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 It looked outdated because the world has changed.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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear