The UK’s soft power pre-eminence is vital for its post-Brexit future, but increasingly being challenged. Insight looks at the latest evidence.

The UK’s position as a “soft power superpower” is well known. The results from the British Council’s 2018 youth perceptions survey of the G20, and those of various other rankings such as the Portland 30, agree that the UK is in a leading position. Yet the data also reinforces the view that there’s no room for complacency. In the British Council research, the UK is only marginally ahead of its two closest competitors: Germany and Japan - compare its results for attractiveness (81%) with those from Germany (79%) and Japan (78%), with Canada clearly in the lead on 84%. Portland crowned the UK as the world’s leading soft power in 2018, but again very much as first amongst equals. Portland will shortly reveal their 2019 league table and we shall see if the UK is displaced. 

A country’s soft power is not guaranteed. The example of the US shows that, having been the pre-eminent hard and soft power, it has lost much of the trust it once could draw on. Its government is now the most distrusted of any in the G20. America remains the world’s most powerful nation, but its government is no longer considered very trustworthy, at least in comparison to other leading liberal democracies. Trust in its government stood at just 36% in 2018, but distrust was 45%, the highest of any of the G20. 

Why it matters

Trust matters. Numerous studies indicate the dividends of trusting relationships. In Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, Francis Fukuyama argued that prosperous countries tend to be those where business relations can be conducted flexibly on the basis of trust. Other studies have found that trust is robustly related to economic growth, with one finding that growth rises nearly 1% on average for each 15% increase in trust (Zak and Knack (2001), Trust and growth. Economic Journal 111/470: 295-321). Other academics have found that, when mutual trust between the populations of two countries increases by 1%, exports rise by 0.6% and foreign direct investment (FDI) by 3% (Dekker et al. (2007) Diverse Europe – Public Opinion on the EU). High-trust relationships have lower transaction costs, which stimulate investment, production, and trade, in turn leading to economic growth. The British Council’s report found that people who trusted the UK were roughly twice as likely to want to engage with it in future. 

The research also identified the qualities most strongly associated with trust. These were that the UK was perceived as open and welcoming, with a free and fair justice system and world-leading arts and culture, and with a government that treats everyone in the country fairly, contributes its fair share to aid, works constructively with others around the world.

For the UK and other open societies, ‘openness’ was the single strongest driver of trust in people, followed by contribution to development, and a free justice system. For trust in government, the state’s contribution to development was the most prominent driver, followed by ‘works constructively with other governments’ and ‘open and welcoming’. 

Soon to be published analysis of the survey found that these results were remarkably similar to those of the UK’s close rivals for trust and attractiveness. The UK came first for perceptions of a free justice system and for world leading arts and culture; second, to Japan, for openness; second to Germany for contribution to development and treating everybody fairly; and third, behind both Germany and Japan, for working constructively with other governments. The closeness in the results again emphasises the UK’s enviable but vulnerable position as ‘first amongst equals’.

One interesting finding of the research is that soft power seems to be of growing importance to the UK. Decisions on doing business internationally, on overseas study, tourism and cultural consumption, even on security, are all influenced by a state’s soft power. The countries with the biggest economies are seen as the most attractive for doing business, but the UK comes ahead of Germany, France, and India (27%, 24%, 13% and 9%), all countries with broadly similar GDPs. The UK’s soft power is apparently helping to give it an edge over its rivals. As other countries’ economies develop, the UK will find the international competition for FDI and trade will become more intense. It will be the UK’s soft power that will be key to success in this increasingly crowded market. 

Maintaining the position of ‘Global Britain’

Part of the UK’s attractiveness is down to luck and history, with its positioning between the vast markets of East and West, the supremacy of the English language as the lingua franca of business and science, and the concentration of financial and legal expertise in London, all contributing to its attractiveness as a place to do business. 

But it is the values and culture of the UK that will give it the edge as competition intensifies

But it is the values and culture of the UK that will give it the edge as competition intensifies. The UK’s reputation for stability, openness, and equality and fairness gives investors the confidence to choose it ahead of other possible destinations. The UK’s “world-leading arts and cultural institutions and attractions” drives interest in cultural engagement, but it is also the single strongest driver of intentions to visit the UK. Cultural engagement, whether it is through an international poetry slam focussed on intersectionality, or a celebration of Monty Python’s Flying Circus at a film festival - or an international friendly match with a Premier League football team - all serve to heighten interest in the UK. The UK’s soft power gives it a vital edge over its close economic rivals. Its culture, both in the specific sense of the Arts, but also in the wider social sense described by thinkers like Raymond Williams, is essential to its attractiveness as a place to do business. In looking to develop trade links with the wider world, post-Brexit UK policymakers should have due regard to the UK’s culture.

