Amidst an international public health crisis made more complicated by escalating great power rivalries, Insight considers the implications of the pandemic for the soft power of China, the USA and UK.

With daily updates on the number of deaths associated with COVID-19 making for grim reading, and fears of a second wave building, it may seem odd to spend time considering the pandemic’s implications for soft power.

But the reality is that it is only through a co-ordinated global effort that the virus will be brought under control. And that depends to a large degree on countries’ soft power – their ability to influence, build a consensus and forge alliances.

Co-operation between governments and public and private laboratories to find effective treatments and a vaccine vastly improves the chances of success.

Similarly, joint international action by donors, International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs) and recipient states offers the best chance of suppressing the spread of the virus in the Global South.

In the longer term, how we all weather the global depression induced by the pandemic will depend on co-ordinated interventions by the world’s leading nations to get the global economy growing again.

Yet at just the moment when a co-ordinated international response is most vital, global powers are increasingly asserting their individual interests, leading to division, distrust and confrontation.

Global institutions like the United Nations are as a consequence marginalised, undermining the collective action needed to address the challenges of COVID-19.

Trust – the currency of soft power – is in short supply.

Shared threats like COVID-19 and climate change that require international co-operation are thus met with muddled and contradictory responses that risk exacerbating the problems.  

It further complicates matters that pre-existing humanitarian crises and conflicts around the world (Yemen, Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Venezuela, etc.) are either being ignored or, worse, treated as proxy battlegrounds for great power rivalries.

The millions caught up in these crises are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19 but have little hope of succour from an international community that is increasingly divided.

The Rules-Based International System (RBIS), intended to enable collective action, is instead under challenge, both by revanchist powers and a US administration that appears to see multilateral bodies like the UN and World Health Organisation (WHO) as more of a threat to its interests than a source of global stability.

The RBIS has always been more complex and fluid than its name suggests, being not one static edifice but rather an evolving combination of behavioural norms, various regional and global structures, and an array of vested interests – both state and non-state. ‘It’ has nevertheless been crucial to the management of previous health crises like the Ebola outbreak of 2014-16.

The RBIS depends upon co-operation, give and take, and an understanding that the world is greater than the sum of its individual tribes and ideologies. These conditions for co-operation are vital in the fight against COVID-19.

Globally some states have shown themselves to be generous and effective in their response to the pandemic, working with and supporting others. Others have appeared to be selfish, incompetent, or worse, stand accused of exploiting the crisis to further their geopolitical goals. 

Leading states have undermined the RBIS just when the world’s vulnerable need it most. 

How countries have approached the crisis, both at home and internationally, will have lasting implications for how they are perceived. Some will be seen as more attractive and trustworthy as a result. Others may find themselves diminished. Such perceptions shape people’s behaviour and have very real implications for a state’s economy and international influence.

China, Italy and the rest of the world

China sent doctors and vital supplies to Italy at the height of the country’s COVID-19 crisis, when its EU neighbours were raising protectionist barriers to block the sale of personal protective equipment and ventilators. 

This was vital, welcome humanitarian aid.The support shown to the Italian people has resulted in a powerful shift in public opinion there. Pollster SWG released a survey that revealed: 

Fifty two per cent of Italians surveyed now consider China a friendly country, a massive 42 percentage point leap compared with last year. Meanwhile only 17 percent consider the United States a friendly country, down from 29 per cent a year ago.

Perhaps more shockingly, 45 per cent of Italians surveyed now consider Germany a ‘hostile country’, 38 per cent consider France an enemy, and 17 per cent see the UK that way.

Data from our own soft power survey of young people aged 18-34 supports the SWG polling on Italian perceptions of China. China came sixth out of the G20 states for overall attractiveness in Italy, a rise of four places on 2018. This is especially striking as the rank for China in the G20 countries on average saw a drop of six ranks from 11th to 17th. 

While the scale of the fall in rank differed between individual G20 states, only one other country saw a rise in China’s ranking: in Brazil, China rose four places to rank ninth. Brazil and Italy are outliers against an apparent significant reversal in perceptions of China around the world in the last few years. 

This is especially true when it comes to trust in government. In 2016 China scored a G20 average of 30 per cent for trust in government, but in 2020 this has fallen to 22 per cent. Over the same period distrust in the Chinese government has increased significantly – in 2016 43 per cent said they distrusted the Chinese government; today the figure is 54 per cent, making it the most distrusted in the G20. 

Interestingly, the 2020 results from Italy on trust in the Chinese government track closer to the G20 average (29 per cent trust and 50 per cent for distrust). However, the figures for trust in people for China are much more positive at 57 per cent for trust and 18 per cent distrust (compared to the G20 average of 30 and 39 per cent respectively). 

