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7 July 2021

The subtle art of soft power

How nations use culture to engage in a “storytelling competition”. 

By K Biswas

In 1990, with the Cold War coming to an end, the American international relations scholar Joseph Nye declared in Foreign Policy magazine that the “direct use of force for economic gain” had become “too costly and dangerous for modern great powers”. Instead, he advocated prioritising “co-optive” or “soft” power – “getting others to want what you want”, akin to parents nurturing “their child’s beliefs and preferences” rather than behaving as strict disciplinarians.

The final decade of the 20th century was less triumphalist than the US foreign policy establishment would have liked. Japan’s manufacturing-heavy economy was thriving, India and Pakistan had developed nuclear arsenals, Europe was coalescing into an effective trade bloc, and there was an ongoing threat of rogue states in the developing world. Many worried that the costly pursuit of the Soviet Union had resulted in imperial overstretch. America had primarily exerted influence abroad through military and financial means. Soft-power resources – “cultural attraction, ideology, and international institutions” – were to become more important than ever.

Subtler than propaganda, soft power, Robert Winder argues in his global tour of cultural signifiers, is essentially a “storytelling competition”. Western nations – especially the US and Britain – dominate, since the greatest soft-power reserves are held by “nations that subjugated others”. Historically, Hollywood has been the quintessential soft-power tool, enabling the US to capture hearts and minds without using guns and money. America’s dream factory even enthralled its enemies: Stalin, like Hitler, loved Westerns (though not enough to forestall KGB plans to assassinate John Wayne).

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In Britain, patrician outposts of the state such as the BBC World Service and British Council – both founded in the 1930s, the latter explicitly to “promote British culture and fight the rise of fascism” – continue their attempts to further its values abroad, as do non-governmental organisations like Oxfam and Save the Children. The country’s mass-cultural appeal is also effective in the soft-power stakes – in 2016 one-sixth of albums sold worldwide derived from the UK music industry, while the English Premier League was watched in 643 million homes in the 2018-19 season, with only five countries failing to screen the Manchester derby.

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But international reputation is primarily spread by people, not institutions. At a time when humanity is “more than ever reliant on connections and networks”, Britain’s greatest soft-power resource may well be its diverse and dispersed population, Winder argues. A multicultural citizenry plays a crucial role in how the nation is viewed abroad, through the messages and images they send home, while immigration is “rocket fuel” for social diversification and economic entrepreneurship.

Central European Jewish migration alone led to the launch of the Edinburgh festival, a richer interpretation of art, politics and philosophy (through the work of EH Gombrich, Isaiah Berlin and Karl Popper), and an estimated 16 Nobel prizes. Winder, a trustee of London’s Migration Museum whose previous book, Bloody Foreigners, interrogated Britain’s relationship with immigration, believes Britain should celebrate the fact that 58 recent global heads of state studied here, including the Gambian president, Adama Barrow, an Arsenal fan who once took a job in Argos on London’s Holloway Road: “The UK helped me to become the person I am today,” he proclaimed on his way to winning 2016’s election.

The legacies of the British empire loom large as we learn that quaint national staples were ultimately “born abroad”. A cup of tea (our most notable “contribution to world cuisine”) relies on cultivating leaves not found in our climes, and is sweetened with sugar “hacked out of Caribbean islands by enslaved West Africans”. Beneath Kew Gardens lay the empire’s research engine, where rubber seedlings from Brazil were prepared for new estates in Malaysia and tea varieties gathered in China were “hot housed and interbred for new hillsides in Sri Lanka and Malawi”. The jewel in the imperial crown, India, was left with a plantation economy, a “broken” manufacturing base and a life expectancy of 27, yet hard power’s softer “afterglow” proves difficult to extinguish. The Harrow School song is performed annually in Mumbai by a teenage choir, albeit with the words changed, while the Indian industrial giant Tata, in an example of the empire striking back, owns myriad British brands, from Jaguar Land Rover to Tetley tea.

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Former colonisers now hawk their national trademarks in a globalised marketplace. In 2017, France – which, “like Britain, has scattered pieces of itself all over the world” – opened a “lavish outpost of the Louvre” in Abu Dhabi, cutting a £1bn deal with the United Arab Emirates. President Emmanuel Macron, failing to mention accusations that the conditions for migrant construction workers resembled “modern slavery”, launched the museum with “a high-minded speech” about the way art fights “the discourses of hatred”, creating a beacon “that would shine out to the world”.

For too long, Winder admits, imperial powers blocked indigenous voices, and soft-power indexes (such as those curated by the Portland consultancy and Monocle magazine) barely acknowledge the Global South – cultural clout is seen as “a Northern Hemisphere quality”. Meanwhile, Winder shows that in the post-colonial epoch “Africa is being hustled over again”: China, the continent’s leading investor, is loaning $100bn to 29 nations signed up to the Belt and Road initiative; Russia offers diplomatic and military partnerships; Turkey provides development aid; while Germany pushes a Europe-led “Marshall Plan for Africa”.

Despite occasionally falling back on national stereotypes – Sweden is “the land of Abba, Volvo and Ikea”; in Japan, “children who grew up trading Pokémon cards now meet for rice cakes and green tea” – Winder has decent prescriptions for correcting historic soft-power imbalances. He strongly believes that with the 21st century unearthing new competitors – South Korean pop, Iranian film, Latin American writers, African artists – Western cultural monopoly is coming to an end.

To hasten the process, he suggests utilising advances in 3D printing to return looted treasures to their countries of origin. Following David Olusoga’s idea of a British Museum “supermarket sweep” – where arts ministers from former dominions, for five minutes only, load up their trollies with plundered objects – original artefacts could be scanned, then repatriated, with the donors keeping the copies. “Whatever the West lost in art kudos,” Winder writes, it might gain “with interest, in the soft arena of international goodwill.” 

Soft Power: The New Great Game 
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 416pp, £20

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This article appears in the 07 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The baby bust