The term soft power describes concept within international relations whereby countries can exert influence by means other than the “hard”, coercive means of military action — through culture, diplomacy, civil society, and so on.
Joseph Nye, the American political theorist who coined the term in the 1980s, sums it up thusly:
“A country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries – admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness – want to follow it. In this sense, it is also important to set the agenda and attract others in world politics, and not only to force them to change by threatening military force or economic sanctions. This soft power – getting others to want the outcomes that you want – co-opts people rather than coerces them.
In an increasingly globalized world, where interstate conflict is exceedingly (and exceptionally) rare, soft power arguably counts for a lot more than it ever has. Nations across the world are seeking to bolster their clout on the world stage by promoting their culture, media, businesses, political and social values, and other factors that might garner admiration, investment, and even political allegiance.
But given the nebulous and organic nature of soft power, it is a difficult thing for governments and policymakers to create and project. Granted, that is the not stopping the world’s largest country from laying out the groundwork for its likely rise to superpower status. As EJI reported:
[China has] spent hundreds of billions of US dollars improving the communication capabilities of its media outlets like CCTV, organizing mega events such as the 2008 Olympic Games and 2010 Shanghai Expo, funding Confucius Institutes, hosting summits attended by dozens of world leaders (the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, for instance), and sponsoring forums on regional security and prosperity (for example, the Boao Forum).
An important justification for such lavish spending is that these activities can contribute to China’s soft power, The Diplomat said.
David Shambaugh, regarded inside and outside China as an authority on the country’s foreign policy, estimated in a recent article in Foreign Affairs magazine that China’s annual budget for “external propaganda” runs in the neighborhood of US$10 billion.
“By contrast, the US Department of State spent US$666 million on public diplomacy in fiscal year 2014,” he said.
China is also backing up its soft-power charm offensive with serious money — at last count, US$1.41 trillion.
This includes commitments of US$50 billion for the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, US$41 billion for the New Development Bank, US$40 billion for the Silk Road Economic Belt, and US$25 billion for the Maritime Silk Road.
Yet for all these expensive and multifaceted efforts, China fared poorly in the “Soft Power 30” index conducted by the London-based consultancy, Portland Communications. The report assesses countries based on 65 factors spanning six measures of “reputation and influence”: government, culture, education, global engagement, enterprise, and digital.
While China offers tremendous cultural wealth — a deep and rich history, eclectic cuisine, iconic art forms — its repressive political and social environment tarnishes its reputation. Citing EJI once more:
Portland Communications described China as a global game-changer held back by a political system that “has not kept pace with the nation’s economic dynamism”.
China has a wealth of soft-power assets when it comes to culture, history, cuisine, as well as sparks of innovation, it said (the country ranked ninth on the culture metric).
But the lack of democracy, free press and access to information many people around the world take for granted weighs heavily on perceptions of China, as the index rankings indicate.
China unsurprisingly scored lowest on “government”, defined by Portland in the Western terms of commitment to freedom, human rights and democracy, and the quality of political institutions.
It also scored rock bottom on the “digital” metric, defined as a country’s digital infrastructure and its capabilities in digital diplomacy.
The bottom line is that public polling results show a lack of trust in China to “do the right thing in global affairs”, Portland said.
So by those standards, which countries do perform well on the index? Well, the results might surprise you.
How has the world’s former superpower reclaimed the lead in cultural and economic influence? The report offers some interesting reasons:
The UK topping the table is not a huge surprise when considering the soft power resources that Britain commands. The UK is a strong performer across all of the sub-indices that comprise the index. Publicly funded and state controlled resources include major institutions like the BBC World Service, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Department for International Development. Additionally, the British Council, publicly funded cultural institutions and the UK’s higher education system are all world class. These public funded institutions provide a tremendous source of attraction and admiration around the world.
Of course, governments only have limited control over the sources of soft power, and those in the UK’s private sector are far too numerous to list exhaustively. However, important examples include Britain’s creative industries, from art, film, and music, to architecture, design, and fashion. Major sporting institutions like the Premier League, as well as highly respected business brands like Rolls Royce, Burberry, and British Airways also have a positive impact on perceptions of the UK.
