"Soft Power" is Public Policy - but we need to be clear what that means

29 August 2018

“Soft Power” is an important element of foreign policy. However it depends on a creative alignment of domestic and external policies and a willingness to think about all options for delivery including the digital. It also depends on an improved evidence base.

Earlier this year, I attended the launch of the 2018 report of the Portland Soft Power 30, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The Director of the Museum and a distinguished panel debated soft power and which country topped the league table - the answer was the UK. This conclusion was both surprising and unsurprising. However, it stimulated some thoughts. What was this soft power that was being measured? What was being measured? Who was being measured, and how was it done?

While there had been some movement in comparative rankings in the 4 years of the Soft Power 30, it was still the same small group of countries that were at the "top". By focusing on the  quasi-normative nature of Nye's concept of soft power (ie attraction), the criteria by which soft power was defined in the Soft Power 30 did not take account of the darker side. They did not capture the true flow of influence in the world of today.

Towards the end of 2016, in the still early days of the Brexit process, while I was still working at the Centre for Cultural Relations at the University of Edinburgh, I wrote the literature review for the British Council report called “Soft Power Today, Measuring the Influences and Effects”. The report which is still cited frequently today, most recently by the Australian Government in their soft power review.

The literature review was a fairly traditional piece of work, which pulled together thinking on the state of soft power in the world as it was at the end of 2016. As with any literature review, it was possible to summarise what politicians, academics and practitioners thought was the significance of soft power, but it was not possible to go beyond that to make any claims as to what its (measurable) impact might be, particularly as the concept is highly contested.

The report found that soft power mattered  — at least at the end of 2016. That already seems like a long time ago, an earlier age, given the constantly accelerating pace of events, the rise of populist nationalism, and growing challenge to multilateralism and “soft” policies that favour positive international engagement.

At that time, UK Ministers were lining up to stress the importance of the UK’s soft power to its global engagement post-Brexit. They were no doubt right to do so, but it was still not clear how this enthusiasm would manifest itself in practice, and how they planned to build an image of the post-EU UK as a good and reliable international partner, particularly one with a "deep and special" relationship with the EU post-Brexit. It is still not clear, although there are some signs of a way ahead, such as the Prime Minister's current visit to Africa.

The other perennial question in discussion of soft power, is why does the case for taking soft power seriously still have too be made? One problem is in the concept itself. It is more an academic than a public policy term - and it is highly contested in academia. If, however, it is thought of as an important part of a policy toolkit, used by most powerful and influential countries, then it can be approached more empirically, and its effects assessed as part of a wider policy context. 

It is, however,  a strange area of public policy which straddles foreign policy and mostly domestic educational, cultural, scientific, media and sports policies. It also includes all sorts of non-state and sub-state actors with agendas of their own. Unless a state takes a "hard" view of soft power (eg Russia) it is hard to see how soft power assets can be mobilised easily without either considerable sticks or carrots.

However, if “soft power” actually is a domain of public policy, there is no prima facie reason why its success cannot be measured in the same way as that of any other area of policy — did it achieve its objectives?

If the above description is recognised as having some validity, there are two important questions: firstly, clarify what is expected from soft power, and secondly, clarify how soft power works across traditional policy boundaries. 

This has implications for political leadership and what that means in the world of today. It also has implications for civil society - those non-state and sub-state actors who are enrolled, or who enrol themselves into foreign relations as "diplomats" - the roll-call of prefixes to the word diplomat reached new heights (or depths) this week with Theresa May's "Strictly diplomacy" in South Africa, but is applied with unimaginative vigour to all those engaged in global or international challenges or activities of one sort or another: "hip-hop diplomacy" (ageing hip-hoppers), "gastro-diplomacy" (cooks), etc.

There is, however, in all this debate and activity, an alarming lack of evidence. There is a need, for example, to take digital influence seriously,  for public policy to catch up with commercial practice, for more and better analysis and interpretation based on up to date techniques of big data analysis, developed for the public good .

From all this, there are signs off a way forward. What was true in 2016 is mostly still true today. We need better theories, practices, professionalism. We need toolkits. We need people who deal in evidence and understand how influence actually works, in different contexts. We need a policy framework which looks ti the future, rather than being captured by the institutions and practices of the past.