The international influence of devolved countries and regions is becoming more significant. New British Council research compares the soft power of small nations.

Nations, regions, and ‘paradiplomacy’

The British Council and Portland Communications have published new joint research, comparing the soft power of sub-national countries and regions and examining how they can build their international profile. The research looked at the people, brands, political values, liveability, culture, and sport of Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and seven other broadly comparable regions and countries. In terms of overall results, Scotland comes second (after Quebec), with Wales in sixth place and Northern Ireland in eighth.

Scotland comes second (after Quebec), with Wales in sixth place and Northern Ireland in eighth

The traditional unit for analysis in international relations is the nation state. However, given the mega-trends of globalisation, geo-political uncertainty, the diffusion of power, and the digital revolution, this is increasingly over-simplistic. In particular, when it comes to soft power and the growing phenomenon of ‘paradiplomacy’ - that conducted by sub-national governments, regions, and cities - such entities are becoming increasingly important on the global stage. 

This is of particular interest to the UK, where the devolution, international prominence, and cultural diversity of its constituent nations gives them a significant soft power potential. The research suggests that, as in other parts of the world, geographical areas with a history of state-less identity and nation-building do particularly well in terms of global influence. 

The UK’s devolved nations have significant powers when it comes to areas like tourism, culture, education, trade, personal exchanges, and sport. These are all important areas of soft power

The UK’s devolved nations have significant powers when it comes to areas like tourism, culture, education, trade, personal exchanges, and sport. These are all important areas of soft power. Scotland, for example, has a very strong international brand and reach. Wales, with its smaller size and population, appears to perform slightly less well. The research suggests this may be connected to the fact that Scottish identity can be described as ‘political’ first, ‘cultural’ second, and ‘linguistic’ a distant third. Welsh identity, on the other hand, is perhaps the inverse of that. The report concludes that Wales is not fully realising its soft power potential, but also suggests ways in which it can improve its position. 


Soft Power of Small Nations League Table
Soft Power of Small Nations League Table. Image ©

Graham Weeds, British Council.

Lessons for Wales

The research creates a regional soft power index, combining over 50 objective metrics and international survey data. It brings together analysis of existing data on each area’s government, use of digital technology, culture, enterprise, engagement and education, with the results of a newly commissioned survey of 5000 people in ten countries. 

The research goes on to focus on Wales as an in-depth case study. Overall, the report suggests a mixed performance for Wales, with the nation coming sixth, behind Quebec, Scotland, Flanders, and Catalonia, but ahead of Corsica, Northern Ireland, and Puerto Rico. Wales was ranked second for sport, just behind Catalonia, and ninth for cuisine, leaving last place there to Northern Ireland. In the data analysis Wales scored best for its digital technology, taking third place (behind Scotland) and for its enterprise sector, at fourth place, outperforming larger regions like Catalonia. Education was Wales’ weakest performance area, coming in seventh. 

The report suggests plenty of scope for Wales to improve its leverage of its considerable soft power potential and that it should regard this as an important priority. It proposes that Wales seeks to further develop its soft power resources. This would involve attracting more international students, growing its network of trade and investment offices and host more consulates, hosting more cultural festivals and events, and promoting the Welsh language more outside Wales. It also suggests that Wales needs a more coherent narrative to leverage positive perceptions about Welsh sport and make more of the friendly welcome given to visitors to Wales. Finally, it recommends that Wales treats the Rugby World Cup in Japan as a major opportunity to promote the country overseas. 

As Chris Lewis, Head of Education for British Council Wales, comments: “Globalisation and devolution present major new opportunities to countries such as Wales, which do not have the same foreign policy levers as nation-states, to operate on the world stage. We’re pleased to see the report finds that Wales has considerable soft power resources. The appeal of our sporting culture has clearly been boosted by Wales’ performance at Euro 2016 and the country’s digital infrastructure and investment environment are among its other strengths. The challenge now, particularly in the context of Brexit, is to build on this performance and unlock our true soft power potential. We’re calling on the Welsh Government to develop a new international strategy for Wales that will really help bolster global engagement. Small nations, regions and cities around the world are increasingly aware that they have so-called ‘soft power’ and are using this to attract inward investment, boost trade and increase tourist and international student numbers.

In summary, the report offers an interesting new perspective on the growing soft power of devolved regions - and how small nations like Wales could do more to harness their potential.