By Alistair MacDonald, Senior Policy Analyst, British Council

18 July 2017 - 09:36

And the winner is ... France! Photo ©

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

Every year since 2015, global communications consultancy Portland Communications releases a list of the world's most influential and attractive countries. The British Council's Alistair MacDonald talks through this year's results.

What is the Soft Power 30? What does it aim to find out?

Everyone loves a league table, whether it’s the Premier League or the Billboard Hot 100. Who’s up, who’s down, who’s in danger of relegation? There’s the drama as the results unfold and then the inevitable post-mortem where pundits try to explain the shifts in fortune.

The Portland Soft Power 30 is the chart for foreign-policy anoraks. It ranks countries' international influence and attractiveness. Portland, a global communications consultancy, launched the first chart in 2015, but in three short years, it has become a benchmark that governments around the world take seriously.

It is more than just a list of winners and losers. The research that underpins the rankings seeks to identify the soft-power resources of states and how they are used to influence and attract.

What do they mean by ‘soft power’? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?

You hear quite a lot about soft power these days in international relations. The term was first introduced by Professor Joseph Nye of Harvard University in the 1980s. He described it as the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. It arises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies. In doing so, he was seeking to distinguish how a country can achieve its foreign policy objectives by winning over hearts and minds through non-coercive means – as opposed to the hard power of the military or economic options like sanctions.

The language of soft power can be confusing. It is perhaps easier to think of it in human rather than grand geopolitical terms. How do you make friends? You’re attracted by a person’s wit, humour, style, integrity, the things you have in common, the things they can teach you – both about the world and yourself. You talk, you share, you learn and you laugh together. You like, admire, and, in time, come to trust and understand each other. When your friends let you down, you give them the benefit of the doubt, a chance to explain. If you care, you forgive them. Like friendship, soft power is founded in trust and mutual understanding.

What are the factors they take into account when they do the survey? How can you measure something as broad as ‘soft power’ – what indicators do you have to look at?

The Soft Power 30 combines more than 75 metrics, including both objective data and international polling data. Nye’s definition of soft power identifies culture, political ideals and policies as the three pillars of a country’s soft power. The metrics Portland bases its analysis on are all expressions of those three pillars and include figures for everything from international tourists, foreign direct investment and international aid to literacy rates, political freedoms and Olympic medal winners.

Academics tend to disapprove of charts like the Soft Power 30, noting the oversimplification and partiality of such exercises. The necessary selection of a finite number of indicators means the results can only tell us so much – for example, it will ignore some factors that are negligible for some countries, while they are meaningful for others’ soft power. The emphasis on rankings suggests a kind of global race or international beauty contest that is also seen by some as unhelpful.

The chart is also inherently centred on what some call Western values. Soft power is a liberal internationalist concept and one that continues to be disputed – even in Western Europe, each country has its own interpretation of Joseph Nye’s original concept. So while a country might be ranked poorly in the Portland league table, measured against their own strategic objectives, their soft power may well be outperforming all other 'competitors'.

Yet despite all these caveats, these charts do serve a useful purpose. Partial and limited as they are, they nevertheless stimulate debate and focus the minds of policymakers.

Who’s up this year? Why?

And the winner is… France! France has leaped ahead of the UK, USA, Germany and Canada, who all remain in the top five, but with all but the UK dropping a ranking or two. Why? Well Portland focuses on the success of President Macron in defeating the Front National in recent polls as the game-changer, while also recognising the enduring appeal of France’s culture and the Republic’s unmatched diplomatic reach. It probably didn’t hurt that for the first time this year, one of the metrics factored into the rankings was the number of Michelin-starred restaurants by country.

The rest of the top ten also includes the same five countries as 2015, but again with slight shifts in rank. The most notable example is Japan climbing from eighth to sixth place. Japan has taken a higher-profile role on the world stage, for example taking over the leadership position vacated by the U.S. to champion the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Further down the table, China is also on the rise. Back in 2015, China scrapped into the chart at 30. Now it stands at 25. China’s culture is a massive international draw, while the leadership’s investment in cultural institutions like the ever-expanding global network of Confucius Institutes is helping redefine perceptions of the country.

Who’s down? Why?

The international polling of public opinion has had a negative effect on the scorings for both the UK and the U.S. While the UK retains second place, its reduced scoring was only beaten by the greater fall from grace of the U.S. Brexit has damaged attitudes to the UK in Europe (but not the rest of the world), while Portland cites the global reaction to the Trump presidency as the prime reason for the decline in the U.S.’s ranking.

Brazil has also fallen down the rankings despite the Olympics. The report blames the shadow cast by the impeachment of President Dilma, continued political and economic instability and concerns over corruption.

What does the bigger picture look like?

The Soft Power 30 shows limited year-on-year changes in the relative rankings of both the winners and losers. Argentina dropped out of the top 30 to be replaced by Turkey, but otherwise, the countries on the list are all the same as in 2015. This should not be surprising, as soft power is something that forms over long time frames – despite Brexit, the fundamentals of the UK’s international attractiveness remain strong. The UK’s universities, culture and political freedoms continue to draw international students, tourists and foreign direct investment.

What is more interesting is the continued under-representation of the Global South, the Middle East and Africa. Over two thirds of the top 30 are European countries. And with countries like Australia, New Zealand and South Korea in East Asia filling out the rest of the chart, China ends up looking like an outlier, the odd man out at the liberal, democratic, internationalist soft-power party. This reflects the limits of this sort of partial exercise in ranking. Though ranked at number 25, China’s influence and power far outstrips ninth-seed Sweden. Were Africa better represented in the international polling of opinion, China’s position in the league table would, I suspect, be higher.

Is there anything surprising about the data?

Where is India?! If Emmanuel Macron can at least in part be credited with the success of France this year, why hasn’t Narendra Modi had a similar effect on the status of India? Internationally feted Prime Minister Modi has been steadily increasing India’s international role, reaching out to countries in the Gulf and Asia-Pacific regions.

Why do governments and institutions take soft power seriously?

Soft power matters. It has a real impact on the decisions people make. The report notes, for example, that applications from international students to U.S. universities have dropped 40 per cent year on year. That will have immediate implications for both departmental budgets and campus culture, but it will have a longer-term economic impact too as those students that have chosen instead to study in Canada are the leaders of tomorrow and will be more likely to trust and favour those nice Canadians in their future endeavours, whether it’s scientific research, business or geopolitics.

Find the full list on the Portland Communications website, or read more policy research and insight from the British Council on related topics.

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