Tuesday, 17 December 2013

All Fluff and No Substance: Monocle's Soft Power Survey 2013

Monocle magazine has just published its 2013 soft power survey, and having banged my head against a brick wall as I read it (far preferable to the alternative of sticking a fork in my eye), I have come to the conclusion that the term 'soft power' is today more misunderstood than at any time in the past. Perhaps we really do need to reconsider the concept's utility and find a better term to capture its original (political) meaning and consequences. For one thing, the 'power' in soft power has all but disappeared, and this is reflected in Monocle's commentary on its 2013 survey.

The article begins with this statement: 'Footballers playing abroad in the top leagues, major events screened around the globe, the competitors and teams that stand out from the crowd - all of these have an impact on how a country is viewed'. This may be true, but this is not 'power'; it is merely a reflection of what makes something attractive, and that 'something' is not necessarily a country. Chinese teenagers may be obsessed with Manchester United, but do not necessarily equate this football club with either the UK or with British power.

Things get more frustrating as the article moves to a horse-race evaluation of who's up and who's down in 2013. The article makes these observations about Sweden (#6):

It may not lead in the medal tables at the Olympics or make blockbuster films, but it scores highly on the boring stuff: good governance, education, gender equality (emphasis added).
Such assessments do nothing but devalue soft power. This 'boring stuff' is precisely what soft power is all about - national values, principles and the style/outcomes of governance. Everything else - from footballers to movies to pop groups - is the fluff, the superficial 'stuff' that has little political value. (I also find it a little strange that Monocle should ask of Sweden, 'Would it be too much trouble to open more than two Swedish Institutes', yet fails to ask any similar question of the United States (#3) which only has two cultural missions abroad.)

The fluff is also wheeled out to help Australia's position (#7). The assessment begins well:

Where Sweden excels, Australia is less impressive. An island nation where the vast majority of the inhabitants are descended from boat people appears to have a problem with anyone else following in their footsteps. The government has also proved conservative in denying the link between global warning and climate change and coming out against gay marriage.

So much for the 'boring stuff', and Monocle then suggests that Australia's soft power derives from its reputation for happiness, 'instantly recognisable symbols' like the Sydney Opera House,' and concludes that 'It wouldn't hurt to have another Kylie ...' Similarly on Denmark (#11): 'A separate category for sport has hurt Denmark', which only highlights the problems associated with the magazine's decision to tinker with the metrics 'a little'.

On Switzerland, the magazine notes that 'Diplomacy (well, hosting it) is still something the Swiss excel at. In recent months it has been hard to move in Geneva without bumping in to a delegation attending peace talks on Syria or nuclear talks with Iran'. But surely Swiss soft power would be more attractive and recognisable if it actually participated in the talks; if Switzerland was more involved in the diplomacy instead of just hosting it. Again, where's the power? Monocle falls back on stereotypes by mentioning the allure of Swiss chocolate, and resists going for the full version of Harry Lime's famous Third Man monologue by failing to remind us of cuckoo clocks.

And on it goes. Some startling inclusions (Russia on the way up at #27) and some important omissions (again, no country in the Middle East makes it to the top 30; while Ethiopia, Africa's only representative, is presented as a possible 'soft power superstar,' but cautiously advises that 'it has some work to do first'. The same might be said of Russia).

I suppose we are not meant to take this survey too seriously, but instead to consider it merely end-of-year entertainment that provides a different take on the endless 'lists' that are ubiquitous as we head towards Hogmanay.  However, there are three issues that do make its conclusions important: (i) The involvement of the London-based think tank the Institute of Government (this is not 'just' a magazine article); (ii) The fact that reading the survey is like holding up a mirror and letting countries see in its reflection what they want to see - a positive or less than positive assessment of one's own image. Finally (iii) the survey confuses soft power with nation branding, tourism and the export of cultural products. We need to recover the 'power' in soft power, and that may mean a return to its original political roots. We need to banish the 'fluff' and rediscover the 'boring stuff' that is the very essence of soft power.