So how can the UK ensure it continues to be first amongst equals? What are the policy levers available to HM Government to cultivate the UK’s soft power? Much of it comes from factors out with the government’s control - indeed legitimacy and credibility often depend on government not being involved. There is a fine line between soft power and propaganda, but it is a difference we can all recognise. Where soft power is instrumentalised by the state, credibility and trust will generally be lacking. If building trust is the object of policy, governments are generally advised to step back and operate at arms-length. (See Soft Power and Public Diplomacy Revisited, Joseph Nye, Hague Journal of Diplomacy 14 (2019) 7-20). UK Government has generally been successful at empowering the agencies that build trust in the UK. The institutional model of the UK is sound, it provides funding for the international activities of organisations like the BBC World Service and the British Council, while stepping back from interfering in editorial and operational decisions. The result is these bodies are generally more trusted than the government itself but, crucially, they increase trust in the UK government. This is similar to the soft power benefits arising from the UK’s commitment to foreign aid. By giving the world a reliable source of impartial news reporting and supporting the UK’s culture, education, and language, the UK demonstrates that it is a generous country, committed to the common good. 

Other countries recording close results to the UK’s for trust and attractiveness share similar values and priorities and are investing heavily in soft power initiatives like foreign language broadcasting and cultural relations. Last year the German government increased funding in Deutshce Welle by €35 million, and announced a €33 million increase (to a total of €956 million) for foreign cultural and education policy work. Unlike the British Council, whose government funding for its activities in the developed world has been declining, the network of Germany’s Goethe Institute has been growing: between 2013 and 2018 the number of offices grew from 159 to 169, whereas that of the British Council contracted from 196 to 177. Through a new partnership with the Institut Français, the Goethe is committed to further expansion, with new offices set to open in Erbil, Bishkek, Rio de Janeiro, and Palermo. This matters. Cultural institutions are influential for attracting international students, tourists, and FDI. For example, academics at the University of Edinburgh have found that a 1% increase in the number of countries a cultural institution from country X covers is associated with on average a 0.66% increase in FDI and a 0.73% increase in international students for that country.

Complacency is the real threat to the UK’s position. It could easily be overtaken by countries like Germany and Japan and miss out economically and in influence if it fails to match its rival’s commitment to and investment in international engagement. In the era of Brexit, there is a pressing need to increase the trust the UK has lost with Continental neighbours to ensure it continues to be an attractive, influential partner. In this context, funding restrictions driving the contraction in cultural relations operations in Europe risk being counter-productive. As the latest Portland Soft Power report puts it: ‘The British Council in particular has been instrumental in spreading British influence and cultivating soft power through cultural and educational engagement.’ [Portland (2018) Soft Power 30: A Global Ranking of Soft Power 2018 [‎30/‎08/‎2019 12:12]. Similarly, the signing of new trade deals with developed economies post-Brexit will be easier where trust in the people and government of the UK is highest, which in turn suggests the wisdom of continuing to invest in engagement with the developed as well as the developing world. 

The reason the UK is first amongst equals when it comes to soft power is its culture and values. The arts, the English language, sport and higher education, but also culture in the wider sense of the country’s values and identity; the openness and diversity of the British people, the respect for the law and for fairness, an approach to the world that is focussed on the common good rather than narrow self-interest. But these are things the UK shares in common with the other leading economies. It would take only a very slight shift in perceptions in a couple of the socio-cultural qualities key to trust for the UK to lose its edge over others. Meanwhile, China and especially India and Indonesia can and very likely will improve upon their results for trust and attractiveness as they continue to grow and invest. 

Being first amongst equals has been vital to the UK’s international success. With growing international competition it will come to be even more dependent on continuing to be the world’s soft power superpower

The fact that soft power can be lost means UK policymakers must be alive to the challenges posed by both current events and long term, structural challenges. The UK is first amongst equals, but small shifts in others’ opinion of us could very easily change the rankings, while a more significant change in attitudes could see the UK’s position move closer to that of the United States. The UK must continue to be perceived as outward looking, open, and optimistic. Other states have been willing to give credence to the UK’s point of view because it is recognised as a leading proponent of the rules-based international system. If the UK steps back from that stance it will lose influence and become less attractive and deserving of the trust of others. That would have very real costs. If it is to maintain its leading position in a changing world, the UK needs to embrace an ambitious vision and strategy for soft power for a ‘Global Britain’; a continued commitment to multilateral, mutually beneficial co-operation and international development; and a renewed investment in the diplomatic network.

Being first amongst equals has been vital to the UK’s international success. With growing international competition it will come to be even more dependent on continuing to be the world’s soft power superpower.