Thursday, 12 July 2018

Some thoughts on soft power rankings

Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I was obsessed, like so many other young people at that time, with the music charts. Every Sunday afternoon we would listen to Radio 1 to know which artists were climbing the charts, who were falling and, most importantly, who was Number One that week.

I am reminded of my preoccupation with the music charts as Portland publishes its latest Soft Power 30 report. This is an attempt to rank countries according to their alleged soft power resources and capacity with much celebration - especially within the British Council -  that the UK is Number 1.

What does this mean? Well, very little. It is a beauty contest approach to soft power that focuses overwhelmingly on cultural and educational outputs, encourages governmental and non-governmental actors and institutions to obsess over the perception of their activities, promotes the false idea that generating soft power can be strategised, and is a distraction from engaging in policy initiatives that will genuinely make a difference at home and abroad, rather than simply alter one's place in the rankings.

The bottom line is simple: Do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, not because it may generate more soft power or increase the number of tourists or students to our shores. Getting the right policy right is absolutely essential, which means not accepting the question that rankings encourage: 'How can we get them to like us more?'  The generation of soft power is a by-product of how governments behave, not an end in itself. It is a resource not an instrument.  Governments can only strategise how to govern; they cannot strategise how to generate more soft power, only give the public and cultural diplomacy instruments the authority and resources to do a better job of communicating it. As I have argued before, if you feel you need to have a soft power strategy, it means you don't have any. Reading such surveys is like holding up a mirror and letting countries see in its reflection what they want to see - a positive or less than positive image of one's image: But so what?

Rankings also encourage users to question the inclusion or exclusion of particular countries. The 2018 Soft Power 30, for example, does not include Taiwan, even though it is a functioning democracy that practices and promotes liberal-democratic values and has enormous cultural capacity (a metric that rankings particularly relish). If we insist on measuring soft power, then Taiwan should be almost at the top - if not at the very top - among countries in Asia. Taiwan does the right thing because it is the right thing to do, especially in terms of aid and humanitarian assistance to its neighbours. It is the first in Asia to legalise same sex marriage. What other measures of soft power do we need to include Taiwan in such rankings?  

The UK government and other institutions engaged in global outreach - especially the British Council who seem to commission these soft power reports and surveys on a regular basis - would do well to avoid such rankings and sidestep any drive towards seeing the UK in a soft power race or competition with any other international actor. It isn't. Rankings do not and cannot measure in a qualitative way what is truly valuable: the actual response of target audiences to the UK's soft power capacity, and  how such audiences change their opinions or behaviour in relation to their engagement with the UK (ie. focus more on 'power').

In his 2009 book subtitled Adventures in British Democracy, Patrick Hannan reported on a decision to 'restore free NHS care to failed asylum seekers in Wales' in 2008. He concluded, 'The message is clear: we are good people'. The image is not constructed; it is a consequence of behaviour and the principles we maintain.

Soft power derives from the 'power of example' and 'doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do', not because we are in a race to be Number One in the charts.      


Patrick Hannan (2009), A Useful Fiction: Adventures in British Democracy (Bridgend: Seren), p.130.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

A tale of two soft powers: Wales and Taiwan

As readers of my work will already know, I depart from the idea that "culture" is a defining feature of a nation-state's soft power capacity. Rather, I argue that soft power derives from political institutions and processes; their transparency and accountability, the guaranteed freedoms of assembly, speech, and the right to criticise one's own government; and from the way governments behave towards both their own citizens and towards citizens of other nation-states. Sometimes, this means allowing difficult, uncomfortable and unpalatable opinions to surface.

Two stories appeared in 48 hours to demonstrate the considerable soft power capacity of both Taiwan and Wales. Courtesy of Klaus Bardenhagen, a German reporter who lives and works in Taiwan, I found this photo of pro-China activists in Taiwan.

This will make many people living inside and outside Taiwan uneasy. However, this is soft power in action. Taiwan is sending a positive message to the international community that it tolerates the public expression of opinions and political positions that may be contrary to mainstream ideas. This communicates Taiwan's democratic values, and stands as a powerful contrast to the PRC's political culture: would China's government allow or tolerate any such mobilisation for Taiwan's independence?

