And the winner is ... France! Photo ©

Willian West, used under licence and adapted from the original.

October 2019

France has reclaimed the crown from the UK to take top spot in the Portland Soft Power 30 2019. We analyse the latest global soft power rankings.

The World's leading Soft Power nation

The top five in 2019 are: France, the UK, Germany, Sweden and the United States. There is relatively little movement across the chart as a whole. This isn’t really that surprising as soft power is something that evolves over time, it takes years to build. A sudden shock can have an impact in the short term that might manifest through a perceptions survey for example, but such shifts in opinion tend to correct themselves if the underlying fundamentals of a state’s attractiveness remain intact. 

The noteworthy movers in the chart are Sweden, making the top five for the first time; the United States, continuing its descent of the charts, though still noticeably in the top five; and Canada and Japan, both surprisingly on a downward trajectory though as a closer look at the data shows this is more about Sweden’s relatively dramatic rise from eighth place in 2018 than any diminution in their soft power. At the bottom of the top 30 chart is Russia, immediately below Turkey that has returned to the list in place of Argentina. China, again perhaps surprisingly, is static at 27th in the chart. Given the massive investment in soft power initiatives and the data emerging from across the Global South that shows growing favourability towards China this last finding is especially interesting. But perhaps most significantly of all - there are no new entries.

France securing the top position in the Portland chart was not inevitable. As the authors themselves note, “France reclaims its top spot after a mixed year for the French government. Widespread discontent around rising fuel prices and living costs sparked the gilets jaunes protest movement in November last year, which continued into the first quarter of 2019.” French soft power is apparently intimately linked to President Macron. The reasoning given for France’s top ranking is similar to that when the country first took top spot in 2017. Macron is a leading figure on the global stage, a champion of liberalism, internationalism and action on climate change. So, despite having similar global platforms in terms of reach, networks and cultural appeal, the authors rank France ahead of the UK, contrasting France’s President’s active engagement in international affairs with the UK’s seemingly endless navel gazing over Brexit.

Just like France’s “Macron-powered” assent to pole position, Sweden’s unexpected arrival in the top five is at least in part ascribed to another star of the international circuit. In 2019 climate emergency activist Greta Thurnberg has been unavoidable, whether she’s lecturing the global economic elite in Davos or national leaders gathered for the UN General Assembly. Greta has been undeniably great for Brand Sweden. In fact, it would seem that the chart this year is heavily influenced by personalities, a point reinforced by the authors’ exploration of the USA’s fall from grace. Sweden’s entry to the top five has knocked the United States down to fifth place, and the blame is laid squarely on one man, Donald J Trump. 

There is a very real and very worrying trend that the punditocracy have picked up, the United States has a serious soft power problem. Back in 2016 the USA came top in the Soft Power 30 chart. It has fallen at least one rank every year since. The British Council’s own research underscores this trend, finding for example that in 2018 the United States government was the most distrusted of any of the G20 states. Yet the apparent “Kardashianisation” in the thinking about soft power evident in the Portland rankings this year is unhelpful. The negative trend in US soft power predates President Trump’s election and can be traced back at least as far as the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina, both of which severely undermined trust and belief in the USA. Certainly “America First” and those infamous 5am tweets from Mar-a-Lago have had an impact on perceptions of the United States but it would be wise to look beyond personalities for the source of the US’s predicament. As the authors note, the fundamentals of US soft power remain, it continues to have all the “best stuff”, but for a variety of reasons, including but certainly not exclusively the President’s words and actions, it is no longer especially liked or trusted. It will likely take more than a change of personnel to correct that.

The United Kingdom is in second place

The UK is in second place in the Portland chart this year. Just as Trump is the obvious target for rationalising the United States position in the rankings, Brexit, inevitably, is seen as the reason for the UK’s apparent decline. Yet for those that fret over these rankings, it’s worth taking a pause and getting some perspective. The UK has fallen one place, as has happened before. It is not impossible that the UK will reclaim the crown in the years ahead, just as it did last year. Equally though, it must also be owned that there is a risk that the UK could follow the path cut by the United States. UK policymakers need to be alive to that risk.   

Brexit, as painful as it has been for all concerned, does not define the UK, any more than President Trump does the United States nor indeed eco-celebrity does Sweden. The fundamentals of UK soft power remain robust. Whether it’s Harry Potter or Oxbridge, the UK continues to make an appealing offer to the world. Education, culture, and international engagement are key strengths drawing people to look positively towards the UK. Furthermore, the data shows that unlike the United States, the UK continues to be seen as attractive and trusted. There is nevertheless a danger for the UK. Get Brexit wrong and then what might be a blip could prove the beginning of a US-style decline in the UK’s international appeal. This would have a very significant negative impact on the UK’s economy and global influence. 

If the UK hopes to retake the Soft Power 30 crown from France it needs to return to being seen as an internationally engaged, open and activist state that promotes global progress and collectivist solutions to challenges like climate change. The UK’s appeal is founded on its culture, including its values and the focus on the common good, as exemplified in its commitment to spending 0.7% of GNI on international development.

Measuring something as intangible as a state’s soft power can be as much haruspicy as science. The Portland Soft Power 30 isn’t the Billboard 100 based on a single dataset, it is a chart built upon a complex suite of metrics. It is reasonable to question the choice of datasets and to wonder what the chart would look like if the authors had used Twitter or Google data instead of Facebook for the digital dimension. A different set of measures would likely have thrown up a slightly different set of winners and losers. Yet while it can only ever provide a partial view of the relative standing of different states, the Portland Soft Power 30 chart is a useful guide for policymakers and others interested in the topic. It promotes reflection and, perhaps, is a rallying cry to those that care about their country’s international standing and influence.

Alistair MacDonald, Senior Policy Advisor, British Council

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