UK tops soft power list for 2018

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According to the comprehensive annual soft power index by Portland Communications, the UK is once again the leading soft power nation.

The UK reclaims the number one position in the league table that it originally held when the annual rankings began in 2015, having slipped to second place in the last two years. The authors acknowledge that the UK’s success may come as something of a surprise when British politics are apparently consumed by Brexit. But the fundamentals of the UK’s soft power remain strong. Education, culture, and international engagement are key strengths drawing people to look positively towards the UK.

The UK regained its number one status by pushing France down into second place. Germany comes in third, followed by the US (which has fallen from first in 2016). The rest of the top thirty is mostly dominated by European countries, along with Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Japan ranks highly, in at number five, having risen steadily from eighth place in 2015. South Korea is the next Asian country, in twentieth place, followed by Singapore in twenty first. The only South American countries to make the top table, Brazil and Argentina, take the twenty ninth and thirtieth spots, with Brazil having fallen from twenty third place in 2015. China and Russia, with their different approaches to soft power, rank twenty seventh and twenty eighth respectively.

So do rankings like the Portland index, and the things that they set out to measure, really matter? The answer is yes. In an increasingly globalised, connected, multi-polar world, soft power – the ability to influence through attraction rather than coercion – clearly is important. And social media and instant global communications mean that even a country’s domestic policies and positions also have international implications for its soft power, and hence its prosperity and influence. And as power diffuses away from governments, the strength of the many non-governmental institutions which constitute a nation’s soft power becomes ever more important. In that sense, the UK result tells us much about soft power: it should be no surprise that the country, with its huge strengths in independent cultural and educational institutions, should continue to rank so highly on soft power, in spite of any uncertainty as a result of Brexit. Clearly these strengths are a matter of great importance to the UK as it seeks to reposition itself as a ‘global’ Britain.

Yet the importance of soft power goes further than that. The report argues that it is also vital for the maintenance of the rules-based international order, which it suggests is currently under threat from a combination of populist policies in some nations, shifts in American foreign policy, and the rise of new centres of global influence. The importance of soft power in this context stems from the way in which it alone can align values, norms, objectives, and ultimately behaviours in a world without a single dominant power. In that sense, argues Jonathon McClory (author of the report), soft power is the ‘glue’ which held together and expanded the rules-based system in recent decades. And only through soft power can a shared international vision and set of values to underpin that system in the future be supported – a process that can only be successful if it is a matter of mutual buy-in, rather than imposition or coercion. Indeed, independence and mutuality have long been identified as important features of soft power.

Indeed, it could be argued that the UK’s position in the Portland table is a vindication of a certain approach to soft power, manifested by the relative independence from government of its most important soft power institutions (the Portland report picks out the British Council and the BBC World Service for particular praise, as well as independent British art, music, film, fashion, and sport). This is a contrast to other, more state-controlled approaches to soft power.

Is the concept of soft power a western construct?

There are however countries that are globally very influential but which fail to make the Portland list. India is the outstanding example. A diverse, democratic, G20 economy that is taking an increasingly active and important role in the world, India’s absence from the chart feels like a real anomaly. Indian culture is globally in high demand, whether its Bollywood movies, yoga, cuisine, or Indian businesses, are major international players. India is increasingly important in the technology and innovation sectors, so why does it fail to make the grade? The example of India raises several questions:

  • Is the sampling used for Portland’s international survey in some way skewing results? For example, would India (and for that matter China) do better if the survey research included more states from Africa and fewer Western or Asian countries?
  • In picking the metrics to describe soft power, is something being missed, or are factors that favour Western states given undue prominence?
  • Is the concept of soft power a Western construct? Is it the Portland approach, or is it in fact the whole concept of soft power itself that is somehow biased in favour of Western models of what constitutes attractiveness?

Yet, imperfect as it must be, the Portland Soft Power 30 remains a valuable and important annual intervention in the debate on soft power that gets people thinking and talking about soft power and the essential role it plays in the success of nations. The UK’s position at the top of the table should be a source of pride but not complacency. As it heads towards Brexit, and with many of its in-built relative advantages likely to be eroded as other countries catch up, the UK must continue to invest in and build its soft power. Given the nature of the concept, and of the UK’s soft power in particular, this will be a matter for non-governmental organisations in sectors like culture and education as much as it is for politicians. When it comes to soft power at least, the UK is back on top of the world. It is in its clear interests do everything it can to stay there.