Wales has a different, though equally powerful narrative, one that moves beyond the expression of Welsh culture. On 12th April 2018, BBC Wales news reported how 'A family who fled the war in Syria have thanked a Ceredigion town for helping them rebuild their lives'. Readers learn that 'The Alchikh family came to Wales as part of the Home Office's community sponsorship scheme after local group Croeso Telfi raised thousands of pounds to take part'. You can see the BBC's story here: Syrian refugees thank people of Cardigan for help. As I have said many times, actions always speak louder than words, and by embracing refugees Wales is projecting a positive message about core values; and it helps not because it wishes to be seen to be helping, but just to help - the most powerful  message of all.

Wales and Taiwan have tremendous soft power capacities - for example, by upholding values of common decency, treating the vulnerable and dissenting opinions well and with respect - but I argue they both need help to identify and communicate this soft power.



Wednesday, 27 December 2017

On so-called "Sharp Power"

The Economist (December 16th-22nd 2017) is mistaken to accept so readily the National Endowment for Democracy’s term ‘sharp power’. We don't need this categorisation because we already have an adequate label - ‘soft power’.

Soft power is often used to describe cultural attraction and familiarity with a place in the belief that ‘to know us is to love us’. However, we should not assume, as the current discussion on China’s ‘sharp power’ assume, that soft power is benign by definition. Soft power can have hard characteristics, and this is demonstrated most clearly in the China case. Culture and values are not always attractive or appealing, but can and often do create resentment and conflict. For a society that sees a Hollywood movie, a Confucius Institute, or programmes of democracy promotion as agents of a foreign power’s propaganda or as cultural imperialism, one that is intent on subverting accepted social norms of the prevailing political order soft power is far from non-coercive and non-threatening. In fact soft power can be more insidious than hard power precisely because it can be embedded and hidden within cultural products and aims to influence thought and behaviour. In fact, to know us may be to hate us or fear us.

In other words, China’s behaviour described in The Economist is soft power. It aims to influence, persuade, change opinion and behaviour – and to do so without resorting to the instruments of ‘hard’ power. We do not need yet more terms (not so long ago the fashionable moniker was ‘smart power’), but we do need to recognise – as China clearly does - the hard potential of soft power.

Saturday, 1 July 2017

Soft Power and the British Council: As Others See Us (2014)

I’ve been undertaking some work on British soft power, and in discussing soft power as a resource first and an instrument second, I found the British Council’s 2014 report, As Others See Us (available here - As Others See Us). This report - and others like it - lead me to the conclusion that the British Council, while a remarkable instrument of cultural diplomacy, does not understand what soft power is or how it works for the benefit of the UK. 

As Others See Us is a useful guide to what is attractive about the UK, and reveals levels of international familiarity with British culture, politics, education, and society. It is less valuable to understanding soft power, and the notion that culture, historic attractions, cities, the countryside etc. should be ‘at the centre of thinking about the UK’s efforts to engage internationally’ is a serious error of judgement. The simple reason is that these are ways of making the UK more familiar. Soft power is what happens elsewhere. The report is wholly quantitative and provides no qualitative evidence whatsoever for its claims.

1.      The report does not reveal any data about the background of the respondents, other than gender and age. As serious scholars of communications are aware, it is necessary to understand fully the cultural, political, and social contexts in which audiences overseas live, how their attitudes and values are formed, and from where they receive their information about the UK. Are these ‘opinions’ of the UK formed and transmitted via the networks in which they function? Are they taught in schools or by families? Are they shaped by local media reports or by listening to the BBC World Service, reading Twitter etc.? The opinions measured in this report are only meaningful if contextualised by their source. Hence, Chart 17 (“What people think the UK should be proud of”) reveals that the NHS receives quite a low score (16%). Do respondents understand what the NHS is and how it works? What is their level of engagement? We don't know, because the research does not tell us. We need to separate their familiarity with the NHS as an institution/concept, and their understanding of how the NHS reflects British values of equality. This may be a theme that the instruments of British public diplomacy need to engage with more systematically.          

