My take on “The Soft Power 30” – 2018 edition

What does the Royal Family, fish and chips and the Premier League have in common? Yes, they all come from Britain. And yes, they contribute to the UK’s soft power.

Well, let’s exchange fish and chips for some crumble or Christmas pudding and then we can speak of soft power 🙂

Since 2015, July is the time of the year when all public diplomacy experts await a big bang – the publication of “The Soft Power 30” report, delivered by Portland Communications and the University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy. It is the biggest, the most global study that goes way beyond the international image of countries and examines a complexity of soft power characteristics. And always provides the WOOOW!!! effect. (and multiple A-HA! moments, too).

The biggest surprise is, of course, the leading position of the UK. My first thought? Gosh, authors, have you heard about the Brexit turmoil? Second thought – Spice Girls did not return on stage together, there was no new James Bond movie, neither did any sequel of “Love Actually” hit the screens. “Downton Abbey”, “Sherlock Holmes” and Tracey Ullman have their fans across the world (you just have to watch Tracey’s “rolling the eyes” gig!) but still – popular culture is not enough.

Third thought – last year the authors praised France for Emmanuel Macron and lowered the position of the US due to Donald Trump’s victory in the elections (the rationale was broader but that’s the general reason). Theresa May did not win big in parliamentary elections, neither is she the queen of social media popularity.

The queen… Yes! Maybe the monarchy is the reason? I personally got addicted to Netflix’s “The Crown” (I take a bow before you, Claire Foy), got excited because of Kate’s and William’s visit to Poland, watched Kate leaving the hospital in high heels, perfect makeup and hairstyle just several hours after giving birth to Prince Louis and – of course – was very thrilled to watch the fairytale wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

As a football fan I also watched England’s team playing at their best in Mundial – or at least I don’t remember England playing any better football. Still, the report was ready probably before the hurricane (aka Harry Kane) shot his first goal on the Russian soil.

Well, as we see, these features certainly could not be enough to secure the UK’s 1st place in the index. The study goes far beyond the popular image of a country and examines such factors as governance, education, tech products, cuisine, engagement, friendliness, enterprise. and more.  Hence, the reason for the UK’s score must have been much more complex.

First of all, the authors claim that since the UK is still in the EU, nothing has changed when the UK’s position in Europe is concerned (polling data prove that the situation is stable – or even better in comparison to 2017). Quite a bold thesis.

Second of all, the study acknowledges the actions of the British Council, the reputation of the BBC World Service, the (fin)tech/innovation sector. Not a new thing I’d say.

Third of all, just like myself, the authors seem to be fans of the British culture, both high and popular. They speak of Adele and Ed Sheeran, of Premier League (have a look at the chapter tackling Premier League’s Asian projects!) and of London as a globally magnetic tourist spot (all these museums!). Well, both artists are on stage for some 8-10 years already, Premier League, in the form of the Football League was established in 1888. At that time, Queen Victoria was in power and made London a truly global, magnetic city.

The Queen… here we go again with the monarchy. Yes! The Royal Wedding was watched by nearly 2 billion people worldwide. Compared with the results of the Brexit referendum, proving – in the opinion of many experts – that the UK is turning its back on immigration and diversity – the wedding provided a story that the UK and the monarchy needed. All these gospel songs, Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon, the bride who happened to be divorced, mixed race and sooo American – everything was beautifully embraced by the Monarchy that again turned out exactly what the UK needed (have you watched “The King’s Speech”?).

Was it really enough to win?

Well, the authors remind that there are huge challenges ahead of the UK and its leading spot may not be kept next year if it doesn’t build on its global potential (that should become even more global if Brexit is finalised any time soon).

Even the Windsor Monarchy, the Rolling Stones that seem to be equally eternal to Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, as well as Gareth Southgate, Harry Kane and Jordan Pickford who made millions of people sing “Football’s Coming Home” – they all cannot provide the UK with the biggest soft power on earth (and especially the sustainable one). Soft power means not only the power of the narrative but also the power to encourage others to do what you want. The turmoil over Brexit proves that challenges are real.

So, if the UK climbed to the top with certain question marks, France had to move downwards due to some serious question marks, too. Well, quite the contrary as the authors say that France lost only by the skin of one’s teeth. The authors admit that last year’s leading position of France in “The Soft Power 30” stemmed mainly from the victory of Emmanuel Macron in the presidential election. This year France does not provide such a big bang and experiences a slight fall – similarly to Canada with Justin Trudeau (4th in 2016, 5th in 2017 and 6th in 2018). Interestingly, the authors claim that Emmanuel Macron’s good relations with Donald Trump (at least on the surface) might have slightly contributed to the decrease, too. They also say that if Emmanuel Macron wants to be a true global champion, he should now focus more on the relations with other G7 actors who will certainly be more collaborative in facing global challenges.

