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July 2016

The UK comes in second in an annual survey of international soft powers. It must heed the latest developments – including the growing importance of digital diplomacy – if it is to remain one of the world’s leading influencers. 

The Pillars of British Soft Power

Last month saw the publication of Portland Communication’s 2016 Soft Power 30 Report. It was the second in their global ranking of countries by soft power. 

Taking the top spot this year was the USA, partly reflecting the success of President Obama’s recent diplomatic initiatives such as the Iran nuclear deal and the US’s rapprochement with Cuba. 

The UK again did well in the rankings, although it slipped from first to second place. Germany went from second to third in the table. Canada, with its popular new President, Justin Trudeau, over-took France for fourth, with France slipping to fifth. 

Amongst the pillars of British soft power identified in the report were the BBC, the British Museum, the Premier League, and the British Council

Amongst the pillars of British soft power identified in the report were the BBC, the British Museum, the Premier League, and the British Council. The move from first to second place did not reflect any significant drop in the UK’s score, which was quite stable across most categories compared to 2015, again coming in second overall for education, culture, and ‘engagement’ – a measure of its diplomatic footprint. 

The report suggests that whether the UK and USA maintain their high positions next year may depend on the international impact of the UK’s EU Referendum campaign and the US Presidential election. 

Changes to the ranking since 2015 are relatively subtle. However one trend does appear: the table shows soft power capability rising faster in Asia and North America than in Europe. The report suggests that this trend may reflect events such as the refugee crisis and mixed perceptions of Europe’s response to it, as well as significant investment in soft power by a number of high growth economies outside Europe. 

That said, in absolute terms European countries still dominate the table, with Asian countries fairing less well. Of these, Turkey has fallen out of the top 30 altogether, in part (the report suggests) because of perceptions about its responses to the interconnected issues of Syria, Kurdish separatism, and the refugee crisis. 

Meanwhile China has risen two places from 30th to 28th. No doubt it will continue on this upward trajectory given the country’s huge cultural and economic reach and its growing focus on improving its soft power status over the last few years, including the opening of many Confucius Institutes around the world and its targeted funding of development projects, particularly in Asia and Africa. It is however interesting that these efforts have not yet been rewarded with a significantly higher place in the ranking. Similarly Russia comes in only at 27th, despite its undisputed and deep reserves of cultural soft power. 

Soft Power Megatrends

Debate will no doubt continue about the exact positioning of each country and the methodology that underlies the report. Yet perhaps more important than the league table itself are the underlying factors which the report identifies. In particular, Jonathan McClory, who designed and wrote the report, highlights two ‘mega-trends’. 

The first is the rise of networks as the driving force in global affairs, as power diffuses into a more multi-polar world, non-state actors from corporations to terrorist organisations wield greater influence, and cities connect with each other across borders and achieve greater influence beyond the nations in which they are situated. 

The second is the increasingly fundamental importance of digital technology and the impact that is having on soft power. This has had a major effect on the way governments and leaders must behave if they are to achieve influence. There has therefore been a rise in ‘digital diplomacy’, as practiced successfully by leaders such as Barack Obama, Justin Trudeau, and Narendra Modi. Indeed, heads of state and government in over 170 countries now have a Twitter presence, with more than 4,000 Embassies and Ambassadors having active accounts. This trend suggests the need for foreign ministries to shift to a ‘digital first’ approach in all their communications and diplomatic activities. Indeed, the recent FCO Future report called for the recruitment of digital natives to the UK FCO. One prominent exponent of this approach is Tom Fletcher, the ex UK Ambassador to Lebanon, who describes spending an average of two hours a day on Twitter during his posting (Tom Fletcher, The Naked Diplomat (2016)).

But arguably the growing impact of digital technology has broader and more important implications. Private individuals as well as government representatives are now able to become effective citizen diplomats. McClory argues that it ‘has made individuals more powerful than they have been at any point in history’. Furthermore, cultural and educational institutions can and increasingly must use the new technology to design new ways of reaching out to wider audiences. 

 A recent report has estimated that a 1% net increase in soft power raises exports by around 0.8%

The Soft Power 30 is to be welcomed for drawing greater attention to an important subject. Soft power is increasingly recognised as a vital component of a nation’s strategic standing (see, for example, recent reports by the House of Lords, the British Academy). In addition, a recent report has estimated that a 1% net increase in soft power (other things being equal) raises exports by around 0.8%. This suggests that, as well as its many other benefits, soft power has a direct economic payoff. Given this and the factors identified by the Portland index, it is clear that soft power matters more than ever. 

Alasdair Donaldson, Senior Policy Advisor and Editor, British Council

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