2.      The report measures familiarity, not soft power. Of course respondents overseas are familiar with the Monarchy and Shakespeare. They are highly visible, more accessible stories, non-threatening, and certainly more “sexy” than difficult and complex political ideas, values, institution, and processes. However, this is very different from understanding, accepting, or rejecting the values these cultural icons represent or are seen to represent. A staunch Republican will most likely visit Buckingham Palace because it is a tourist attraction; she may enjoy reading about the Monarchy’s history, and appreciate the Palace as a fine old building. Yet, this does not mean that seeing Buckingham Palace will change her basic values about the concept of Monarchy. These values have been formed because of her interaction with many different social influences and the effect of cognitive processes that shape opinions. Perhaps this implies the British public diplomacy machinery needs to focus less on communicating the superficial aspects of the Monarchy - the pomp and ceremony, the Castles and Palaces – and emphasise more the political role that the Monarchy plays, its alleged contribution to democratic stability etc. It is the difference between the Monarchy as something that is valuable to the British political culture and soft power, and the Monarchy as a valuable tourist attraction. Similarly the House of Lords, which stood accused by Prime Minister Theresa May of being ‘unelected’ and as opposing the government’s Brexit plans when she called the 2017 General Election. However we think of the Second Chamber, it exists and it has an important role to play in the political life of the UK. To many in the international audience the House of Lords may seem little more than an example of British eccentricity, a quaint and charming throwback to earlier times. Do we make sure overseas audiences are familiar with the positive arguments for retaining an unelected House, and why even the Church, via the presence of Bishops, have a representation there? Do our public diplomacy instruments explain why a democracy has an undemocratic institution at its core?    

3.      In one area the data presented does chime with my overall approach to soft power. In Chart 10 (‘Comparison of the factors that influence UK attractiveness and the attractiveness of countries in general’) the survey demonstrates that the ‘current and past actions of government’ make the UK less attractive. This conforms to the proposition that how a government behaves affects how it is seen abroad. This may also explain the low score for the attractiveness of the UK’s system of democracy (Chart 17). Again this may be due to perceptions of political behaviour and problems; it does not provide a breakdown of the processes by which democracy is practiced in the UK (for example, transparency and accountability), nor does it convey the reality that political democracy also occurs outside Westminster - and indeed London – and often via civil society at very local levels. 

4.      I agree with the report’s recommendation 6 (p.13) that more needs to be done to encourage an ‘international outlook’ among young British people. However, this is easier said than done, especially after the Referendum to leave the UK and in areas of the UK where immigration and the ‘international’ is seen defined as a problem for local communities. 

5.         This British Council report concludes thus:
‘Much of the soft power literature and many studies to date have placed significant importance on business brands and the actions of governments as determinants of a country’s soft power. There is no doubt that these are important factors. However, this research has found that for young educated people in countries of strategic importance to the UK, these factors appear to be less important than culture, countryside and landscape, cities, and people in determining a country’s attractiveness. Given the importance attributed to them by young people across the world, there is a strong case that they should feature more prominently in future models conceptualising soft power and attempts to enhance the UK’s international engagement and standing’ (emphasis added, p.26).

However, these are problematic claims because the report confuses attraction and soft power, using them interchangeably. The actions of governments are determinants of soft power; culture and countryside are important for attracting publics to the UK. Understanding the former helps us to understand why values are accepted or rejected, and therefore how and why British public diplomacy may be influential overseas; understanding the latter helps us design campaigns to attract tourists, students, and investment. Familiarity and soft power are not synonymous. Surveys like those undertaken for As Others See Us may reveal high levels of acquaintance with British institutions among publics overseas, and this may translate into attraction; but such surveys say nothing about soft power.  This confusion is common and limits the capacity for international influence, and it needs redressing if the UK wishes to move forwards in challenging times. 

Friday, 2 June 2017

Chinese soft power 'Trumps' US soft power: America's withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement

The Trump administration is flushing American soft power down the drain.

