Old photograph of The Mall, London
A country in turmoil? Or on top of the world? Or both? The Mall. Photo by Matt Antonioli. ©

Unsplash, adapted from the original.

July 2018

The UK is on top of the world – at least when it comes to soft power. We analyse the latest global soft power ranking.

The World’s Leading Soft Power Nation

In a week when the England football team finally bowed out of the World Cup, and when the country was described by the US President as being a country ‘in turmoil’, it can take solace from the fact that there is one important respect in which it sits on top of the world. According to the comprehensive annual soft power index by Portland Communications, the UK is once again the leading soft power nation.

The UK reclaims the number one position in the league table that it originally held when the annual rankings began in 2015, having slipped to second place in the last two years. The authors acknowledge that the UK’s success may come as something of a surprise when British politics are apparently consumed by Brexit. But the fundamentals of the UK’s soft power remain strong. Education, culture, and international engagement are key strengths drawing people to look positively towards the UK. 

The UK regained its number one status by pushing France down into second place

The UK regained its number one status by pushing France down into second place. Germany comes in third, followed by the US (which has fallen from first in 2016). The rest of the top thirty is mostly dominated by European countries, along with Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Japan ranks highly, in at number five, having risen steadily from eighth place in 2015. South Korea is the next Asian country, in twentieth place, followed by Singapore in twenty first. The only South American countries to make the top table, Brazil and Argentina, take the twenty ninth and thirtieth spots, with Brazil having fallen from twenty third place in 2015. China and Russia, with their different approaches to soft power, rank twenty seventh and twenty eighth respectively. 

So do rankings like the Portland index, and the things that they set out to measure, really matter? The answer is yes. In an increasingly globalised, connected, multi-polar world, soft power – the ability to influence through attraction rather than coercion – clearly is important. And social media and instant global communications mean that even a country’s domestic policies and positions also have international implications for its soft power, and hence its prosperity and influence. And as power diffuses away from governments, the strength of the many non-governmental institutions which constitute a nation’s soft power becomes ever more important. In that sense, the UK result tells us much about soft power: it should be no surprise that the country, with its huge strengths in independent cultural and educational institutions, should continue to rank so highly on soft power, in spite of any uncertainty as a result of Brexit. Clearly these strengths are a matter of great importance to the UK as it seeks to reposition itself as a ‘global’ Britain. 

Yet the importance of soft power goes further than that. The report argues that it is also vital for the maintenance of the rules-based international order, which it suggests is currently under threat from a combination of populist policies in some nations, shifts in American foreign policy, and the rise of new centres of global influence. The importance of soft power in this context stems from the way in which it alone can align values, norms, objectives, and ultimately behaviours in a world without a single dominant power. In that sense, argues Jonathon McClory (author of the report), soft power is the ‘glue’ which held together and expanded the rules-based system in recent decades. And only through soft power can a shared international vision and set of values to underpin that system in the future be supported - a process that can only be successful if it is a matter of mutual buy-in, rather than imposition or coercion. Indeed, independence and mutuality have long been identified as important features of soft power.

Indeed, it could be argued that the UK’s position in the Portland table is a vindication of a certain approach to soft power, manifested by the relative independence from government of its most important soft power institutions (the Portland report picks out the British Council and the BBC World Service for particular praise, as well as independent British art, music, film, fashion, and sport). This is a contrast to other, more state-controlled approaches to soft power.  

Soft power: the glue that holds the rules-based system together

This year’s report, by comparing its findings to those of previous years, identifies a consolidation of European soft power, and erosion of American soft power, and a rise in the soft power of Asian countries. Indeed, for the first time, it publishes a separate sub-list of the top 10 soft powers of that continent. As well as Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and China, this sub-list features Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, India, Indonesia, and the Philippines. With the continued rise of Asia, more and more of these countries, and perhaps others, are likely to begin to challenge the present incumbents of the top 30. 

Of course, given that the establishment of (for example) cultural institutions owes much to past economic and political success, it should be no surprise that there is often a delay between the development of nations and their soft power. This is reflected in the fact that countries like the UK and France continue to do better in the rankings than other countries which are rapidly emerging. On the other hand, the fact that Asian countries are continuing their slow but steady rise through the soft power rankings shows that the window in which Western countries continue to enjoy soft power dominance may be relatively narrow. 

Is it significant that the countries that dominate the Soft Power 30 are still democratic, liberal, capitalist economies that broadly share the same set of values? Other states fair notably less well in Portland’s rankings. This reflects what is suggested from separate Edinburgh University research, which describes how prosperous, free, open and safe countries are generally much more trusted and attractive than states with more repressive, authoritarian, corrupt and/or unstable systems of governance. 

Is the concept of soft power a Western construct?

There are however countries that are globally very influential but which fail to make the Portland list. India is the outstanding example. A diverse, democratic, G20 economy that is taking an increasingly active and important role in the world, India’s absence from the chart feels like a real anomaly. Indian culture is globally in high demand, whether its Bollywood movies, yoga, cuisine, or Indian businesses, are major international players. India is increasingly important in the technology and innovation sectors, so why does it fail to make the grade? The example of India raises several questions:

  • Is the sampling used for Portland’s international survey in some way skewing results? For example, would India (and for that matter China) do better if the survey research included more states from Africa and fewer Western or Asian countries?
  • In picking the metrics to describe soft power, is something being missed, or are factors that favour Western states given undue prominence? 
  • Is the concept of soft power a Western construct? Is it the Portland approach, or is it in fact the whole concept of soft power itself that is somehow biased in favour of Western models of what constitutes attractiveness? 

Portland’s Soft Power 30 attempts to rank the relative attractiveness and influence of states in the same way that they can be ranked for military or economic power. But soft power is by its nature elusive, it’s much easier to measure and describe the sticks and carrots of hard power than it is national attractiveness. A state’s soft power comes from a myriad of very different sources. The 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia is an example. How do you measure its soft power influence? Is it the cost of putting on one of the world’s biggest events? The number of fans packing Russian stadia? The broadcast audience? The economic impact? Answer: all of the above and others not listed.

To make matters even more complicated, it is often the case that soft power is generated at the micro-level, through the interactions of individuals and small groups, and the networks they form. It is usually far more modest than the extravaganza that is the World Cup. To a degree soft power simply happens, it is often an additional, unexpected, and entirely unsought by-product of everyday activities and interactions, wholly removed from the ambit of the state. Many individuals, groups and organisations just going about their normal business are generating soft power, entirely unaware that they are ‘doing their bit’ for their country’s reserves of influence. All this makes a state’s soft power incredibly difficult to quantify in a meaningful way.  

Yet, imperfect as it must be, the Portland Soft Power 30 remains a valuable and important annual intervention in the debate on soft power that gets people thinking and talking about soft power and the essential role it plays in the success of nations. The UK’s position at the top of the table should be a source of pride but not complacency. As it heads towards Brexit, and with many of its in-built relative advantages likely to be eroded as other countries catch up, the UK must continue to invest in and build its soft power. Given the nature of the concept, and of the UK’s soft power in particular, this will be a matter for non-governmental organisations in sectors like culture and education as much as it is for politicians. When it comes to soft power at least, the UK is back on top of the world. It is in its clear interests do everything it can to stay there. 

This article is an abridged version of two pieces by Alasdair Donaldson and Alistair MacDonald, Senior Policy Analysts, British Council.

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