Oxford Inspires – ‘Soft Power’ moves to the people


moves to the people

John Worne asks whether governments have lost the monopoly on ‘soft power’

Joseph Nye’s classic definition of ‘soft power’ coined in 1990 is ‘The ability to attract and co-opt rather than coerce, use force or give money as a means of persuasion’*. In sum – and in an ideal world – sharing culture and building trade are better international relations interventions than firing bullets or sending aid.

Of course, we don’t live in an ideal world. No-one should underestimate the significance of ‘hard power’ or international development assistance. Military intervention, diplomacy, sanctions and subsidies, as well as aid, are as vital to international relations, geopolitics and people’s lives now as they ever have been.

But the problem for many governments – outside closed states and dictatorships – is that these days more and more connections between countries happen outside, even despite, governments, not between or because of them.

And in the last five years, in particular, the global explosion of Internet connectivity and social media increasingly means that even the bits that were once potentially controllable – broadcast and media – are now increasingly ‘for and from the people’ not by or through the state.

My contention is that ‘soft power’ these days is much less the property and tool of governments and much more the product of the actions
of people and cultural institutions. This makes it no less powerful, but much harder to ‘wield’, as it is the sum of how a nation ‘is’ rather than how it might like to be ‘seen’.

Indeed, even attributing this power to a specific ‘nation’ or nation-state becomes more complex as actors on social media do not necessarily see themselves, and might not always be perceived by others, as straightforwardly representatives of the nation or state to which they belong.

The Institute for Government most closely captures my view on the main elements which together constitute ‘soft power’: culture, diplomacy, business/innovation, government and education. I think that’s nearly right. But the weight and impact of these pieces of the jigsaw is changing – and there is a very big one missing.

To focus first on one bit that is changing. Culture is big and getting bigger. A great deal of a country’s ‘soft power’ lives in its cultural and educational institutions, brands and icons. In the UK’s case the BBC, the great galleries, museums, universities and theatres, but also the Premier League, the Royal Family, Team GB and Paralympics GB, Jaguar, Burberry and the celebration of UK life which was Danny Boyle’s Olympic opener.

And here the UK has a real comparative advantage. We have a resilient and cost effective model: cultural institutions with ‘mixed economy’ funding – some public funding and an entrepreneurial approach to earning and partnership with great commercial brands and sponsors.

Unlike for example China or France, who commit very large-scale public funding to culture and language promotion, the UK’s ‘mixed economy’ approach at its best keeps our great arts, educational and cultural institutions to their public service mission through Royal Charters and some state funding. This helps to keep UK culture and UK ‘soft power’ evolving and innovating, not limited in ambition by public money alone.

But the big missing piece of the Institute for Government’s ‘soft power’ model, I believe, is people. A great deal of ‘soft power’ is now created directly and daily by the ordinary and extraordinary people of the world – teachers, artists, sportspeople, young people, policymakers, parliamentarians, commentators and raconteurs to name a few.

What we blog, tweet, tag, snap, post, comment on and curate speaks volumes for who we are – and reaches all four corners of the world through diasporas driven by the twin social media currencies of ‘interest’ and ‘followership’.

And as we have seen in the UK and in other parts of the world – via twitter storms, wikileaks and flashmobs – the boundaries and power of social media are uncontrolled and uncontrollable by governments. People can now connect and create content, share ideas and learn about each other at the speed of light. Sweden as a nation and Google as a company lead the public and private charge for a free Internet. But whoever wins, the genie of social media is out of the bottle and won’t be put back in.

As the UK’s international culture and education body the British Council has always been ‘for and from’ the people of the UK. Our public service mission has always been to increase the number of people around the world who speak English, have studied in or with UK institutions and universities and are open to and attracted to UK culture and people.

But thanks to digital learning and social media the scale at which we can now do it dwarfs what was possible ten years ago. As a small example, our digital LearnEnglish sites now attract hundreds of millions from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe where previously we could only reach or teach thousands face to face. Over a million fans learn together on our Middle East Facebook English site. The global demand for English, UK Education and UK culture has never been greater than today.

So much more of ‘soft power’ in the 21st century is ‘people power’ – the power of people to vote with their feet, move directly or virtually where they want and gravitate towards people, places, opportunities, ideas and creative content which are more internationally and instantly mobile than ever.

And this is where a great deal of the UK’s power of attraction now lies – in our comparative openness, creativity, the content we create, the breadth of artistic expression, our diversity and plurality. According to Monocle magazine and the Institute for Government, 2012 put the UK on top of the world for ‘soft power’. It is the UK’s people and cultural institutions which will keep us there.

Monocle: Soft Power Survey 2012
01 UK
02 USA
03 Germany
04 France
05 Sweden
06 Japan
07 Denmark
08 Switzerland 09 Australia
10 Canada
11 South Korea 12 Norway
13 Finland
14 Italy
15 Netherlands 16 Spain
17 Brazil
18 Austria
19 Belgium
20 Turkey

Please see a film about the ‘Top 20’ at http://monocle.com/film/affairs/soft-power-survey-2012

This text is based on a speech in January 2013 by John Worne at an Inter-Parliamentary Union Peers and MPs’ debate on ‘Soft Power’ at Westminster Hall

John Worne, PPE (Jesus College, 1987)
Director of Strategy, British Council

Prior to the British Council John worked around the world in international telecommunications and at the centre of UK Government.


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