It’s More Than Academia
I had just finished my address to the gathered officers of the Royal Navy at HMS Collingwood, the swish maritime warfare training centre in Fareham, England, when a prominent professor from Oxford University gave a thought-provoking speech on soft power. He was very challenging of Britain’s lack of innovation and new thinking when it comes to soft power.
He felt the Commonwealth was an institution that was designed for Britain to capitalise on its soft power, but in his view, Britain had not taken it far enough. Most of the 53 countries of the Commonwealth had extremely strong ties to Britain.
And most of them had been former British colonies. He was berating the lack of investment in the Royal Navy, and mentioned a little provocatively that nowadays the Thai Navy was bigger than the Royal Navy.
He painted a vision of how Britain might make better use of its soft power. He challenged the audience, “Why couldn’t Britain influence India to build aircraft carriers, the Nigerians to provide the top-class crew and of course, they would all come together with Britain to provide the Leadership (beautifully flattering and charming his audience)?”
This would be a new and dynamic use of soft power, to the benefit of all those who took part. Whilst being provocative, it may not be as farfetched as it may seem.
President Donald Trump despite losing the House of Congress in the recent mid-term elections, still managed to convince himself and all those who would listen that it was a tremendous victory.
He (obviously) put this down totally to his incredible genius at winning votes. Whilst many saw this for the hog wash it truly was, most of his base cheered him to the rafters.
Trump never bothers with soft power. He prefers to talk tough and is not afraid to make threats and sometimes carries them out.
His wide use of sanctions and trade tariffs has been controversial and has caused huge rifts with his so-called allies, but ‘hard power’ is what he trades in.
He has successfully built the cult of Trump, these are the Republican voters who love the President for whom he hates.
The Marketplace for Soft Power
Nations around the world are increasingly recognising the importance of soft power for the realisation of their global ambitions and are investing heavily to increase their reach and impact. They are keen to tell their stories and further shape and expand their international agendas.
Russia and China in particular have been massively expanding their investment in soft power activities such as international broadcasting and international cultural institutes and programmes.
In the last five years alone, China’s network of Confucius Institutes has grown from 320 to 507, making it by far the largest of the international cultural institutes.
Russia too has been growing its cultural presence, with an increase of 209% in its cultural institutes, the Russkiy Mir Foundation.
In contrast over the same period the networks of European countries’ cultural institutes have remained largely static or reduced.
Despite the UK being the current high watermark for soft power, it could still learn a lot from others.
As the UK’s beleaguered Prime Minister, Theresa May, still refuses to remove foreign students from the list of immigrants which they were recently added to, despite strong lobbying and disagreement from many of her cabinet ministers.
She is shooting a major platform of the UK’s soft power in the head, as many foreign students are not bothering to apply to the UK now, as they perceive that they are no longer welcome.
Having foreign students come to your nation to both spend and learn is a mighty use of soft power, as they will either stay and add huge value to the home economies or return home as advocates and ambassadors for the country that taught them.
On the other hand, Germany’s investment in scholarships and outward student mobility is giving it a real edge in growing its appeal in high-growth export markets in Africa and East Asia.
Brazil is developing strong socio-cultural links with other lusophone countries that are in turn supporting the expansion of economic and security links in a model with potential lessons for the UK’s relationship with the Commonwealth.
The New Age Global Influencers
Today, the new age networks are of ever more importance to the international success of states. Nowadays huge influence flows through the broadcast and social media and they tangibly influence human networks and connectivity better than anything before them.
Many states now deploy international broadcasting platforms like the BBC World Service, Deutsche Welle, NHK World, RT – as key “soft power assets” representing a country overseas.
The balance of soft power is changing rapidly, many nations, especially in Asia, are investing more and adopting ambitious strategies for their soft power. Over the long term, this has the potential to alter the balance of global influence.
Back to President Trump who has managed to create a dramatic fall in most countries who believe the USA will take care of them or their interests.
For example, over 80% of Germans now believe that the USA is doing less to deal with global problems than it has done in the past.
This lack of faith in the USA has also stemmed from the belief that the USA no longer takes its own civil rights as seriously as it once did.
High profile stories of race related violence, like the shooting of seemingly innocent young black men by cops in the USA have not helped. Once civil rights at home are not deemed to be taken seriously, perceptions can shift very quickly.
Only about a third of Europeans believe that the US protects civil rights at home.
This feeds the image of a unilateral, selfish, ‘chip on the shoulder’, and maybe dangerous America under President Trump. So much so, that President Macron and Chancellor Angela Merkel have started talk of establishing a European army, as they can no longer count on Trump.
Yet most people still believe that the USA still does a better job on civil rights than either Russia or China, maybe that is behind the huge push by both nations on soft power.
The Trump administration doesn’t seem at all affected by criticism at home or abroad, they are carefree in their attitude and embrace all of the levers of hard power – tariffs, sanctions, trade wars and threats of military action.
They might just be missing a trick here, soft power has massive value, especially in these more complex and hugely polarised times.
It’s not just President Trump’s reputation at stake, it’s also the USA’s reputation, and as we all know, it can take years to build a reputation and seconds to destroy it.
From Best Practice to Next Practice
• When travelling abroad look for as much press and media coverage as possible, they have a vital job in reporting what you set out to do
• You had better practice what you are preaching otherwise nobody will take your soft power initiatives seriously
• This is not a zero-sum game, it doesn’t do any harm if many are pushing their soft power as well – climate change initiatives are a great example
• Hard power is always much more expensive than soft power, just look at the huge size of every nation’s defence budgets
• Hard power always involves governments – soft power can come from anywhere
Never be so removed from your people that you cannot hear the dissenting voices.