Why Britain can't afford to fall behind in the race for soft power

The west must maintain its financial support for culture and cultural diplomacy. If it fails to do so, China’s gain in global influence and trade will be our loss.

In spite of all the tweeting and electronic wizardry, the G8 meeting in Ulster was a blast from the past. It was a period costume drama, with men in suits and ties meeting to sort things out. It looked outdated because the world has changed. A new report from the British Council and Demos, Influence and Attraction: Culture and the Race for Soft Power in the 21st Century, explains what has been going on: there has been a revolution in physical and virtual contact between people. That has created a new operating context for politics and the need for a different kind of diplomacy.

Cheap flights, 24-hour news, migration and the internet have combined to create a world of mass peer-to-peer interaction. Both the scale and the means of communication have changed but, more importantly, so is the content, which is to a considerable extent cultural. Art, film, heritage, music, dance and literature have become a bridge between people. When we rub up against each other, we go to culture to make sense of our differences. When we explain who we are, we express ourselves through culture. When we want to learn about the world, we watch, read and look at culture.

This huge increase in cultural interaction has big political implications, because what happens in the cultural arena increasingly affects what politicians can do: cultural misunderstandings create political problems, while an attractive culture gives countries a licence to operate in international affairs, and a chance of being heard.

Culture itself has produced a new international political economy –  tourism into the UK is driven by culture, and tourists spend about £15bn a year here; Korea is exporting pop music to Peru; the Thai government supports food as a cultural export. But it’s not all benign, because culture has created problems for conventional politics: think of the way in which films like Braveheart, Borat and 300 have influenced debate, or how a TV series has affected Britons’ perception of Baltimore.

The big change is that both communication and culture are now democratised. This is not a coincidence, because they affect each other, and together they have created a massive increase in people power around the world. Artists, poets, actors and film-makers are leading change from Beijing to New York; they have played a major role in Tahrir Square and in Spain’s Indignados movement. And cultural voices are increasingly being heard in the mainstream political media as well: on Monday this week, an artist in Tehran was interviewed on Today about the election of Hassan Rouhani in Iran. Ten minutes later, there was a story about Pussy Riot appearing at the Meltdown Festival in London. Cultural expression and an interest in political freedom go hand-in-hand.

Governments cannot and should not control what goes in the cultural sphere, but they do need to be aware of the powerful role that culture now plays in international relations. Western governments have, on the whole, been reducing their financial support for culture and cultural diplomacy as part of the neoliberal response to the financial crisis. This is a mistake, because international cultural relations are a long game, a matter of strategic relationship building rather than short-term tactical advantage.

In contrast to western retrenchment, a lot ofcountries in the south and east, from Brazil to India, are investing heavily in promoting themselves through culture. The former Chinese President Hu Jintao clearly understood that cultural and political influence go hand-in-hand. In 2012 he worried that "The overall strength of Chinese culture and its international influence is not commensurate with China’s international status…The international culture of the west is strong while we are weak." He added, in language that sounds more military than diplomatic: "We should deeply understand the seriousness and complexity of the ideological struggle, always sound the alarms and remain vigilant, and take forceful measures to be on guard and respond." There can be no doubt that this is a battle that China wants to win: it has spent £4bn expanding its overseas media, and has opened Confucius Institutes and Classrooms in 104 countries in the last seven years.

But China also places restrictions and quotas on cultural imports, effectively allowing only 20 foreign films to be shown there each year. They are making a big mistake. Cultural power comes not from telling the world how great your culture is, but from having a two-way cultural dialogue. This means we in the UK should be spending time and effort learning about other cultures as well as supporting and promoting our own.

Winning the race for soft power requires cultural intelligence as well as cultural confidence. If we fail to understand that, then China’s gain in global influence and trade will be our loss. 

John Holden is a visiting Professor at City University. He was previously Demos's head of culture

A visitor walks past the British pavilion at the site of the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai on May 18, 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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