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The Importance of Soft Power

25/06/2014 15:50 BST | Updated 25/08/2014 10:59 BST

Most people are familiar with what is known as Hard Power. The idea that someone with more swords, bigger guns and overwhelming military ability can force someone to do something against their will but which is almost entirely in favour of those holding the gun. History is full of situations, the ancient Chinese, Persians, Romans all the way through to the British, French, American and Russians.

These days Hard Power has fallen out of favour. It's simply not palatable for any major nation to tell any other what to do and how to live by threat of military invasion. Russia has succeeded in invading part of Ukraine but it is yet to be seen how permanent this is and even if Crimea remains Russian in the bigger picture it has highlighted to its neighbours how unattractive current Russian values are.

So what is Soft Power? Though the ideas behind Soft Power go back millenia, the term was originally coined by Joseph Nye in his 1990 book Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power. Soft Power is pretty much the most important concept in the world right now. It is the ability to influence people without the use or threat of force. On a narrower definition it is to influence governments due to use of diplomacy, shared interests or economic favours and more widely culturally with popular culture, ideas and lifestyles. It doesn't even have to be a state or people to successfully use Soft Power, Pope John Paul II used it to great effect in Poland and across Eastern Europe.

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Whilst Hard Power might win in the short-term, in the longer term it is likely to be negated by Soft Power and popular culture. In school everyone would fear the bully and if you were cornered in the playground by him or her you'd likely hand over your chocolate or lunch to avoid getting into a fight. As soon as they had left the vicinity though, you would be hating them more than before. Your friends would support you and most of the school would only do what the bully said for the few moments they were being threatened and in every other way the bully would end up ostracised and precisely without the power and influence they craved.

The same happens internationally. No-one wants to be invaded and temporarily a bullied nation may temporarily capitulate but in the end either their natural culture will win through or they will be attracted to other nations who offer more than a foreign occupation, dictatorship or cruise missile through the window.

A large part of soft power comes from the inherent openness and vibrancy of the people of the country. The Soviet Union was militarily extremely powerful but artistically and culturally is was almost bankrupt. Young Russians were enamoured by American and Western culture rather than their own. Similarly few outside the Soviet Union wanted to have anything cultural from the country let alone desire Soviet above their own culture. Modern day Russia is in a similar position. President Putin recognises the value of soft power and desperately wants neighbouring and former Soviet states to stay under his area of influence but has largely only military and to a degree economic power and to the people of neighbouring countries the more they are forced to like Russia, the more likely they are to look elsewhere.

Of course the shape of the 21st Century will be more influenced by China than any other for around 3,000 years. Again the Chinese leadership are insistent that they are not to be feared but unfortunately for them, all we ever hear about is increasing military spending and aggressive tactics in trying to take over vast tracts of the ocean that to many reasonable observers would belong to their neighbours. Whilst we might want the wealth of the Chinese élite, few outside China want the limited political freedom or the Chinese culture itself, perhaps due to its unfamiliarity but also because in many ways it is inherently different from many other parts of the world. China also suffers from another disadvantage, its language. Whilst the United States inherited the English language from Great Britain, China is not in such a lucky position. Whilst global viewers can switch between the various English-speaking shows relatively easy and in so doing pick up values, beliefs and ways of thinking and doing it is unlikely that the Chinese languages will become the lingua franca so to speak.

There is a big risk in exerting Soft Power, for it to work properly it has to come almost naturally from a people and country. By showing off your culture you can always risk turning people away from your country and out of your sphere of influence. One the one level it's great for America to have McDonald's around the world. All the people who visit the restaurants become more susceptible to American influence and life-style but if you've been to McDonald's and hate it or come away with the impression that if the best thing an American life-style has to offer is a squashed up burger and unhealthy fries then it can also alienate people away from culture.

The same goes for every other Soft Power Country. It's all well and good for Britain to show the world its history and pageantry but if it gives off too much of an impression of living in the past and doesn't highlights its very modern aspects then it risks being written off as old-fashioned and not contemporary enough.

The real trick is to create the right mix and have your culture as seen as most desirable whilst also having behind the scenes influence in terms of diplomacy and economics.

With Hard Power becoming not only becoming socially and politically impossible but also economically more difficult, Soft Power is becoming more important. The ability to get what you want without force and possible shape the world to your liking is something China is doing well in Africa because it offers help with construction and infrastructure without any of the conditions that western nations put on some help. Africa gets itself upgraded roads, trains and sewers whilst China gets its people exposed to the world, maybe creating Chinese populations in Africa and hoping that next time Africa wants something, it will come to China rather than America or Europe. Of course the Soviet Union tried to do the same with Egypt in particular playing the situation brilliant by having both the west and particularly the Soviets plough in all their money and build their infrastructure only to kick out the foreign influence when it was all complete.

The top 10 Soft Power nations all having a basic liberal society and economy and a somewhat hip culture, after all no-one aspires to listen to a boring, one-dimensional and controlled society. Here are the 2013 rankings as decided by Monocle

10. Italy - Long held back by its seemingly corrupt politics and still suffering from a terrible economy it remains a desirable country which offers everyone something positive. Whether it be history, museums, food, fashion or sport. We'd all rather be Italian than North Korean wouldn't we?

