THE BLOG

Why Soft Power Is Hard for Governments

18/06/2013 17:00 BST | Updated 18/08/2013 10:12 BST

In today's 24/7 news environment, world governments have it hard. In my experience - working at the centre of UK government in the Cabinet Office a few years back - you have to know your position on absolutely everything and be able to articulate it in a second. And the same is increasingly true for governments around the world.

Working with the think tank Demos, the British Council has been looking at 'soft power' - how countries influence each other. When Demos last looked in 2007, communications and transport technologies were transforming the ability of people to meet physically and virtually. They discovered more and more of the content of interaction between peoples was cultural. And they concluded that culture would become a more powerful factor in relations between states.

They got that right. And not just between states. The relations between government and governed have been shaken and stirred worldwide in Twitter storms, WikiLeaks and flashmobs. The boundaries, legalities and revolutionary power of 'social' are uncontrolled and uncontrollable by world governments.

A great deal of the UK's 'soft power' is now created directly and daily by the ordinary and extraordinary people of the UK: teachers, artists, sportspeople, young people, commentators and raconteurs to name a few. What we blog, tweet, tag, snap, post, curate and comment on speaks volumes for who we are - and reaches all four corners of the world through diasporas driven by the twin currencies of 'interest' and 'followership'.

A central tenet for democracies is to protect free speech and the freedom to hold different beliefs. But part of the problem for Western Governments is that they are largely denied this right. Governments can't have a range of views or a variety of beliefs - they have to know exactly what they stand for, and be for - or against - absolutely everything.

And, as the new Demos report for the British Council shows, this makes connecting with people harder for governments - especially people in other countries.

If you take artists, scientists, educators and young people from the UK and have them talk with Americans, they'll generally find a lot to talk about. Take Brits and put them with Afghans, Iranians, Syrians or Zimbabweans, and they'll have things in common too. But national governments can find that engagement harder.

Sharing culture is hard when you can't entertain another point of view, tough when you have to stick to your line, and impossible when what you say can immediately be turned into a headline and used as a stick to beat you. This is the lot of modern governments.

The old methods of international engagement - elite to elite (ambassadors) and elite to mass (broadcast and propaganda) are still alive and kicking, as is traditional cultural diplomacy - sharing your finest cultural wares. And other countries, like Germany for instance, commit far more Government funding in support of their international cultural and educational ambitions than the UK does. But the big challenge comes from the South and East.

Brazil is doing more, Qatar is investing enormously. But of course, and inevitably, the most significant new force in 'soft power' is China. During its 79-year history, the British Council has set up for the UK in 196 places. Our Chinese counterpart, the Confucius Institute, has spread to 322 around the globe in less than 10 years.

But the good news for the UK is Demos conclude that governments can't create 'soft power' alone: governments can't control culture and their direct intervention creates suspicion. Governments do have a key role in supporting the sharing of language, education and culture, but they achieve this best at arm's-length. And UK government has always done this well.

Some of it governments have to fund - the market won't do it - but, perhaps most of all, governments must pay more attention to learning about the wants and needs of other cultures and peoples, and focus less on projecting themselves. Culture is a conversation, not a monologue.

To state the obvious, people can now connect and create content, share ideas and learn about each other at the speed of light. And this is where a lot of the UK's power of attraction now lies - in our openness, creativity, content creation, artistic expression, diversity and plurality.

Today governments simply can't control the global conversation - and if they try, the attraction evaporates. But, by creating the conditions, supporting their cultural institutions and helping their artists, educators and young people to go out into the world, governments can help bring a world of opportunity back home.