The UK has a new government with a new mission: to promote a truly Global Britain. Its soft power must play a vital role in this endeavour.

But what are the most effective components of the soft power of nations?  A new report sets out the latest evidence and recommendations for future policy.

At this crucial juncture in the UK’s history, soft power should be at the heart of policymakers’ thinking. Whether it is securing vital new trade deals with friends old and new; renewing relations with European neighbours that may have been somewhat strained in recent years; or securing global progress on global challenges like climate change, the UK’s ability to attract and co-opt others is becoming ever more important to its prosperity and international influence. 

Published just days after the UK’s formal exit from the European Union, the Sources of Soft Power: How perceptions determine the success of nations presents an analysis of the soft power of the UK and six other ‘soft power superpowers’ - China, Germany, India, Japan, Russia, and the USA. 

No time for complacency

The data, drawn from our biennial survey of perceptions of young people from the G20, shows the UK is in a leading but fragile position relative to the other countries in the study. This can be seen by comparing its results for overall attractiveness (81 per cent) with those from Germany (close second on 79 per cent) and Japan (third on 78 per cent), and the scores for trust in people (67, 65 per cent, and 66 per cent) and trust in government (56 per cent, 56 per cent, and 54 per cent respectively). 

The precariousness of the UK’s position is further underlined by the recent publication of the 2019 edition of the Portland Soft Power 30, which saw the UK fall to second place behind France, and the 2019 Nations Brand Index, which saw it fall to 4th behind the US, China, and Japan. These perceptions of trust and attractiveness matter, as they shape behaviour. As a result they have a direct impact on a country’s economy by impacting on levels of foreign direct investment, tourism, and the choices of international students.

The Sources of Soft Power report rates the seven focus countries across twenty soft power ‘qualities statements.' These are the qualities that have been identified as underpinning attractiveness and trust.  They include socio-cultural indicators like 'has world-leading universities' and 'has a free justice system,' but also factors like whether a country is perceived as 'a force for good in the world' or as 'a global power.' 

Across these metrics the UK performs well, coming first overall and consistently featuring in the top three countries for most of the qualities statements. Yet, while the overall picture is certainly positive, there are two strong takeaways from the results. 

First is the close clustering of the UK, Germany and Japan across the qualities metrics. These three liberal democracies are all viewed more positively by young people from the wider G20 group of nations than the other focus countries. But they are also viewed very similarly, frequently sharing the top three across different metrics. As a result the slightest of shifts in perceptions could see any one of them take the top spot.

The real enemy for the UK here is complacency. Its rivals, both friendly and hostile, all recognise the importance of soft power.

They are investing huge sums in growing their networks and in the socio-cultural ‘assets’ that are key to attractiveness and trust.

Take for example Japan’s hosting of the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. If the UK fails to match the ambitions and investment of other leading soft power superpowers, it will fall behind. 

The second related point is that, while the UK is in the top three for the majority of the qualities, there are two important areas in which it falls behind: ‘is a global power’ (sixth) and ‘world-leading science and technology’ (fourth).

The UK’s relative weakness across these two metrics is worth noting. This really matters, as these two factors are by far the strongest drivers of a country’s attractiveness as a place to do business/trade, both averaging 18 per cent. 

In reality, the UK has a higher proportion of top cited science research papers than either Germany or Japan. The striking difference between the perception and the reality on factors like this suggests there may be important opportunities for the UK to gain more credit for its strengths that it is currently doing.   

Looking specifically at the qualities the research identifies as most closely associated with trust, the UK came:

  • first for perceptions of a free and fair justice system and for world-leading arts and culture;
  • second to Japan for perceived openness;
  • second to Germany for contribution to development and treating everybody fairly, and
  • third, behind both Germany and Japan, for ‘works constructively with other governments.'

It is the UK’s relative strength across all these metrics that underpins the country’s ‘market leading’ position on trust among the G20 nations.

Looking at how the qualities affect intended engagement with the UK, we find intentions to visit are most strongly shaped by perceptions of the UK’s universities and arts and culture.

Unsurprisingly, ‘world-leading universities’ are crucial to intentions to study in the UK, though ‘free and fair justice system’ and ‘fosters creativity’ are also important.

Universities and the arts are also crucial to intentions to experience UK culture. However, when it comes to intentions to do business/trade with the UK, the prominence of ‘world-leading sports’ is unique to the country, reflecting perhaps the global significance of the Premier League. 

Being a force for good in the world

The research also looks at the relationship in reverse, i.e. how engagement with the focus countries changes perceptions. For the UK, perceptions are on average +14 per cent more positive for those who have visited or enjoyed its arts and culture, +16 per cent for those who have studied here, and +17 per cent for those who have done business/trade here. 

Looking at the impact of engagement on individual qualities, the impact of the immersive experience of study and work in the UK has a particularly powerful impact on perceptions of the UK’s contribution to foreign aid (+26 per cent and +22 per cent).

This is an important finding given that ‘aids development’ is one of the strongest drivers of trust in government, and an area where again perceptions of the UK’s relative generosity underestimate it true development contributions.

What emerges really clearly from the data is that soft power is rooted in values. It’s the values of free, open, diverse, democratic societies like the UK and Germany that result in these states being the most attractive and trusted.

In an era of transition for the UK, the country should stay true to these values if it is not to lose ground to its rivals. That means a renewed emphasis on multilateralism, a firm commitment to the liberal international order, and an approach to the world that is focussed on the common good and not on narrow self-interest. 

Being first amongst equals has served the UK well. In the wake of its departure from the European Union, the UK must continue to stay true to those values that have been core to its success. This will be the key to maintaining its leading position amongst the world’s soft power superpowers.

The UK is broadly perceived as a force for good in the world. Young people from across the G20 group of nations look to the UK to provide global leadership, and to act for the common good of humanity. Keeping faith with the leaders of tomorrow is vital if HMG is to realise its ambitions for Global Britain.