Britain long ago ceased to be a regular superpower but no other country has more ‘soft power’. The small mindedness of the present government is putting that at risk.
When we talk about the power a nation wields, we normally mean its military or economic strength. But as well as being able to force other nations to do something or paying them to do it, there’s another way to exert influence: soft power.
The term was coined by the political scientist Joseph Nye. He argued that:
A country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries – admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness – want to follow it. In this sense, it is also important to set the agenda and attract others in world politics, and not only to force them to change by threatening military force or economic sanctions. This soft power – getting others to want the outcomes that you want – co-opts people rather than coerces them.
The Economist recently reported on an effort to quantify this kind of power:
[This index was produced by] Portland, a London-based PR firm, together with Facebook, which provided data on governments’ online impact, and ComRes, which ran opinion polls on international attitudes to different countries.
Surprisingly the nation emerged on top was not a behemoth like the USA, India, Russia or China. The latter nation actually came bottom of the list. Instead, the nation ranked first was the medium sized country on the periphery of Europe from which I hail.
The Economist explains that Britain ‘won’ because of its strength in a range of categories:
Britain scored highly in its “engagement” with the world, its citizens enjoying visa-free travel to 174 countries—the joint-highest of any nation—and its diplomats staffing the largest number of permanent missions to multilateral organisations, tied with France. Britain’s cultural power was also highly rated: though its tally of 29 UNESCO World Heritage sites is fairly ordinary, Britain produces more internationally chart-topping music albums than any other country, and the foreign following of its football is in a league of its own (even if its national teams are not). It did well in education, too—not because of its schools, which are fairly mediocre, but because its universities are second only to America’s, attracting vast numbers of foreign students.
That tallies with my experience living in Vietnam. This is a country in whose history Britain has played a relatively modest role* and to whose present it is almost irrelevant. The two countries are geographically far removed, do little trade with each other, the Vietnamese diaspora in the UK is small and the UK is not a big aid donor. Despite this, due to customer demand, the language centre I work at teaches British rather than American English: parents want their children to be able to pass the battery of tests like IELTS run by Cambridge University. It’s touch and go whether British or Korean bands deliver more soft pop auditory torture. And it’s rare for me to teach a class in which a kid is not wearing an Arsenal/Man Utd/Chelsea football shirt.
Sadly for a patriotic Brit, I have to wonder if this might be waning:
….many of the assets that pushed Britain to the top of the soft-power table are in play. In the next couple of years the country faces a referendum on its membership of the EU; a slimmer role for the BBC, its prolific public broadcaster; and a continuing squeeze on immigration, which has already made its universities less attractive to foreign students.
This is one of the less discussed but most concerning legacies of David Cameron’s time as Prime Minister. It should be the subject to more debate: Conservatives ought to be called out for their failure to conserve the cultural institutions that give Britain a role on the world stage it could not get simply from its economy and military. It might be better to be feared than loved but if the present government isn’t careful Britain may wind up being neither.
*At some point I will write a post on why Britain has actually had more of (a generally malign) influence on modern Vietnamese history than is often supposed. Nonetheless, the point stands that compared to China, France, America, Russia and Japan it has been a bit player.