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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.

A visitor walks past the British pavilion at the site of the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai on May 18, 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.

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 It looked outdated because the world has changed.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

Tags:China