21/10/2011 11:48 BST | Updated 20/12/2011 05:12 GMT

Who's got the X-Factor on the Global Stage?

Against all previous form, I took part in a round of the X Factor this week. It was the familiar mix of competing styles and contingent emotion, followed by measures of first kind then merciless appraisal. My group didn't win: our blend of British "existential angst" with bold Brazilian overtones lost out and we were sent home.

Against all previous form, I took part in a round of the X Factor this week. It was the familiar mix of competing styles and contingent emotion, followed by measures of first kind then merciless appraisal. My group didn't win: our blend of British "existential angst" with bold Brazilian overtones lost out and we were sent home.

Except this wasn't Cheryl and Simon on ITV4 but their elegant equivalents at Wilton Park, the boot camp of Soft Power (overseen by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office) in the UK, in a brash geopolitical simulation of the game show. We had just spent three precious days of everyone's time presenting, debating and yes, performing our surprisingly diverse understandings of what constitutes soft power - defined by Joseph Nye as attraction between nations - and how it might be converted into something worth having, whether that be business contracts or moral authority.

The British Council often refers to the different forms and styles of governmental influence as being on a continuum, with simple public relations (broadcasting the good stuff about your country) at one end, and cultural diplomacy (influencing opinion about your country through arts and civics) at the other.

The first is unsubtle and transactional, with clear objectives and goals; the second is infinitely subtle, offering no control over outcomes (after all, who can know the long term effect of Jedward?) In between lies traditional diplomacy (a communication network between politicians and civil servants) and public diplomacy (similar, but between the government and the public, as exemplified by the rise of social media).

In relation to these distinctions, no one is really sure whether soft power is a broad term covering everything that is not hard power (that is, the use of force). Or is it in a distinct category of its own, shifting variously between public and cultural diplomacy?

And anyway, does it matter? In our conference, the answer to that seemed to depend on who was asking. To those whose job it is to win the country more contracts, it doesn't matter much which tool along that continuum is used to achieve them. But to those whose aim it is to win the country more friends, it does: you don't earn many of those by simply looking at the world as your audience, nor your market.

In our gathering - soft power actors at the top of their game, from Facebook to Nato, senior civil servants to heads of NGOs - half the room was pushing towards ever more effective brand management, naming and reaching mostly economic targets. The other half was chanting back off, stand back, let the body (human as well as politic) do the talking: how you are being in the world, displaying your values and intentions, will determine your attraction over the long term. In X Factor terms, it was the slick professional versus the naturally charismatic. And as we all know from the show, there's room for both.

One or two countries' stories however, seemed to push us all towards a new appraisal of what is and what is not possible for states hoping to grow their influence. In a session on How To Deploy Soft Power Assets, we heard how Israel is beginning to address the limits of its conventional powers to generate attraction in the face of the long conflict in the region.

Having embarked on a programme of engagement on a multitude of levels - schools, cultural organisations, special interest networks - Israel is now beginning to be heralded for its music, art and food rather than its military prowess. It's not a complete departure from the past - Israel has for some time been an attraction for the global gay community due to its own Foreign Office's very early recognition of same sex rights (pensions, insurance etc) over 20 years ago.

On the surface this is a simple marketing campaign, but given the troubled view of Israel in the global community, it's nothing short of a daring attempt to create a new reality for itself, one in which people outside of the region can have a positive relationship with the country irrespective of its, rather major, ongoing problems.

Unsurprisingly, several of the delegates objected to what they saw as a deliberate diversion from - or disappearing of - the daily suffering of the people in the region. Others however acknowledged the complex nature of the task: how could Israel improve its long term chances, and indeed, those of the region, despite the current problems which seem locked in a hard power narrative that is not shifting? Instead of a zero sum conflict, where every gain by one party is a loss for the other, is this an attempt at transcendence? Are the doubters right to deny Israel a chance of regaining some space to build a cultural base for a different future, one that might benefit others too?

Regardless of these aspirations for a more convivial global story for the country, the Israeli Spring of the last few months has shown a new social dynamic there. Could this be described as expressing a new desire for a better, economically stable life - a life beyond the wars? Maybe the new reality offered by this re-imagining of Israel will, in the long term, lead to a regional settlement not through a military victory, but as a result of a change in the domestic population's tolerance of conflict without end.

Norway's story on the other hand offered a lesson at the other end of the scale of agency. In a session questioning whether soft power was unequivocally a 'force for good', we heard how Norway came to 'own peace' - arguably the best soft power asset imaginable. Rather than a series of clever moves of deliberate branding, we heard how the national image was firmly in the soft, positive personal values of the Norwegian people - egalitarianism, non-aggression, communitarianism.

Having once been an impoverished nation, the Norwegians built their economy on explicit values within a rights based society. Currently they are involved in 20 long term global partnerships for peace from Palestine to Sri Lanka: none are interventionist, but proceed through the development of networks, standing back to allow new relationships to arise. Credibility, claimed the speaker, arises from authenticity - that is, a consistency between internal and external intentions and behaviour: you can't cut and paste a character onto a nation, others will see through it. Rather, work to identify the true character of your people and nurture it. Amplify what you have only if it is soundly based and with a good vehicle - like the Nobel Prize or the Olympics. Don't be a wannabe great nation.

Perhaps the most surprising participant in the soft power gathering was Nato. Caught between a hard power rationale for existence, but an increasingly soft powered way of engaging with the public - whether it be soldiers tweeting and Facebook updating, or senior officials adapting to the new world of strategic communications - Nato is looking for a new way to be in the world. Interestingly, smart power - Joseph Nye's idea of a balance between hard power and soft power - does not entirely answer the question: in a world of growing supra-national networks, Nato remains the default agent of force across the globe. Where does all of Nato's work in conflict prevention, building infrastructure, binding communities and keeping the peace fit in?

Just seeing Nato at the table prompted this question for me: is it time for us all to move beyond the conception of soft power as an alternative way to get your own way in the world? That distinction was made in a post Vietnam world, when the US was looking to compensate for an inconceivable defeat by a small nation: introducing soft power assured the nation that its dominance was still assured- only in a different form.

Maybe it's time to recognise the shifting distribution of power across the globe. More and different countries are showing leadership for different contributions to the whole - Norway was a good example. And who is enjoying the escalating competition between China and the US for the top position? Instead of a hard power umbrella under which smart means a balance of two types of aggression in a world wide race for domination, how about adopting a soft power umbrella?

It requires a leap in thinking to know what this might generate, but it could mean more commitment to a different kind of globalisation - more starfish than spider as the business world might say - in which the emphasis shifts to a governmental and institutional capacity for being in reciprocal relationships with each other. Under a soft power umbrella, smart would mean finding a balance between more pro-active and more passive ways of making one's mark in the world - between doing and being as the word had it at Wilton Park.

In that world, X Factor, as a celebration of all that is worst about competition - a drawn out spectacle of losing, with only a very few winners - might go out of fashion. What could replace it is a matter for speculation: Y Factor anyone?