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.


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