The term “soft power” was first coined by American political scientist Joseph Nye to describe a country’s ability to exercise influence abroad without the “hard power” of military force, sanctions, and the like. It is an idea I had encountered often during my undergrad studies of political science and international relations, but its inherent fuzziness made it difficult to assess and measure; you can count tanks, troops, missiles, etc., but how do you determine something as categorically intangible as “soft power”?
To address the paucity of data on the subject, in 2015 London-based PR firm Portland teamed up with the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy to create an index of soft power: The Soft Power 30, the most recent update of which was released last month. Countries are ranked based on a combination of two sets of data: polls measuring how the countries are perceived abroad, and quantifiable variables such as the number of diplomatic missions abroad, the size of foreign-aid budgets, the number of intergovernmental organizations they are members of, and so on.
Below are the most recent results courtesy of The Economist:
As The Economist observes, a prevailing trend since the index’s launch in 2015 is that a country’s perceived openness to outsiders enhances its clout abroad.
France is a prime example. In 2016 it placed fifth, whereas this year it took the top spot. This surge seems largely due to the election of Emmanuel Macron as president in May and the success of his party, La République en Marche!, in the subsequent parliamentary election in June. His pro-Europe and pro-business policies have boosted his countryʼs standing internationally.
In contrast, Britain and America’s shifts towards inward-looking politics have taken a bite out of their soft power. For both countries, the slide down the rankings was caused by a drop in their reputations overseas as measured by polls included in the index. Donald Trump’s “America first” agenda, though only in its early stages, has spooked allies and weakened ties with the rest of the world. America fell from first to third in this yearʼs ranking. Britain slipped from the top spot in 2015 to second last year, which may have been a result of the country’s decision to vote to leave the European Union. It would probably have wound up on the bronze podium this year, had the United States not done even more than Britain did to lose friends abroad.
This makes intuitive sense: soft power is all about how a country engages with the world at large, so countries that are more welcoming to outsiders, be it through rhetoric or public policy, are naturally going to have better standing.
Perceived domestic success counts for a lot, too: it is probably no coincidence that most of the highest ranked countries generally perform well in metrics of economic development, competitiveness, political stability, and the like. They are widely seen as models for other nations, and are thus admired.
What of the world’s next big power China? It will have to gain admirers to buttress its interests on the world stage.
In 2015 China ranked last among the 30 countries in the index; this year it has climbed up to 25th place. This gain was due to small improvements across a range of categories, like cultural potency and diplomatic relations with other states. And it is no accident: a decade ago its Communist Party officially made developing soft power a priority. The government now spends roughly $10bn each year on this objective, according to David Shambaugh of George Washington University. That is more than the expenditure of Britain, France, Germany, Japan and the United States combined. Whoever said money can’t buy you love should have a word with the powers that be in Beijing.
It remains to be seen where this well-monied charm offensive goes, but one thing is for certain: countries, like individuals, have a lot to gain from maintaining good reputations — or at the very least a good image.