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9. Canada - Overshadowed by its more powerful neighbour to the south Canada is growing in economic, military and cultural power. Many top singers and actors that work in the USA are Canadian. It exports things like trains across Europe and for many in Europe it feels slightly more homely than the USA. It's an expert in Soft Power and it's getting better. No-one hates Canada do they?

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8. Switzerland is almost the epitome of Soft Power. A small country that doesn't seem to be militarily important in any way. It might not be the coolest place in the world but it is a hub of world finance, an expert in diplomacy and renowned for its clocks, knives, trains and beautiful clean countryside.

7. Australia is the top ranking southern hemisphere nation. It could be higher but its restrictions on illegal immigration and conservative values on things like Gay Marriage reduce its positive reputation in parts of the world. However it is famous for its sporting success, modern energetic cities and the happiness of its citizens. If it wasn't so hot and far away, I'd be there in a flash.

6. Sweden is the leading nordic nation and whilst not being the most exciting on the list it trumps most on the basics of good governance, equality, social care and immigration. It's TV shows are also becoming increasing hits especially across Europe. I'm not the only person who finds "The Bridge" to be the best cop drama in the world and whilst showing serial killers might not be the obvious way to promote yourself all these viewers are exposed to Swedish language, culture and beautiful city and landscapes which might be enough to make their next foreign holiday to Sweden rather than anywhere else.

5. Japan is an unusual country for Soft Power. Traditionally it has been a very isolationist state and if you're isolationist you aren't attractive to others. However the country is opening up, its Prime Minister Abe is something of a star and creating a buffer to China and its Shinto religion enjoying huge growth and is currently all the rage at UNESCO. Like China it is a culture that is alien to many of us but unlike China, Japan is seen as cool and increasingly open and it has the 2020 Olympics to look forward to.

4. France in many ways is at a low point. Economically in ruins and politically torn, it does have major problems that need resolving for the future. However France has a culture and identity that almost every other country in the world could only dream of. Fashion and Food and the head of French Speaking world, its stubbornness to refuse to accept English speaking hegemony is somehow endearing and many would prefer the laid back sun-filled if poorer life in France than a richer and more hectic one of the three nations above it.

3. United States of America. For many years the USA was the number 1 in Soft Power and Hard Power but recently its Soft Power is on the wane. It's system of government is more comfortable with Hard Power and the combination of a less than enchanting Obama and to foreign people the crazy ideas of hard-line Republicans is turning people away from America. Seemingly unwilling to provide Global Leadership any longer and perennially on the wrong side of the environmental and social-care arguments it is at odds with many others.

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Still hugely benefiting from its Hollywood films, TV industry and music culture plus attractive to those from impoverished nations due to its sheer size and opportunity, to many in wealthier lands it looks less enticing than their own. America still has the capacity to return to the number 1 Soft Power nation but has to fundamentally change some aspects of its character which is incredibly hard for any nation to do otherwise it may fall further down the rankings. However the American Dream and democratic principles will always see it as a Soft Power Superpower.

2. United Kingdom

The U.K. took over from the USA as the number 1 Soft Power for a few years riding high on the Olympics and the Royal weddings and jubilees. It has maybe the best museums and galleries and is an expert at big events. Just as importantly its foreign aid schemes and bodies such as the British Council operate across the world taking a long-term view of development and engendering future good-will and influence.

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Britain no longer has an empire but London continues to be the world economic powerhouse and a centre of fashion and culture and history. Nowhere else do sky scrapers sit next to castles. The main threats to the Soft Power are in Britain potentially leaving the European Union and in cutbacks to the BBC that essentially exports Britain to the world. However a rising population and the global use of English are huge advantages. Most basically of all it is the inherent values of fairness and freedom combined with modern diversity which mean its likely that Cool Britannia will stay at or near the top of Soft Power.

1. Germany! Germany maybe not be the obvious choice to be the number 1 country in the Soft Power rankings. It's history is shorter and obviously less attractive than its rivals but visitors to Germany tend to love the place. Berlin is trendy and without the crowds or expense of London or New York. Germany is a byword for efficiency and engineering and one of the few western nations that always has a trade surplus. The whole world wants BMWs and Audis and economically it leads Europe. The reason Germany is ranked number 1 this year is largely due to Angela Merkel. She is a brilliant leader and knows how diplomacy works and at the moment at the centre of things with problematic countries like Russia and Syria. Germany's main problem is one of demographics, its population is ageing rapidly and in less than 25 years is likely its economy and population will be surpassed by Britain and France which will have repercussions in Europe and perhaps the world in the relatively near future..

None of these rankings are set in stone and they can change slightly from year to year. There is nothing stopping any nation not on the list from making it big in the world of Soft Power. However it will take more than economic and military power and instead it will be more one of desirability. Instead of China it may well be South Korea, Malaysia or the Philippines that comes out in some future top 10 list or perhaps Brazil or Turkey. There are also a pile of European countries such as Norway, the Netherlands and Austria who are overwhelmingly more culturally significant than more militarily powerful nations. Either way it is undoubtedly a good thing for the world generally that we are moving into an era where it is not the power of the military that matters but the spirit of its people's that count.

I hope you made it through and liked my simple guide to Soft Power. Don't invade my blog but if you enjoyed it why not show some Soft Power love and leave me a Like or a comment :-) here or follow me on Twitter @Stephen_Liddell