Friday, 7 December 2012

Monocle's soft power survey 2012

I have just bought the December/January issue of Monocle (vol.6, no.59) to read the results of its annual soft power survey. You can listen to a report on the survey here Monocle soft power survey 2012.

While there is much to enjoy in the survey, one can't help but feeling a little dissatisfied. The measures used to determine the top thirty are not explained or assessed; and while students of public diplomacy and soft power do tend to moan about the inadequacy of attempts to measure impact and effectiveness of strategies, it does seem that practitioners are paying far more attention than in the past to finding a solution. The latest offering is by Tara Sonenshine, Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, who spoke about Measuring Public Diplomacy at the Heritage Foundation in Washington DC (3 December 2012). You can read her speech here Tara Sonenshine. In addition, scholarship in business and marketing studies can offer some guides to measuring intangibles, the best I have read so far being Robert S. Kaplan & David P. Norton (2004), Strategy Maps published by Harvard Business School. So it is a little frustrating to find surveys still using arbitrary measures of effectiveness and impact.

In the Monocle Top 30 soft powers , the UK is number 1. This is not surprising given that we are now ending a year of celebration which included the Olympics and Paralympics, the Queen's Jubilee and the recent announcement that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are expecting their first child. However, I do question whether the events of 2012 do measure the UK's soft power or the attraction of London? During the Olympic Games, the expected surge in trade and tourism for the rest of the country did not materialise. In other words, 2012 was good for London, but not necessarily for the UK.
I agree with Monocle's assessment: 'Yet just because Britain has soft power does not mean it necessarily knows how to use it. Cuts to both the Foreign Office and the BBC World Service will continue to chip away at the UK's overseas clout.' Regular readers of this blog will know my passion for the BBC World Service and my contempt for those who fail to recognise its strategic value (see BBC World Service).
The survey is also correct to question Britain's 'unappealing "Little Englander" attitude', but does so only in terms of the UK's relations with its European neighbours. More worrying are the policies enacted by the present Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government to make it far more difficult for overseas students wishing to come to the UK to obtain visas and limiting the time they can stay in the UK after graduating; and most shameful of all was the way the UK Border Agency revoked London Metropolitan University's status and paid no attention to the problems of the current students there (for a reminder of this story see London Metropolitan student visa rights revoked). Deliberately or not - in an otherwise landmark year for the UK's pulling-power - the British government sent a signal around the world that foreigners are not welcome. These measures come at a time when the economy is still in a mess (thanks to Con-Dem policies) and the spending power of overseas students would be most welcome.

The US is, of course, number 2 in Monocle's survey - no surprises there. But I did not know that the US has only 2 'cultural missions', compared to the UK's 184 and Germany's 142. In fact the US has the same number as Sweden ('The Swedes do soft power effortlessly', says the survey). There is no explanation of what the term 'cultural mission' means, and it could refer to a range of activities that are not necessarily carried out in the equivalent of the British Council or the Goethe Institute. Nevertheless, it does seem odd that such a huge and powerful country as the US does not consider culture as part of its formal soft power strategy. Perhaps the Americans think that exporting Hollywood movies, The Big Bang Theory and American Idol is sufficient?    

I found India's omission from the list rather peculiar, and Monocle does not explain why India has been left out. The Indian diaspora is a major audience for soft power, and given its size and influence, especially in the UK, one might expect this would work in India's favour when it comes to ranking. Moreover, the survey states that it has considered cuisine: It is difficult to avoid Indian food in the UK where curry is now the official national dish. 

Also missing from the survey are any Arab countries; in fact there are no Middle Eastern countries included at all except Israel whose soft power has taken a beating in the last few weeks following its attacks on Palestinians in Gaza. It would be very interesting to know whether the Arab Spring did help to bring any soft power cachet for Egypt and Tunisia (though the former is suffering now due to President Morsi's apparent grab for absolute power); and how does Al-Jazeera affect Qatar's soft power? Few people know about Qatar's repressive political system (and there have been worrying reports in the last few weeks about suppression of press freedom), yet knowledge of Al-Jazeera is universal. Has Al-Jazeera's growing credibility rubbed-off on Qatar at all? 

It has also been a good year for Bhutan, and although Monocle does consider 'Bhutan's plan to become the first country to go completely organic is its trump card', it does not make the final 30. Yet Gross National Happiness, championed by Bhutan for forty years, finally made in-roads at the United Nations this year. As I discussed in my blog posting in April (The soft power of happiness) this may have generated very positive soft power results for Bhutan, and for this reason alone I think it should have been ranked by Monocle.

OK, so perhaps I am being too harsh. Like an X Factor judge it is easy to criticise and there will always be someone else out there who could have made the cut if only they had not sung a medley from Annie; and I am sure you will have your own ideas about the survey and which countries should or should not have been included. Please do listen to Monocle's podcast and leave your comments here. I look forward to reading your opinions.     


  1. Hi Gary,
    I also found the Monocle survey to be extremely interesting while still leaving many obvious questions unanswered. Your post has helped fill in some of the missing pieces.
    Your mention of Qatar's repressive political system leapt out as it's a topic of particular interest to me. Qatar's impressive soft power arsenal hides many unsavoury secrets: a labour system akin to slavery, repressive domestic politics, and widespread human rights abuses. I lived in Qatar for the last 2 years, and wrote about this recently:
    and on my own blog
    I'll be keeping up with your posts.
    Best wishes,

  2. Many thanks for reading and commenting on the blog, Samantha. I know little about Qatar's 'impressive' soft power, so I look forward to learning more (I look forward to reading your blogs). I suspect that few people - certainly in the UK - know much about Qatar, and maybe some do know it is the home of Al-Jazeera, but little more. It is interesting to read about the inconsistencies between Al-Jazeera's reputation and the way the press are treated in Qatar.