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29 February 2020

Global Soft Power

Tag(s): Foreign Affairs, Politics & Economics, Sport, Languages & Culture
This week I was invited to attend the first Brand Finance Global Soft Power Summit. This marked the launch of the Global Soft Power Index claimed to be the world’s most comprehensive research study on perception of soft power. This builds on the strength of the Brand Finance Nation Brands Report and is based on the opinions of over 55,000 people in more than 100 countries. The Summit featured an impressive array of speakers including leading academics and diplomats and the key note speaker was Ban Ki-moon, the 8th Secretary-General of the United Nations.

The concept of soft power was first introduced in 1990 by American political scientist Joseph Nye who argued that there is an alternative method of foreign policy for states to win the support of others; rather than the traditional hard power method, which involves using military and economic means as the primary method of achieving its goals. It became a hot topic in the post-Cold War stage as consumers in former Communist countries wanted to vote like Americans, drink Coca-Cola like Americans and wear Levis like Americans. In the next 30 years, the number of liberal democracies grew from about 100 to nearly 150[i]. The number of free market capitalist economies grew from over 40 to close to 100.[ii]

Brand Finance was founded in 1996 by my friend David Haigh and is now recognised as the world’s leading, independent, brand valuation firm. When it started it focused primarily on commercial brands, but increasingly brand management skills have been transferred into all walks of life. Individuals, charities, universities, institutions and sports teams all now regard themselves as brands. David Beckham, Comic Relief, the University of Oxford, the Monarchy and Manchester United are all regarded as great and valuable brands. Some commercial brands, like Shell, have larger GDPs than some countries, and nation brands are now learning marketing and branding techniques from them.

Brand Finance was first asked in 2005 to apply their brand valuation techniques to nation brands and ever since have published their annual ranking of the 100 strongest and most valuable nation brands. They evaluate hard power activities, economic power activities and soft power activities. As Britain has demonstrated since the end of empire, soft power can be at least as important as hard power.

They define soft power as ‘a nation’s ability to influence the preferences and behaviours of various actors in the international arena (States, Corporations, Communities, Publics etc) through attraction or persuasion rather than coercion’. Soft power is based largely on Familiarity, Reputation and Influence which in turn are driven by a wide range of factors including Business & Trade; Governance; International Relations; Culture & Heritage; Media & Communication; Education and Science; People & Values. As the Index is based on a study of perceptions, it is, of course, dynamic in nature. But perception is reality and the report provides a useful tool for competitive analysis and policy enhancement.

There is a definite link between the drivers of both soft power and nation branding and soft power can undoubtedly shape a nation’s identity, image, attractiveness, influence and value. More specifically, soft power can help bring many financial and other benefits to nations including:
  • Currency stability
  • Attraction of global capital
  • Greater international political influence
  • Increase in the growth of branded, exported products and services
  • Development of stronger international partnerships
  • Enhancement of nation building (confidence, pride, harmony, ambition, national resolve)
  • Attraction and retention of talent – entrepreneurs, sector specific human resource and global knowledge
  • Improvements in the ability to defend and promote domestic markets
  • Improvements in the quality of life and shared prosperity for all citizens
Which are the top 10 soft power nations?
  1. United States’ global influence makes it the world’s soft power superpower
  2. Germany, admired for its respected leadership
  3. UK upholds favourable reputation despite Brexit uncertainty
  4. Japan ranks first for Business & Trade
  5. China’s soft power expansion pays off
  6. France scores well for its culture and heritage
  7. Canada, seen as world’s most generous nation
  8. Switzerland is the world’s most reputable nation
  9. Greta Thunberg generates remarkable soft power for Sweden
  10. Russia scores highly for diplomatic influence
The US is both the leading hard power and the leading soft power. Its soft power, however, may be in decline. Soft power is strengthened through collaboration and as the US retreats from the post war institutions it led the way in setting up, its new unilateralism will reduce its soft power.

Soft power must have support by the recipient. By definition it is not enforced by force or by sanctions. Hard power you accept but soft power must be earned. Increasingly we see that global corporations no longer work through nations but through networks and platforms. Influential leaders can affect soft power. A Pakistani diplomat on one of the panels indicated that charismatic leaders of her country like Benazir Bhutto and Imran Khan had improved Pakistan’s reputation. The implication was that the hard men who also led the country at other times had had the reverse effect.

Soft power represents the biggest opportunity for emerging nations. It’s cheaper than hard power which is about numbers of soldiers and guns and tanks. Nor do you have to create it but you participate in it. However, an Indian writer and diplomat explained that in the first millennium of the Common Era India successfully exported much of its culture including two religions, architecture, food and other cultural ideas to much of the rest of South East Asia without ever using force. But during this period it successfully resisted many attempts to invade by hordes like the Huns who overran Europe. This was done through strong defences. But then these fell away and with the loss of hard power there was a corresponding loss of soft power.

Lord Sebastian Coe, President of World Athletics, claimed that sport is the most potent example of soft power. It is, among other things, the best social worker. In negotiations with ministers who want to host events in their countries he will often raise issues like human rights which, as a former minister himself, he knows other ministers won’t do for fear of upsetting trade or defence relationships. However, he defends a policy of granting games to nations who may not meet Western standards and values because the primary objective is to take sport to all nations and in that regard you cannot just pick and choose your partners. There is nowhere in the world to which you will not find someone with objections.

Professor Richard Sambrook, now Director, Centre for Journalism at Cardiff University and former Director of Global News and the World Service, said that the World Service had recently reached its highest ever audience at over 450 million worldwide. Trust in the BBC as an impartial source of news was built first through World War II and then through the Cold War. Kofi Annan, another former Secretary-General of the United Nations, called the BBC “the UK’s great gift to the world.” It is undoubtedly a big contributor to the UK’s high rank in soft power. The attitude to the BBC overseas is quite different from that inside the UK. Overseas it is a trusted news source, free at the point of use. At home it is financed by a license fee enforced under the criminal law and politicians of all sides think its reporting is biased.

Professor Sambrook thought that major issues like Climate Change cannot be dealt with by individual nations. Soft power through collaboration is the best answer. However, the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement by the US shows the negative deployment of soft power.

Ban Ki-moon, in his keynote speech, developed this theme. For him, soft power is more important than ever. Unilateralism, excess nationalism, isolationism and trade barriers are all threats to global prosperity and peace and to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. (See my blog Global Goals.[iii]) Soft power can be an answer to these threats. It is an essential ingredient in international diplomacy.  For him the Sustainable Development Goals were his proudest achievement and should be achieved through collaboration and solidarity.

When asked if he felt sorry for his successor António Guterres who now has to deal with these threats he replied “I consider myself most fortunate not to have shared any time in office with the current President of the United States. I stood down on 31st December 2016 and he was inaugurated on 20th January 2017 so I just missed him by 20 days. The retreat from multilateralism is not justified. Withdrawing from the Paris Agreement was very wrong and irresponsible. We must come back to it. Those countries that have contributed the most to climate change must pay the cost of clearing it up.”

He also spoke proudly of his own country’s increasing soft power citing K-Pop music such as BTS, which may be the most popular band in the world today; Korean food like kimchi and bibimbap; Korean sport including Spurs footballer Son Heung-min and figure skater Yuna Kim; K-Beauty products and technology; and, most astonishing of all, Korean cinema like “Parasite” which became the first ever non-English language film to win the Oscar for Best Picture. I think I’m going to see it myself now.

[i] According to Freedom House
[ii] Based on rankings published by the Wall Street Journal and the Heritage Foundation

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