Soft Power? Can it be measured? Part One

This is part one of a series of articles on the topic of whether soft power, or cultural diplomacy, can be measured. The series will look at several attempts to produce an Index and then draw conclusions.   This post looks at cultural factors.

Part two , which looks at a wider soft power approach is here


The old cliché rings true “if it can be measured it can and will be managed”.  Since Joseph Nye coined the phrase “soft power” in 1990 there have been few attempts to measure a country’s soft power.  Nye, merged the  background of the Cold War with the USA’s assumption of being the leader in everything to formulate his core idea:   “the ability to affect others to obtain preferred outcomes by the co-optive means of framing the agenda, persuasion and positive attraction”.    Soft power became one of the new touchstones of international relations.  Since 1990 it has been joined by nation brands (and branding) and public diplomacy to add to the long-standing cultural diplomacy and cultural cooperation themes.

The West’s Soft Power was presumed to have helped win the Cold War.   But there have been few attempts to measure soft power and this is the age of measurement.  Now we have a very thought-provoking attempt from the Institute of Government (a private NGO) and Monocle magazine.  The full report (download as pdf here) gives a sound review of soft power theory and the Index used to rank countries. Using 50 indicators covering politics, culture, business,  higher education and diplomacy the Index almost predictably places the USA, UK, France, Germany in the top four places.

It is commendable effort and should prompt a serious review in Foreign Ministries, Cultural institutes and others interested in the practice of those elements which can come under the umbrella of soft power.   Naturally every reader will both agree and disagree with the Index and its components.  To start the ball rolling here are a few of my thoughts.

* Is this an Index of international engagement rather than of soft power?  The 50 items, from number of embassies and cultural institutes to UNESCO World Heritage sites, to international students at universities and tourists certainly reflect the scope and depth of a countries’ engagement.   But do these translate into a soft power paradigm according to Nye’s definition?   It has been long recognised that people can make the clear distinction between a country’s culture and lifestyle and its current political leadership and positioning.   Green card applicants to the USA from Arab countries are not affected significantly by its stance over Israel.  The report does indeed raise this problem towards the end:  China is indeed increasingly its international engagement but given its human rights record, lack of freedom (western definition)  etc does it have the power of attraction?

* The current leader in the international comparison stakes is the Anholt-GfK Roper Brands Index.  Interestingly the top ten countries in this index are almost matched with the IfG/Monocle Index:  Italy and Netherlands swapping places.   The new index looks down on perceptions in favour of objective indicators.  Result seems the same.   This reinforces my view that this new Index is still  more an engagement identifier.

* The report admits it does not fully cover transnational networks.  In my view this is a serious weakness.  In many ways the most important of these networks if we return to Nye’s definition of attracting people to your way of thinking are now religious based.  Turkey’s growing influence is indeed partly based on its expanding international foreign policy. It is based more on its actions at home: a booming mixed economy with an Islamic flavour and the enormous outreach of the Gulen Foundation.  Saudi Arabia’s influence is driven not just by its oil but by the Wahhabi foundations and organisations funding mosques,  books, pamphlets, satellite TV etc.  The immediate evidence is the surprising vote for the Salafi Al-Noor Party in Egypt.  Brazilian politics are increasingly influenced by Christian evangelical organisations who are increasing their international engagement.  The USA’s evangelical movements are in the same direction, especially in Africa.  Western originated transnationals such as Amnesty International and Greenpeace are still influential but no longer have the field to their own in setting  the “values” agenda.  It remains to be seen how effective the loose network of Occupy succeeds in influencing the world away from disastrous neo-liberal economic thinking.  The more official transnational networks.. for example the European Union need bringing into the equation.

Overall much food for thought. As the report points out soft power is exercised over the long-term.  It is not that susceptible to short-term fixes or changes and at its heart it is not based on international engagement but on a countries’ domestic policies and how they are perceived.  The trends in international cultural diplomacy have moved on from the showcasing and overt marketing of a country’s cultural, educational and language assets. There is a far higher mutual engagement with people, co-operation rather than presentation with key topics being addressed, whether conflict resolution, moving to an ecological future, social cohesion.  Relevance to the audience’s needs brings change.   I discussed these developments in a paper to be published shortly by Real Instituto Elcano in Spain.  A version is on my previous website.





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