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Global powers and global perceptions. Photo ©

Pixabay, adapted from the original.

December 2018

France is the winner of this year’s Monocle Soft Power Survey. Alistair MacDonald, British Council Senior Policy Analyst, explores the results.

An infatuation with youth

France’s success in this year’s Monocle league table is ascribed to the magical boot of Kylian Mbappé and the global liberalism of Emmanuel Macron. For Monocle these two brilliant young men epitomise a newly confident, cosmopolitan, and outward looking France. World Cup success coupled with the President’s globetrotting promotion of a range of internationalist causes, including climate change and the European Project, are seen as the key drivers of France’s success. The presenting of a horse to President Xi may not be the most original diplomatic move in history – after all China has been using panda diplomacy since the 1950s. Yet Macron has certainly sought to reinvigorate France’s diplomatic network, its international cultural and educational links through the Institut Français and the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, its links to countries in Africa and elsewhere through proposed restitution of historical artefacts, and its appeal as a destination for international higher education students. 

The British Council’s own research also reveals the enduring appeal of French culture. In a survey of 20,000 young people, France was judged as the most attractive country in the G20 as a source of arts and culture. It is also the 3rd most popular travel destination, after Italy and the USA. However, unlike the Monocle survey, the British Council’s research has France in fifth place for overall attractiveness, down a place from 2016. Furthermore, it is in sixth place across the British Council’s three ‘trust metrics’: trust in people, government, and institutions.

While celebrating the cosmopolitan, liberal, internationalist France that President Macron likes to champion around the world and his growing influence in Africa, Monocle arguably ignores the anger, fear, and frustration with the elites that Macron represents to many within France. The mass protests of les gilets jaunes that have exploded across France in recent days may represent an obverse face of modern France

Cultural attractiveness alone does not make a country a ‘soft power superpower’. Soft power comes also from a country’s values, policies, and how it conducts itself. While celebrating the cosmopolitan, liberal, internationalist France that President Macron likes to champion around the world and his growing influence in Africa, Monocle arguably ignores the anger, fear, and frustration with the elites that Macron represents to many within France. The mass protests of les gilets jaunes that have exploded across France in recent days may represent an obverse face of modern France. Having only a year ago emerged from the state of emergency imposed after the 2015 terror attacks, Paris has again been the backdrop to scenes of violence that have been broadcast to a worldwide audience. France - the country that invented ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ - has seen constitutional protections curtailed and increased powers for law enforcement that many argue impinge on personal freedoms. The state of emergency was only lifted when the powers granted to the authorities under the order were made permanent. Macron’s calls for European unity come at a time when France itself appears to be a country bitterly divided. 

There is much to love about France. Yet any serious consideration of France’s soft power cannot neglect to look at the full picture: the rich/poor divide, perceptions of ghettoization of the banlieues, and the erosion of civil liberties by the state are as much a part of people’s views of the Republic’s attractiveness as Mbappé’s winning the Kopa Trophy.

Stalling soft powers?

Meanwhile, where it has France rising on a Jovian cloud, Monocle has the UK tumbling down the soft power league table to sixth place. Brexit is cited as the main driver of the UK’s declining attractiveness. “By choosing the leave the EU, while at the same time positioning itself as an opponent of the bloc, it comes across as antagonistic, stubborn, and undiplomatic to the rest of the world.” A greater fall from grace has apparently only been avoided by the enduring global popularity of Harry Potter, James Bond, the Premier League, and Wimbledon. 

The survey also found that, in terms of trust, attitudes towards the UK have improved since the Brexit vote – the UK is in second place for trust in people and institutions and third for trust in government

This finding is somewhat at odds with the Portland Communications Soft Power 30 report that came out earlier this year, which had the UK in first place, despite Brexit. The British Council’s own survey of young people around the G20 has the UK in fourth place for overall attractiveness - the same place it occupied in 2016. The survey also found that, in terms of trust, attitudes towards the UK have improved since the Brexit vote – the UK is in second place for trust in people and institutions and third for trust in government. Brexit has had a real impact on perceptions of the UK, but in ways not always understood, and in different ways in different parts of the world. 