Italians now trust the people of China almost as much as they do people from the UK (63 per cent trust and 14 per cent distrust) and USA (59 and 14 per cent); and trust them significantly more than they do the peoples from fellow EU states, Germany (51 and 24 per cent) and France (43 and 25 per cent). 

Evidently something very interesting is happening in Italy. However, it is worth noting that while the fieldwork for the survey in Italy took place in March, following the national lockdown and the well-publicised arrival of Chinese aid, the country’s support during the COVID crisis may be only part of the story.

Italy is the only G7 state so far to have embraced China’s Belt and Road Initiative, joining long before anyone had heard of COVID-19. The Belt and Road Initiative - and China’s increasingly important role in supporting global development, poverty eradication and action on climate change - has been having a significant impact around the world, increasing China’s global presence and influence.

The friendship between the peoples of China and Italy – and the decline in young Italians’ attitudes towards fellow EU states – is one to watch. 

The increased assertiveness of the Chinese government internationally predates COVID-19 but has seemingly been ramped up following global dismay at a disease that first came to global attention with the lockdown in Wuhan.

In some cases, like Italy, the new ‘Wolf-Warrior Diplomacy’ has been effective at improving opinions; but as the data on trust and attractiveness reveals, elsewhere it appears to have proved a less winning formula and in fact may have undermined China’s soft power.

The dis-United States

In the early days of the pandemic, the US President’s frequent references to COVID-19 as ‘the Chinese virus’ sparked a social media war that continues to see conspiracy theories about the virus’ origins traded back and forth across the Pacific Ocean.

There is a strong propaganda element to these exchanges, and the primary audience seems often to be domestic rather than international – the intention perhaps being to distract from policy failures at home. 

Whatever the short-term benefits, these are likely to be outweighed by the long-term damage to trust and reputation resulting from the name-calling and ugly flashes of nationalism.

At the same time the rising number of infections in the United States, coupled with the killing of George Floyd and the global Black Lives Matters (BLM) protests that followed, have dominated the international news. 

The America we are confronted with in the media is a country that despite its wealth and power is seemingly deeply divided and failing in the fundamental task of protecting its citizens in a time of crisis.

Fairly or not, on COVID-19 and BLM the US establishment is widely viewed as failing the competency test but also, and more damagingly, failing to live up to the values enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. If 'all men are created equal...' why are so many black men  – and women and children  – living in fear of police violence?

The results can be seen in our soft power survey. While the United States government is no longer the most distrusted of the G20 group, the average score for trust remains low at 36 per cent, with distrust standing at a historic high of 42 per cent.

These scores are far worse than the other Anglophone democracies. By way of comparison the corresponding figures for trust and distrust in the UK government are 48 per cent and 22 per cent. 

Back in early 2016 the US government scored 47 per cent trust and 29 per cent distrust, so there has been a sharp reversal in perceptions here. That shift cannot be ascribed solely to COVID-19: it was only after international fieldwork was completed that the USA became the global epicentre of the pandemic.

The USA has made little effort to lead a coordinated global response to the pandemic.

The world had perhaps become too used to American leadership in times of crisis. Actions like the withdrawal of funding from the WHO in the middle of a global health emergency are therefore met with dismay by other states. 

Not only do such moves undermine efforts to combat the virus, increasing the risk of massive loss of life in the world’s poorest countries; they also send a signal to the rest of the world that the United States either cannot or will not step in to help other states. 

This rejection of the RBIS will likely have a lasting impact on perceptions of the country and its capacity to influence international opinion. 

One of the most important contributions to a government’s international standing is its competence. Both the Chinese and US governments have, in different ways, been seen as having handled COVID-19 poorly.

By contrast, the governments of Germany, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea and Taiwan have all received widespread recognition for their prompt and apparently effective response to COVID-19. 

While the US government is increasingly seen as badly failing the American people, other liberal democracies are demonstrating to the world the continued resilience and effectiveness of the model. This should offer some measure of comfort to those who worry that internationally democracy is in retreat and the Chinese model somehow ‘winning’.  

The United Kingdom

Britain currently seems destined to be one of the worst affected of the world’s advanced economies. Although drawing comparisons from the data currently available is fraught with difficulties, measured by the number of deaths per capita associated with COVID-19 the UK appears to have performed significantly worse than the USA (ONS All-Cause Mortality statistics). 

Many international commentators have been critical of the UK government’s response to the health crisis, drawing unfavourable comparisons with Germany and New Zealand and other states that appear to have had greater success in suppressing the virus. However, the significantly higher overall number of deaths in the much more populous US has drawn more attention from international media.

Despite the criticism of government policy, the UK ranked as the most attractive state in the G20 in the British Council’s latest soft power survey.

While it is true that the fieldwork for the survey was undertaken in the early stages of the outbreak in the UK, the figures suggest underlying strengths in the UK’s international appeal.