In short, soft power is now a catch-all label that has lost much of its meaning and relevance.  Monocle may actually be the cause of death for the very concept it surveys and sells to us at the end of each year.


Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Soft power and social entrepreneurship

Today I was introduced to a whole new literature that will provide an interesting framework for my future understanding of soft power and public diplomacy. Dr Albert Chu-Ying Teo of the National University of Singapore Business School delivered a fascinating presentation at Chengchi University, Taipei, on social entrepreneurship and Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD), and the value of this approach to soft power is quite striking. I still have to attack the literature to fully appreciate the concept, its nuances and implications, but Albert's synopsis is a useful start. He identified 6 Principles of social entrepreneurship as a tool to aid development:

#1: Understand the aspirations, dreams and motivations of the the community. In communications terms, know your audience and align one's intervention with their aspirations.

#2:  Understand that priorities are not the same as needs. A community may have many needs, but only one priority. The fulfilment of short-term needs may not have lasting impact. Again, understanding the context in which one is operating provides the conditions that may facilitate development.      

#3:  Move beyond a needs-based approach to development which, by channelling external resources to meet the needs of the community, can reinforce identity and self-identity of communities as deficient in knowledge and resources, and incapable of addressing their own problems. In short, the needs-based approach does not encourage self-reliance or empowerment, but rather frames interventions from external sources as the actions of saviours which in turn can lead to a cycle of dependency. Of course addressing needs provides short-term soft power capital; interventions can be framed as helpful and highlight the humanitarian capacity of the state, organisation or individual. However, this is designed for the short-term interests of the source, not the recipient who may have different needs and priorities (recall the arguments against the kind of assistance offered to the victims of the Ethiopian famine of the 1980s). Helping long-term interests can have long-term and more meaningful soft power benefits

In contrast, Asset-Based Community Development identifies, maps and mobilises the assets and strengths of communities and recognises them as opportunities. Assets can be tangible (schools, market places, religious organisations, natural resources) and intangible (family and kinship networks, experience, memory, etc.). For public diplomacy, targeting your message and using the resources that are already available inside the community will help the success of the message. Both tangible and intangible resources can be mobilised for policy promotion.

#4:  Obtain buy-in from the community which in turn encourages local participation. Do not try to impose change and development from above. The two essential components of any public diplomacy activity are listening and discussion, and doing so in way that avoids creating a vertical flow of communication and action.  

#5:  Likewise buy-in from relevant stakeholders can provide a stream for the acquisition of resources.

#6:  Strive to create the conditions for members of a community to empower themselves and to live and work with dignity. Do not try to 'save' a community, but instead understand that ABCD is a facilitator and a catalyst. The belief that a social entrepreneur can empower a community can be regarded as arrogance. As Albert noted in his presentation, 'True empowerment occurs when the social entrepreneur creates the appropriate conditions for the community members to empower themselves.' How much of the literature on soft power and international communications (especially touching upon the the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) addresses the issue of arrogance and how the belief in salvation, liberation and democratisation - and of course regime change - is resented by the very communities affected by such interventions and who otherwise should be considered stakeholders? The paternal attitudes and misplaced "good intentions" of much public diplomacy/humanitarian activity can have long term negative consequences      

Above all, ABCD provides the foundations for community engagement. Albert emphasised that social entrepreneurs tend to be innovative thinkers, while governments and NGOs can be stuck in particular mind-sets and routines that prevent their success. Again, this is applicable to our understanding of communicative engagement which likewise requires innovation, but too often faces bureaucratic inertia.

I look forward to delving deeper into these ideas and the associated literature, and I would like to thank Dr Albert Teo for introducing the concept of social entrepreneurship to me. This is a perfect example of how interdisciplinarity can lead to new and exciting approaches in the way we tackle our own research areas.