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.


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