A world of increasing connections:
In the 21st century, a ‘great game’ is being played out in the world. Success is not measured in the strength of armies or the might of economies, but is increasingly played out across the airwaves, on the internet, in universities, in sport stadia and even in concert halls. This game is the growing international competition for soft power, ‘the ability to attract and co-opt rather than coerce’, and it is the fastest growing force in international relations.
The way nations, people and business interact around the world is changing fast. The international landscape is being transformed by digital hyper-connectivity, social media, and the rapid rise of direct people-to-people connections - through interaction unmediated by states. Contact between countries is no longer just conducted via embassies and agreements between governments, it’s something that is happening every second between individuals, institutions, businesses, charities and other bodies.
This presents a major challenge to traditional assumptions about the role of the state in international affairs. While no one would doubt that the state still has a major role to play, it is important to recognise that the state does not have primacy in the development of a country’s soft power. Soft power stems largely from factors outside the direct control of governments. This poses a major challenge for policy makers, but also opportunity for those who get it right.
How can a nation build its soft power?
The rise of people-to-people influence and the resultant diffusion of power away from governments suggest that persuasion, trust and what ordinary people around the world think of the UK will matter more and more to our future. But how can international reputation and connectivity be developed? Soft power cannot be built in the way a government would build an embassy or an air force. What a nation should do is to develop and share its most attractive assets. For the UK these will include its arts and culture, its education system, the values of tolerance and diversity by which its people live. Research undertaken by the British Council working with YouGov and Ipsos-Mori has shown that openly sharing our own assets and taking an interest in other people’s culture have been found to build trust in people from the UK and to improve the UK’s reputation as a good place to do business, study and visit.  Further analysis of the results has also shown that cultural contact also leads to an increased awareness of and interest in exploring business opportunities with the UK.
Cultural contact with a nation can transform people’s perceptions, as the British Ambassador to China said in 2013, “The Olympics opening ceremony and the UK Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo, together with a big UK arts festival last year and some good ‘GREAT’ events, have helped moved the dial on perceptions of the UK brand. Many Chinese people now associate us strongly with creativity as well as tradition and “English gentlemen”. This can help our exporters across the board – from advanced engineering to fashion. One of China’s fastest rising young politicians observed factually to me the other day that the UK was the most creative country in the world.”
The fact that many countries’ arts, cultural and education sectors are not directly controlled by the state can create challenges for policymakers who are intent on improving national reputation, but this independence can also be seen as a strength in soft power terms.
So what role can and should the state play?
Although the major sources of soft power are increasingly things which are not directly controlled by government, the state can still play an important role.
Government policy can support open and dynamic exchange between people – for example through its policy on providing funding for international cultural exchange or scholarships and also through its immigration and visa policies. We know that people who visit the UK and form friendships with people from the UK are more likely to feel positively towards the country and more likely to want to do business with our companies. Therefore, ensuring we have a policy framework that enables this to occur will be increasingly important.
It is also important to ensure that individual citizens develop global awareness and skills to engage internationally. If the UK’s population of over 63 million people is internationally literate and aware and uses social media and other networks to form relationships with people around the world, the result will be significantly increased influence and prosperity. Governments can therefore play a key role in equipping people with the language skills required to be successful in a more connected and networked future and also in ensuring that international issues are discussed as part of the school curriculum.
Last but not least, government can also play a crucial role by providing a supportive but not controlling environment to foster excellence in education, arts, culture and sports. By providing core funding and a supportive regulatory environment, while promoting innovation and encouraging an entrepreneurial approach to draw in other income, governments can make a real difference.
When the state does this well the results can be world class - take Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the Olympic Games, where the Government provided the funding and support, but he was given total artistic freedom to design the ceremony as he saw fit. Or our leading universities, which have become second only to the US in their global rankings in an environment where they have a high degree of independence from direct government oversight of their operations.