Looking beyond a UK perspective, this makes sense. Few governments in the world (or indeed in Europe) would have ceded a decision of the magnitude of leaving the EU to the people. The Referendum was an unprecedented democratic vote and that in itself has an appeal, especially to people living in places where political rights and civil liberties are limited and where such a poll would never be allowed. This is far from saying it has not had a negative impacts on the UK’s soft power. In places like Germany, the figures show that attitudes to the UK remain depressed compared to where they were pre-Referendum. Young Germans would much rather the EU (and the UK) were focussed on other international challenges rather than the ‘distraction’ that is Brexit. But elsewhere, for example in Commonwealth countries, the effects have been more positive.

Unsurprisingly in a league table that celebrates President Macron’s war on nationalism, the USA, like the UK, has tumbled down the ranks. The USA is in ninth place in this year’s chart, “directly and indirectly due to Donald Trump’s combative diplomatic relations.” Monocle goes on to explain that, President Trump “has offended allies and potentially ruined relationships in the name of making America great again.” These results are closer to the findings of the British Council’s survey than are those of France and the UK. In the British Council’s report, the USA is eighth for overall attractiveness, trust in people, and trust in institutions, but has fallen to ninth for trust in government. More strikingly, the government of the United States is the most distrusted of any in the G20.

It is often said that Trump represents flyover country: those parts of the continental United States between the liberal East and West coasts that, perhaps rather like the France beyond the Région Parisienne, have felt left behind by globalisation. And significantly he is an elected leader in one of the world’s oldest and most important democracies. Like the governments of almost all the other countries in the Monocle top twenty-five, Trump’s tenure is time limited, and whether he secures a second term in 2020 will ultimately be determined by popular ballot. All the different soft power rankings suggest that that power to choose really matters for global perceptions: that political rights and civil liberties, equalities, democracy, liberalism are important drivers of a nation’s soft power.

Coming in at nineteenth place in the Monocle chart, China is the one exception in a field of liberal democracies contending for the crown. China spends more on soft power than any other state. Its vast and expanding network of Confucius Institutes is as large as the networks of the British Council, Institut Français, and Germany’s Goethe-Institut combined. It spends about $US10 billion annually on soft power initiatives – compared to the US State Department’s budget of around $550 million. Major investments in international broadcasting and scholarship programmes are building interest and trust in China. The scale of ambition is perhaps best illustrated by China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which covers some 65 countries along the Silk Road Economic Belt that crosses the Eurasian continent from Luoyang to Hamburg and the Maritime Silk Road that stretches from Quanzhou to Rotterdam via South Asia and the Middle East. China is investing $40 billion in the Silk Road Economic Belt and $25 billion in the Maritime Silk Road. 

It is telling that China, the country that spends the most on soft power initiatives is only in nineteenth place in the chart. This suggests that it is possible to buy influence and goodwill, but it is also expensive, and money can perhaps only go so far

China is a certainly a leading global power, its hard power and especially its economic power is being used to build its global influence. As Monocle notes “money is being used to buy goodwill and influence”. Yet it is telling that China, the country that spends the most on soft power initiatives is only in nineteenth place in the chart. This suggests that it is possible to buy influence and goodwill, but it is also expensive, and money can perhaps only go so far. China comes in at eleventh place for overall attractiveness and twelfth across all three trust metrics in the British Council’s survey of G20 states. 

Whether sustained investment can see China rise further in the rankings, and perhaps surpass, the wealthy liberal democracies that dominate the various soft power league tables make it the one to watch when Monocle unveils the tenth edition of their Soft Power Survey in 2019. 

Alistair MacDonald, Senior Policy Analyst, British Council

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