The UK’s soft power also benefits from a very strong civil society. Like the private sector in the UK, British civil society is extremely diverse, including a range of organisations from charities, NGOs and the religious community, through to cultural institutions and even trade unions. Major global organisations that contribute to development, disaster relief, and human rights reforms like Amnesty International, Oxfam or Save the Children, are based in the UK and form an integral part of British soft power. This holds true even when organisations are not operating in lockstep with the government. Some civil society organisations are clearly more international facing than others, but the whole of civil society is a crucial source of soft power.
Germany also managed to edge over the United States, despite the latter having far greater cultural and diplomatic influence. This has much to do with the country’s concerted effort to project a benign and progressive image, both at home and abroad.
Germany’s strong finish at second in the rankings follows a trend that has gained pace over the last decade or so. Its role as the driving force in European affairs is unimpeachable. It is roundly admired for the quality of its advanced manufacturing goods, engineering prowess, its opposition to military adventurism, and an economy that seems to translate growth into well-being better than most. Moreover, there is a strong feeling that Germany will ‘do the right thing in international affairs’ according to our international polling. On the cultural side, the transformation of Berlin from divided capital to global hub of culture and creativity has been remarkable. And despite being at a relative linguistic disadvantage, German culture still has global appeal – helped significantly by sport. As Europe’s indispensable actor, Germany’s steady hand and agreeable approach to its conduct at home and abroad generates tremendous stores of soft power.
As for the U.S., its respectable but somewhat surprising third place slot has a lot to do with disproportionately bad view of both its domestic and international politics.
Some researchers and commentators may find it strange that the US did not come top of our rankings. Indeed there are many elements of soft power where the US is unrivalled. America attracts more international students than any other nation, American culture is globally ubiquitous, and the US sets the pace in tech and digital. If The Soft Power 30 rankings were calculated on objective metrics alone, the US would have just beat the UK to the top spot. However, the US finished sixteenth across an average of the polling categories. In many ways the American government and perceptions of US foreign policy tend to be a net detractor for American soft power.
Honorable mentions in the report included Ireland and New Zealand, which were “the most effective soft power states pound-for-pound”; South Korea, which was the only Asian state besides Japan to make it to the top 20; and Brazil, which has tremendous potential if it can overcome its bad governance and sclerotic economy.
To be sure, Portland Communications makes clear that a lot of these findings are subjective, being drawn from various international polls (you can learn more about the methodology on page 46 of its report here). But such is the nature of soft power: it is all about how a particular country makes people feel, it is perceived outsiders, and what sort interactions people are having with its media, business, academia, and other outputs.
Granted, the Soft Power 30 is not the only game in town. Global affairs magazine Monocle has its own “Soft Power Survey“, which rates countries based on around 50 factors spanning five categories: culture, diplomacy, education, business/innovation, and government. Everything from athletic prowess in international competitions, to the potency of business brands, is taken into account — though the magazine cautions that the results are not indicative of global influence.
Monocle‘s survey lists the same countries in the top three as in the Soft Power 30, only in reverse: the U.S. leads the way, followed by Germany, and the U.K. Rounding out the top ten are Japan, France, Switzerland, Australia, Sweden, Denmark, and Canada.
Meanwhile, the Madrid-based Elcano Institute issued its latest Global Presence Report for 2015, placing the European Union as a whole in first place, and the U.S. at the top among countries. The usual suspects round out the top five: the U.K., Germany, France, and Japan. Interestingly, however, China lands a respectable sixth place, followed by Russia (absent in the other two indexes) in seventh.
Such diverse results go to show just how subjective and descriptive soft power is, especially when compared to the factors of hard power: GDP, military spending, population size, etc. (though even traditional measures of power have caveats — a large population or military does not necessarily translate into greater power, or else the U.K. would not have managed to dominate world affairs for centuries).
Then again, one sees more or less the same countries attaining the highest levels of soft power. So maybe the U.S., Germany, and the U.K. can teach the world a thing or two about how to enhance their political, social, and cultural prominence. (And for that matter, proportionately more influential countries like Ireland and New Zealand.)
But as China (thus far) proves, soft power is often too organic and nebulous to be subject to deliberate and well-resourced policy-making; while the state can play some role in facilitating and enhancing soft power institutions — such as in media or academia, or by engaging in admirable foreign policy initiatives — there is a lot more to a country’s perception than these factors. Cultural and political values, art forms, innovation — these are the components of global influence. Time will tell which nations will come to shape the world at large.
What are your thoughts on the concept of soft power? Which countries do you perceive to be most admirable or influential and why?