The survey shows high levels of trust in UK institutions, and highlights the importance to young people of values like equality and acting in cooperation to address global challenges – areas recognised as a particular strength of the UK.

And if the UK government’s response to the health emergency has drawn mixed to negative reviews internationally, the reaction to the measures to protect businesses and jobs has been broadly positive and seen as affirmation of the UK’s competence in economic affairs. 

The UK is also at the forefront of international efforts to understand the virus and develop effective treatments and vaccines. Dexamethasone was the first drug shown to reduce death in COVID-19 patients and is now widely used around the world. Research undertaken at Oxford University played a crucial role in establishing the drug’s efficacy. 

Working with AstraZeneca, Oxford is also at the forefront of work on a promising vaccine that could be being distributed globally within months – provided large-scale clinical trials prove successful. Such advances give credence to the Government’s aspirations for the UK to be recognised as a ‘science superpower’.

Co-ordinated international action to protect the world’s most vulnerable communities is needed to prevent the health emergency becoming a catastrophe. 

Such action is not only a moral imperative, it is in the enlightened self-interest of the world’s wealthy states. If COVID-19 is left to spread in developing countries it increases the probability of the virus re-emerging to put further pressure on health services and the continuation of the economic self-harm of lockdowns in wealthier ones. 

In the past the US has often acted as the driving force behind such collaboration, but now it is incumbent on other rich, powerful states like the UK, France, Germany and Japan to step up.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Department for International Development (DFID) have been at the forefront of the UK’s global response.

Recognising that the weakness of developing countries’ healthcare systems is one of the biggest risks to the global spread of the virus, in May DFID announced a series of measures amounting to a £744 million commitment to the global fight against COVID-19. 

In sharp contrast with the actions of the US, the measures included £65 million for the WHO, as well as £50 million to support the work of the Red Cross and £250 million to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations to develop a vaccine – the single biggest donation by any country.

By working multilaterally with partners including the UN, EU and INGOs, the UK is providing much-needed international leadership and crucial support to the RBIS. 

Despite the damage to perceptions caused by the apparently high UK death toll from COVID-19, by acting cooperatively to find solutions to the challenges of the pandemic, the UK has reaffirmed that it is a force for good in the world. Working through the RBIS will also increase the country’s international influence and ability to build trust and find common ground with other like-minded states amid rising international tensions.

Global solutions to a global menace

China produces a huge proportion of the world supply of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and has ramped up its relief efforts around the world. This is both an opportunity and challenge for the West.

Leaving aside the geopolitical implications, there is scope to leverage the combined capabilities of China and Western states to make a real difference to the severity of the impact of COVID-19 across the Global South.

Such co-operation is essential to meeting global challenges whether it is COVID-19 or climate change. 

Co-operation relies on trust, and the recognition that narrow nationalism and protectionism do not offer solutions to challenges that have little respect for borders. By avoiding playing games of one-upmanship and joining forces for the common good, all sides win.

This is not to downplay the need to learn the lessons of this crisis, including understanding exactly what happened in Wuhan in the initial stages of the outbreak – even if it proves embarrassing to the WHO or the Chinese Communist Party.

Transparency is the only way to restore trust and confidence in a global health system we all depend upon. 

It is worth remembering that COVID-19 is only the latest in a series of global health emergencies, following on from Ebola, H1N1, H5N1, MERS and SARS. It will not be the last. It is in everyone’s interests – including both China and the United States – to have robust, independent, trustworthy, global systems in place to protect against future threats.

Beyond the immediate crisis, COVID-19 may simply prove the catalyst that accelerates pre-existing trends in international relations. The RBIS was already under pressure before the pandemic as a result of growing international tensions between the great powers. The epicentre of global power has appeared to have been shifting away from the North Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific for so long that talk of the Asian Century now sounds clichéd.

Rapid shifts in attitudes such as we have seen in Italy may well become commonplace in the coming years. 

This is especially likely if the countries that developed the RBIS continue to move away from multilateralism towards a zero-sum approach to international relations. 

The UK’s success in this new era will increasingly depend on its soft power - on continuing to be seen as a force for good in the world: a trusted, competent and engaged global actor with a leading role in multilateral networks of nations and institutions connected by shared values and common interests. By supporting the RBIS and seeking to help those most in need, the UK’s reputation will be enhanced and its influence grow.

Technical details of the soft power survey

Ipsos MORI interviewed a sample of 37,158 adults aged 18-34 across the 36 survey countries between 7 February and 27 March 2020. Interviews were conducted online in 34 of the 36 countries, and face-to-face in two countries (Pakistan and Kazakhstan). Data has been weighted for each individual country to the known offline population proportions for age within gender, and each country has been given equal weighting within the dataset. All surveys are subject to a range of potential sources of error.

 Ipsos MORI have published the detailed data tables that underpin the findings of the survey covered in this article on their website. These can be reviewed here.