This argument brings us closer to the rationale behind the whole report. The study underlines the fact that in 2018 these are rather challenges than the opportunities that shape the international arena. It is said that the liberal, rules-based order is shaking and the Western values are in trouble. In fact, a vast part of the study is focused on geopolitical and geo-economic shifts that are taking place all over the world. And the report is, as a whole, written from the liberal perspective.

The authors coin a thesis that the soft power is a big part of an answer to the huge challenge lying ahead of the Western/liberal values and the liberal order. Indeed, as citizens, communities and non-state actors take the centre stage, it is certainly not enough to conduct Realpolitic diplomatic conversations behind the closed doors to achieve foreign policy goals. The ability, the skills of states to reach societies and win their hearts and minds play a huge role.

No wonder the study in vast majority praises Western (defined in a very global sense) countries. Usually, these are also the most developed countries reaching high GDP per capita levels. This pattern is visible also in other studies focused on nation branding and soft power, like Anholt-GfK Global Nation Brands Index, Monocle Soft Power Survey and Brand Finance – Nation Brands.

Interestingly, however, soft power issues are more and more often appreciated and developed by countries such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates that do not intend to fit the pattern of liberal/Western democracies. They slowly find their places in various nation branding studies, especially those taking a finance perspective.

Two big actors – China on the 27th and Russia on the 28th position in the Portland’s report – build their own league. Actually, these two countries are most interesting to observe, study and analyse when their specific version of soft power is concerned.

Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, said in 2014 “We should increase China’s soft power, give a good Chinese narrative, and better communicate China’s message to the world”. The world has been observing a huge Chinese diplomatic initiative since then. I mentioned particularly knowledge diplomacy of China in one of my articles about the global game over talents.

If you want to dig more into the Russian soft power, have a look at James Sherr’s of the Chatham House book “Hard Diplomacy and Soft Coercion: Russia’s Influence Abroad”. Even though this book was published before the war in Donbas, before Crimea and before Syria and many other events – it will enable you to understand the core principles of Russia’s foreign policy in the grey zone between the hard actions and the soft endeavours.

Staying in Asia, this continent takes the centre stage in the 2018 edition of the study. Its main author, Jonathan McClory, is based in Singapore, what just had to have an impact on the current’s edition focus on Asia – and made it so easy to conduct.

Surprisingly, though, the authors praise not Singapore (it actually lowered its position) but Japan that replaced Canada in the global top5 and has been moving upwards since the first edition of the study. Here one should ask some questions again. Is there any new global madness over some new manga cartoons or Hello Kitty? Did Nintendo release a new “Pokemon Go” game? Was there a new “Kill Bill”-style movie that inspired people to learn how to fight with a Katana? Japanese cuisine is already considered the best in the world, how could it excel even more?

What I especially appreciate about the analysis of Japan is the emphasis placed on political factors. Everybody knows that Japanese electronics are world class and Toyota cars do not break down. Tokyo 2020 Olympics are already a success of solid Japanese work even though the event will take place in one year. What makes Japan climb over the soft power ladder is its – what an old-fashioned word! – diplomacy. Japan is a significant donor of the development aid and a large contributor to the UN budget. It is a leader of regional trade talks and a significant player when North Korea issues are concerned. It understands that in these challenging times (the Chinese curse “may you live in interesting times” comes to mind, doesn’t it?) Japan has to take a lot of responsibility for itself, for the region, and for the world. The stability of Shinzo Abe’s government (won big in early elections) and a concept of Abenomics contribute to the phenomenon, too. An old truth speaks for itself: popularity is not enough – reputation and engagement (Japan is 4th globally in this pillar) are key.

I encourage you to dig more into the Asian section of the “The Soft Power 30” study including its beta Asia Soft Power 10 index. Fingers crossed for future versions of this sub-index! It’s always worth going beyond the traditional West with soft power/public diplomacy studies.

“The Soft Power 30” and its newest edition prove that public diplomacy and soft power are very hot issues totally deserving reaching the headlines. Some theses, arguments and examples may prove controversial. And that’s more than OK. The more discussion we have, the lesser we are closed in our bubbles. Soft power, with the flexible and – yes – soft boundaries of the whole Joseph S. Nye’s concept is a perfect area for deliberations. “The Soft Power 30” provides many examples and occasions to discuss: not only major countries that I tackled here but also such extraordinary topics as the soft power of museums, the football magic, the Instagram or fake news. This blog post is way to short to embrace all of them. But I encourage you to book an evening for “The Soft Power 30” and learn more about soft power and public diplomacy than you thought a 180-pages-long commercial report (not an extensive Oxford University Press handbook) could provide.

Please let me know what you think about the concept of soft power and of measuring the soft power of countries, not exclusively the Western ones. Looking forward to learning about your views!


This post is written in my private capacity and includes no sponsored content.

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