The Blog

Can Britain Claim Greater 'Soft Power' Thanks to Iron Maiden?

British music, art, and culture in general has reached every corner of the world and this does create a favourable impression of the nation - useful for business and politics in addition to just feeling a bit more welcomed when visiting a new place as a tourist.

I was recently invited to attend a Wilton Park round-table discussion titled "Applying soft power: the Brazilian and British perspectives" in São Paulo. Wilton Park is a think tank funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to explore policy issues that affect the UK in various ways.

My own contribution focused on how social media and popular culture - such as music - can have influence as a diplomatic tool. Or to put it another way, can Facebook and British pop hits from the 80s help the FCO diplomats?

Diplomacy is at the top of the news agenda at present. With North Korea openly talking about nuclear Armageddon diplomats will be working in smoke-filled rooms brokering solutions to the crisis.

But international diplomacy is not just an activity that takes place when politicians are trying to avert military action; it is a process that takes place twenty-four hours a day. Often people who do not possess any formal government role undertake this soft form of diplomacy.

I'm talking about soft power. This is the ability of a nation to broadcast their opinion and values without dictating them by force. Hollywood is possibly the best example. American movies have reached every corner of the world, giving an insight into American life - as the movies describe it - to people from Addis Ababa to Zimbabwe.

Some movies are good and some are bad, but the sheer volume of movies being produced in America and distributed globally give people across the world a sense of American values without ever reading the US constitution or listening to a single speech in Congress.

And the UK is also very good at soft power, probably second only to the US globally. In part this is because of the power of the English language as the global lingua franca of business. I have personally had jobs, based in London, for German and French companies where employees working in those countries had to speak English to get a job - can you imagine the uproar if French was required as standard to get a job in London?

The BBC is a beacon of soft power with influence far beyond the UK - and not just because of the international popularity of Top Gear. BBC World News has a global audience of 239m a week and the BBC World Service reaches over 180m a week.

The British Council estimates that over one billion people are always in the process of learning English and they are regularly training over 130,000 people at any one time with their own courses. The British Council has a rich set of free English courses available with support across various social networks allowing students to essentially learn for free, just paying if they want to take an official IELTS test.

But soft power doesn't have to mean just English courses or the BBC News. Is it possible to quantify just how many people have visited the UK from all over the world just because they love the music of the Beatles, or The Smiths, or David Bowie, or Pink Floyd?

Do you remember the music section from Danny Boyle's spectacular London Olympic opening ceremony last year? Global hit after hit rang out from the stadium and all these songs have been sung in showers the world over for decades.

When I moved recently from São Paulo to Serra Negra - a move from one of the largest cities in the world to a small mountain city about the same size as Buxton and also famous for the local mineral water - the first place my neighbours invited me to go was the English club. Serra Negra has a club for people who want to speak English and they had never had a person from England in the club, so I was especially welcomed.

At the last meeting I taught the group how Cockney slang works and now I'm arranging a screening of 'Only Fools and Horses' with flashcards. I'm expecting to create a group of Brazilians who know that when Rodders asks Del Boy for a pony he doesn't mean a young horse.

British music, art, and culture in general has reached every corner of the world and this does create a favourable impression of the nation - useful for business and politics in addition to just feeling a bit more welcomed when visiting a new place as a tourist.

Last week I was in the audience in São Paulo as The Cure played their hits to around 35,000 people. People who could sing every word, even if they feel too shy to speak using English.

The British diplomatic mission in Brazil launched a public diplomacy initiative last year that focused on how to leverage some of this goodwill from artists, sportspeople, and other highly visible British celebrities because there are opportunities in abundance for the British to be visible here in Brazil.

The England football team will play Brazil in June at the reopening of the famous Maracanã stadium in Rio - the stadium where the World Cup final will be played next year. The enormous Rock in Rio music festival in September features an entire stage just focused on British and Irish music - with some special surprise acts planned for the fans.

All these events may seem frivolous in political or business terms, but this misses an important point. Music, culture, art, the output of the BBC, and a desire to take lessons in English all shape how people see the UK from outside the country.

The Rock in Rio music festival runs for a week and is screened daily on national TV in Brazil. Muse and Iron Maiden might not feel they are explicitly selling UK plc when they get up and perform, but you can guarantee that some fans are going to book a trip to Britain because of the shows. Some business leaders are going to choose to invest in the UK because they can speak English as a second language. And some politicians are going to be more disposed to try striking a deal with their British counterparts for all the reasons above.

Soft power is critically important as the world becomes more interdependent and connected. If I were a British diplomat walking into an important trade deal and I knew that my foreign counterpart's favourite band was British (maybe I sneaked a look at his iPod) then I know I would feel confident of striking a great deal before the conversation even begins. Run to the hills? More like Follow Me...

Popular in the Community