The Difficulty of Improving One's "Soft Power"

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 11/19/2013 04:50:00 AM
The notion of soft power, defined by Joseph Nye as the ability of a nation to get its way through attraction rather than coercion, is an archetypally wooly concept. How do you measure it? What sort of indicators would you use in comparing different nations according to it? Yet, the lack of hard indicators of soft power or a blueprint for achieving it has not stopped nations from trying to improve their global reputations.

Recently, the lifestyle publication Monocle previewed its most recent edition of its annual soft power rankings showing Germany topping the global league tables after the UK and the US did the last two years. Aside from not speaking English, you would think Germany also suffers from not having immediately British institutions alike "Bond, the Bard (Shakespeare) and the Beatles." Still, there are modern compensations alike, er, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund--arguably the finest soccer teams in the world.

Actually, Britain's diminished performance in the 2013 rankings was predicted to some extent by Dorian Lynksey in the Guardian op-ed pages a few months ago. Given the current Tory government's obsession with quantifiable returns on expenditure--culturally important spending included--recent cutbacks may have taken their toll. For instance, diminished funding for the BBC World Service--still a plank of British cultural influence after all this years--will likely have wider repercussions.

That said, things could be worse than they are in Blighty. You could be China, which comfortably outspends the UK on cultural promotion but doesn't seem to be moving up the global rankings with any alacrity. As the Beatles sang, perhaps you can't buy love--or soft power, either:
Soft power is an unpredictable commodity that can't be bought in a hurry. China imposes a quota of 34 foreign movies a year but last year those imports outgrossed China's 893 homegrown productions, to the government's evident annoyance. Overseas consumers can't be blinded to a nation's flaws. When one of your most famous cultural exports, Ai Weiwei, is a tireless critic of the government, it's hard to pretend you're an artistic paradise, however much you spend. [Or cheap out on helping poorer crisis-hit neighbors for that matter.]

Britain has long enjoyed the cultural reach that China craves, but it's taking its enviable position for granted. Perhaps when you're the land of Bond, the Bard and the Beatles, not to mention the English language, you're prone to assuming it will be ever thus, but it's not just austerity that threatens Britain's soft power. Many elements of Conservative dogma are antithetical to it: resistance to immigration and Europe; suspicion of the BBC and state funding in general; and contempt for any area of the arts on which you can't immediately slap a price tag.
In America's case, I'd say Mickey Mouse cannot whitewash drone strikes or something to that effect. Meanwhile, the argument rages on in the UK whether its extensive cultural promotion ought to continue. Obviously, the British Council does not want the axe to fall on it despite not having "tangible" metrics to show their Conservative political overlords. Then again, assessing reputation is arguably more of an art than a science:
The British Council report rightly argues for a "move from short-term transactional and instrumental thinking to long-term relationship building". And if we must play the price-tag game, economists point out that growing demand for popular culture from newly prosperous nations plays to Britain's strengths.

Measuring the worth of culture using purely utilitarian arithmetic is a tricky path. Art should be valued on its own merits as well as for its financial rewards. But the government need only look at the global success of the Olympics opening ceremony or The King's Speech, one of the last movies to receive UK Film Council funding, to appreciate what the right combination of long-term state investment and individual creativity can do for Britain's reputation abroad, for relatively piffling sums. That, surely, is a language that even the most fanatical budget hawks can understand.
I'd pay up myself, but it's obviously not my decision to make. Read also through the informative British Council soft power report if you have some time to spare.