The UK last week topped the charts in a ranking of Soft Power compiled by ComRes, Portland and Facebook. The Soft Power 30 ranks the world’s top 30 countries by their ability to attract and persuade through culture, good government, and international reach.
At the launch event last Tuesday, there was a spirited debate on the merits of ‘hard power’ versus ‘soft power’, featuring US Ambassador Matthew Barzan, Sir Ciarán Devane of the British Council, Fabrice Pothier of NATO, the FT’s Gideon Rachman, and our own Katharine Peacock.
Gideon Rachman (FT), Matthew Barzan (US Ambassador to UK), Fabrice Pothier (NATO) at Soft Power 30 launch event.
What distinguishes ‘hard’ from ‘soft’ power
A common misunderstanding is that ‘hard’ power means military might alone. But any form of coercion – military or economic – can be seen as the exercising of hard power.
‘Soft’ power, on the other hand, is the attractiveness of a country and its actions, which draws people towards it, and enables it to influence global affairs. It is not a replacement for ‘hard’ power, but can be used in many situations to secure better outcomes for all parties.
Does ‘soft’ power actually exist?
Anyone questioning its existence need only look at the historic agreement reached on Iran’s nuclear programme. While the hard power of economic sanctions put Iran in a difficult position, it is no coincidence that the country’s election in 2013 of British-educated President Hassan Rouhani opened doors that had been closed for decades. That is the soft power of cultural exchange in action.
In Europe, we have seen the dangers of relying on hard power alone, with Brussels, Germany and the European Central Bank expecting the Greek people to buckle under economic pressure. But without a more optimistic vision of Greece’s future, the resultant high-stakes brinkmanship has damaged all sides.
Measuring fuzzy concepts
If it exists, how do we measure something as elusive as ‘soft power’? Like many of the things ComRes measures – brand, reputation, awareness, and understanding – we know from experience that they are real, but narrowing them down to an individual metric can be extremely challenging.
In poker, the strength of your hand is a product of a) the cards you hold; b) the situation in which you play them; and, crucially, c) how others perceive them.
Likewise, soft power depends not just on objective assets – embassies, cultural investments, and so on – but on how attractive the rest of the world perceives you, your culture, and your actions to be.
So ComRes began by asking more than 7,000 people across six continents in 16 different languages how favourable or unfavourable they felt towards other countries. We then used regression analysis to dig even further into the data, to identify the key predictors of favourability towards countries.
Doing the right thing in global affairs
The strongest driver of favourability towards another country is the perception that it “does the right thing in global affairs”, corroborating findings we have previously observed in other international research projects.
Whereas the Soft Power 30 ranks the UK first, Germany second, and the United States third, our subjective soft power model shows a rather different picture:
The countries leading the way in terms of perceptions are Canada, Switzerland, and Germany, miles ahead of major powers like the United States, Russia, and China.
There are two notes of caution, though. First, as Jürgen Habermas argued last week, Angela Merkel risks ‘gambling away’ Germany’s hard-earned reputation as a global force for good with its actions in Greece.
Second, as David Cameron prepares to take Britain back into war in the Middle East, in addition to having a concrete impact on short-term events, he will also need to be seen to be “doing the right thing”. It may affect our ability to influence the long-term outcome.