When states do this badly the results can have a negative impact on their international reputation – just consider the global media coverage of the imprisonment of Ai WeiWei in China. Indeed, any attempts to too tightly coordinate or control the cultural and educational image of a country are likely to undermine its authenticity and therefore its attractiveness to others.
What does this mean for the UK?
To stay competitive in the global soft power stakes, the UK is well served by continuing to support cultural exchange through independent, autonomous institutions and brands like the BBC, Premier League, universities and the UK’s theatres, galleries and museums. The trust that these bodies and the artists, educators, sportspeople, curators and broadcasters they support generate for the UK builds the relationships and environment that attracts people and businesses to choose the UK over competitors.
The UK does not wholly ‘state fund’ or ‘state control’ cultural bodies and universities. All the UK’s best cultural bodies and universities earn income, innovate, partner and are entrepreneurial in pursuit of their mission. However, public funding and a public service mission remain critical to their continued success, by providing the space to innovate, to take creative risks and to invest long term in a way that would not be possible in a purely commercial model. These bodies are also more aligned with government and national policy than in countries where there is no connection. As a result of government investment, the UK’s cultural and educational sector has developed world renowned quality that goes above and beyond what would have been achieved via a pure market model. And organisations like the British Council and BBC World Service are active in strategically important places where they would not be able to operate if dependent only on self-generated income. The UK’s soft power success is a direct result of this ‘mixed economy’ model.
Most importantly, government can provide core funding, but it can also ensure an optimal regulatory environment and help to foster the skills needed to ensure future growth and excellence. However, if the state starts to interfere in artistic or research output the results can be completely counterproductive. Recent research by Demos has added to the growing body of evidence saying that if governments are seen to be deliberately trying to influence public opinion overseas, it can invite suspicion and hostility. In addition, too much government intervention can stifle creativity and innovation. Indeed the UK has much reason to thank John Maynard Keynes for his development of the concept of Arm’s Length Status for the Arts Council – a model which also applies to all of our other major, national cultural and educational bodies and ensures that decisions are taken on artistic and academic merit and are not unduly influenced by the government policy of the day.
The “global race”
Other countries are playing catch up to the UK on international aid provision, are spending more than the UK on hard power assets, and investing heavily in their soft power offer. In 2012, the UK was ranked number 1 in the world for its soft power. But this could change fast. Much has been made of the Chinese government’s ambitions for its global network of Confucius Institutes, its international English language news services and its development aid spending in Africa, but it is not the only rapidly emerging soft power. Brazil, Turkey, the Gulf States, South Korea and others are all focussing on the potential of soft power to increase their global influence; to enhance their international reputation; and to attract international investors, students and tourists.
The UK has some of the strongest cultural and educational assets in the world, making it one of the most attractive places on earth. However, it cannot afford to rest on its laurels. The UK must continue to foster its entrepreneurial mixed-economy funding model and do more to develop internationally literate citizens with the language skills required for life in the 21st Century. This will be essential for the UK to continue to benefit from the prosperity and influence its soft power brings.
 Nye, JS (2004) Soft Power: The means to Success in world Politics New York: Public Affairs
 Trust Pays, British Council, May 2012, http://www.britishcouncil.org/new/Documents/full_trust_report.pdf
 Culture Means Business, British Council, May 2013, http://www.britishcouncil.org/sites/default/files/documents/culture-means-business-report.pdf
 Trust Pays, British Council, May 2012, http://www.britishcouncil.org/new/Documents/full_trust_report.pdf
 Influence and Attraction: Culture and the Race for Soft Power, British Council, June 2013 2013, http://www.britishcouncil.org/sites/default/files/documents/influence-and-attraction-report.pdf
 The History of the Arts Council, 1946-50, http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/who-we-are/history-arts-council/1946-50/
 Monocle Soft Power Survey, Monocle Magazine, Issue 49 December 2011/January 2012 http://monocle.com/magazine/issues/49/
 Guardian online 29 April 2013: http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/interactive/2013/apr/29/china-commits-billions-aid-africa-interactive