry figures, including WPP’s CEO Sir Martin Sorrell.
2. British Council – At a recent a public lecture (on soft power and cultural diplomacy) at the South African Institute of International Affairs here in Johannesburg, the new CEO Ciarán Devane highlighted the increased competition that the British Council (recognised in the report as ”world class”, and “another pillar of British soft power”) is facing in “the soft power game”. One fascinating slide illustrated this playing field, with China’s Confucius Institute and Institut Français surpassing the British Council in number of offices globally. And increased competition isn’t the only challenge, with government funding cut by 25% from 2010/2011 – 2013/2014.
Nevertheless, this is perhaps indicative of a wider lack of recognition of the value of the respective soft power tools already held in the UK’s foreign policy toolbox. Last year’s Select Committee report on Soft Power and the UK’s Influence fired a warning on the risks of neglect of British soft power assets – “the UK finds itself with a tremendous range of institutions and relationships in politics, economics, science and culture, often amassed over generations, which give it a great deal of internationally recognised soft power… … could be said to have acquired a great many of these soft power assets ‘in a fit of absence of mind’. We feel that the Government have moved from absent-mindedness to neglect of certain aspects of British soft power potential… …The Government’s imperative now must be to defend and preserve the UK’s accumulated estate of soft power—and capitalise on the gains which soft power generates in order to fulfil the UK’s aims and purposes.”
Robin Niblett of Chatham House, has argued that the UK “must continue to invest in or create the necessary supportive environment for those organisations and institutions which enhance Britain’s soft power – its universities, the BBC and other UK-based media organisations, the British Council, and the rich mixture of British non-governmental organisations.” As civil servants sharpen their pencils in advance of the Autumn’s Comprehensive Spending Review, the report’s findings will be valuable fodder for the wider debate on Britain’s role and influence in the world, its foreign policy, and investment in and deployment of its soft power assets.