In my publications I have repeated a very clear statement: China has public diplomacy, but no soft power. This conclusion was based on the Chinese government's apparent commitment to expanding its platforms of communication - to know us is to love us - without paying sufficient attention to the way it behaves abroad and towards its own citizens. The continuing absence of democracy, the abuse of human rights, and China's policies in Tibet, Xinjiang and towards Taiwan have constantly undermined the more positive stories about the country's transformation since the early 1980s. Some of my publications addressing the absence of Chinese soft power are available here - Rawnsley

As I noted in my last post, the election of Donald Trump as the US President has presented substantial challenges for American soft power (Post-Trump Chinese cultural diplomacy). The Trump administration's attitude to soft power is captured in the aggressiveness of the President's philosophy: America First. This is at odds with America's contribution to the international system since Harry Truman who said, 'no matter how great our strength ... we must deny ourselves the license to do as we always please.' We might call Trump's turn the Milwall approach to soft power (fans of Milwall Football club were notorious in the 1990s for violence), namely: 'You don't like us, we don't care', an attitude originally ascribed to President Putin. The reorientation to hard power under Trump demonstrates that the US still has a preference for 'something that could be dropped on your foot or on your cities, rather than something that might change your mind about wanting to drop something in the first place' (1).

 On 1 June 2017, the death knell of American soft power under Trump rang loud and clear as the President decided the US would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. This is an explicit abrogation of America's share of the burden of tackling climate change and was a signal that 'America first' really means 'the rest of the world last'. The problem is that climate change is everyone's problem. Future generations of Americans will be victims of President Trump's short-sightedness.

In the wake of Tump's decision, China's soft power capacity is increasing, and this is demonstrated by the agreement between Chinese and EU leaders to issue a joint statement calling the Paris agreement 'an imperative more important than ever'. The promise of plans by China and the EU to lower carbon emissions by 2020 is a significant step forwards. Since 1949, China has rarely worked with other countries outside the communist orbit, but by doing so now on such a pressing issue, Beijing is showing maturity and an astute understanding of how modern international politics are configured. Mutual interest and shared responsibility must challenge America first. As the US retreats from the world stage and President Trump demonstrates his lack of understanding of how diplomacy works, China is gaining the power to help reorder the international system.

Soft power is about moral authority. It is about leadership and leading by example. It is about accepting responsibility and stepping up when necessary. Soft power is not under any circumstances a panacea for problems in the hard power domain, and no amount of presentation or spin will change opinion about misjudged, unethical, or poorly designed policies crafted and executed by governments in the national or international arena. Getting the right policy right is absolutely essential and must be the core function of government. Credibility – the currency of modern political communication – depends on the consistency between actions and rhetoric. The questions for governments is not, ‘How can we make them like us more?’, but rather, ‘How do we wish others to see us?’ and ‘How can we govern better?’.

In asserting a commitment to the Paris agreement and the need to work with other countries to manage, if not find solutions, to the problems created by climate change, China is demonstrating its moral authority and leadership. Although problems remain - China remains heavily dependent on coal - the government is investing in renewable energy, while seeking multilateral ways to deal with environmental problems.

Since the mid-1990s, we have discussed the rise of China in economic and military terms. Now finally we can add speak about China's soft power in a more meaningful way than Confucius Institutes and CCTV. On climate change at least, China is showing its potential global leadership that may fill the space left by America's soft power collapse. Speaking during a visit to Germany, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said that China 'will continue to implement the promises made in the Paris accord. But of course we also hope to do this with the co-operation of others.' He added that China, as a major industrial power and the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gasses, has an 'international responsibility' to prevent climate change. Following Trump's decision Hua Chunying, spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said 'The Paris Agreement contains the international community's coherent opinion on climate change. It was a hard-won result'. It was a hard won result easily lost.

This new commitment to soft power complements the Chinese government's investment in the One Belt, One Road Initiative which sees Chinese-funded investment on a scale that surpasses the Marshall Plan. Are we finally witnessing the dawn of the Chinese century?

Admiral Mike Mullen of the US Navy summarised the problems with American soft power and we can make the connection between his observations and the Trump administration, especially its decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement:

To put it simply, we need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our acts and much more about what our actions communicate. Each time we fail to live up to our values or don't follow up on a promise, we look more like the arrogant Americans the enemy claims we are. (2)

(1) J.S. Nye, (2011), The Future of Power (New York: PublicAffairs), p.82.
(2) M. Mullen (2012), ‘Getting back to basics,’ Joint Forces Quarterly, issue 55, p.4.