July 2021

The UK Government’s recently published Integrated Review sets out a new ambition: to promote a truly Global Britain.

It acknowledges that the UK’s soft power advantage is vital to the success of this endeavour.

At this crucial turning point we offer new insight into the UK’s standing in the eyes of young people around the world.

Our new report, Global Britain: the UK’s soft power advantage written by Alistair MacDonald, Senior Policy Advisor, highlights the places where the UK is in a position of strength. It also considers where work is needed to maintain and increase the UK’s reserves of soft power in an increasingly competitive international environment. 

As the UK begins the task of implementing the ambitious long-term vision and objectives set out in the Integrated Review, it is important that it does so with a comprehensive understanding of the people with whom it is seeking to connect. 

Public opinion provides important context for official bilateral engagement between countries. Perceptions shape behaviours and decisions, so the research findings offer valuable insights into the relative standing of the UK and other leading powers. 

Whether negotiating a trade deal, or building the alliances needed to address international challenges like climate change or COVID-19, it is crucial to be recognised as a reliable, trustworthy partner willing and capable of working with others – to be seen as a force for good in the world. 

When it comes to soft power, the UK enjoys a strong position relative to its rivals –  the British Council’s most recent soft power survey of young people’s opinions has found that it is the most attractive country in the G20 group of nations.

However, further analysis of the data also reveals that soft power is an increasingly competitive field.

The headline findings from 2020:

  • the UK is ranked first for overall attractiveness and second for trust in the G20
  • the UK is in an especially strong position in Commonwealth countries, an important strategic advantage, especially in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa
  • positive data from countries across Asia supports the Government’s ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’ strategy
  • although the UK performs well overall, the data from European countries reveals an enduring negative impact from the UK’s exit from the EU
  • soft power increases reputational resilience; countries that enjoy high levels of trust and attractiveness are able to weather international controversies
  • cultural and educational exchange plays a key role in positive perceptions of the UK. Where this is curated by the British Council trust in the UK government increases by +16 per cent. 

The UK is a world leader in soft power – a soft power superpower – but as the data clearly shows it is very much first amongst equals, with the competition closer than ever. 

The data show that there is no room for complacency. If the UK fails to continue to prioritise soft power, there are others all too ready to seize the advantages it currently enjoys. 

Soft power is vital to a country’s security and prosperity, playing a crucial role in, for example, international trade and influence.

High levels of trust are associated with increases in foreign direct investment (FDI) and international student enrolments, reduced barriers to trade and increased influence in international fora like the UN General Assembly. 

Where trust exists between parties there is a much better chance of reaching an amicable, lasting agreement when entering into negotiations. 

Other countries are investing in their soft power infrastructure including international cultural relations institutions like the Goethe-Institut and Russkiy Mir Foundation. Liberal democracies like Germany and Japan that are well placed to overtake the UK in terms of trust and attractiveness have been investing heavily in programmes and networks to grow their soft power advantage.

In 2018/19 the German state invested £550 million in its principal soft power agencies. In the same year France spent £478 million. And it is not just the UK’s Western competitors. The Council for Foreign Relations has estimated that China spends US$10 billion per year on soft power.

In any discussion about international perceptions the great unknown is the impact of COVID-19. 

Due to the timing of the fieldwork the survey cannot offer significant insights into the impact of the pandemic on perceptions of the UK. 

The pandemic has the potential to radically shift perceptions but as a truly global event, it’s also possible any impact may be temporary. 

This is the most likely outcome for a country like the UK that benefits from a resilient reputation internationally. There will perhaps be a few individual exceptions where local events have had cut through with international audiences. One positive example of this is the success of the UK’s vaccination programme.

Cautious optimism

As the UK looks to embark on a new course, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic for the future. The UK has an enviable position as an attractive, trusted international actor. 

The seas ahead may be unpredictable, and require careful negotiation, but so long as optimism is aligned with realism, the ambitious plans set out in the Integrated Review for the UK to sustain and build upon its status as a soft power superpower are achievable. 

People around the world are keen to engage with the UK, for trade and for cultural, educational and scientific exchange. 

The UK is seen as a force for good in the world, a valued, trusted partner in the fight against global challenges like climate change. 

It is a soft power superpower, albeit one facing increasing competition –  from both friends and rivals. 

Success in the years ahead depends on ensuring it retains its position as first amongst equals, the most attractive country in the G20. 

Alistair MacDonald, Senior Policy Advisor, Soft Power, British Council