“What role does soft power have after the guns come out?”

It seems odd to host a conference on soft power at the very same time we are witnessing the destructive and devastating exercise of hard power. Is soft power even relevant in a world traumatised by a pandemic and at war? This is exactly what the Global Soft Power Summit, organised by Brand Finance, looked to address. Or, as British Council Chief Executive Scott McDonald put it, “what role does soft power have after the guns come out?”.

 

There are three types of power all nations, to some degree, have at their disposal. Military power (what we are seeing Russia employ in the invasion of Ukraine), economic power (what the EU, the USA and others are using in response), and soft power.

Soft power is, according to guest speaker Volodymyr Sheiko, Director General of the Ukrainian Institute, a “fluid concept”, ever-adapting to the global context of the time. In 2020 I asked whether it is just another word for PR? It was a term first coined in the 1980s by Joseph Nye as “a nation’s ability to influence the preferences and behaviours of various actors in the international arena through attraction or persuasion rather than coercion”. And it is soft power tactics Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky is using to persuade others to support Ukraine with hard power support; his front line leadership, his use of social media, his addressing Parliament.

It is naïve to mistake soft power with weakness when confronted by hard power. For a nation to thrive, it needs both. Brand Finance’s Global Soft Power Index reported Russia had performed strongly in soft power over the last year. The fieldwork, done prior to the invasion of Ukraine, found they had moved up from 13th place in 2021 to 9th in 2022, and not by accident.

Despite the recent flexing of their hard power military muscle, Putin’s Russia has very clearly understood the value of soft power, however unethically practiced. It is why they fought to host the 2018 World Cup and 2014 Winter Olympics, it is why they launched Russia Today in 2014, and it is why TikTok influencers are paid to push pro-Kremlin narratives. What we are seeing, according to Alexander Stubb, former Prime Minister of Finland, is Russia “weaponising” soft power to succeed militarily.

As a result, no doubt next year’s results will see Russia’s climb up the rankings reversed. As Labour MP Stephen Kinnock put it, the levers of soft power – reputation and influence – can “take generations to build and seconds to destroy”. But, when he looks to the UK, it is the slow decay of soft power that concerns him.

Former Danish Prime Minister, Halle Thorning-Schmidt regrettably believes the UK “has gradually made itself smaller” despite its rise in the overall rankings from 3rd to 2nd. However, on metrics such as ‘friendliness’, the UK has fallen from 8th place in 2020 to 47th place this year. Kinnock and former Labour strategist, Alastair Campbell, both worry about complacency when it comes to soft power. The UK has, Campbell argues, “enduring strengths” but cites government “attacks” on the institutions that quietly make the UK a global soft power force – the BBC, the judiciary, the civil service – and constant “world-beating” hard sells as something that ultimately will damage the UK’s standing. “Soft power needs to be backed up,” McDonald agrees. There’s a name for when gaps appear between what a country says and the actions it takes, he says – “propaganda”.

 

Rather than being poorly timed, the Soft Power Summit perfectly highlighted the interplay between hard, economic, and soft power. As Guy Verhofstadt, former Prime Minister of Belgium, explained, “hard and soft power go together – one cannot do without the other, or at least not for long”. After all, McDonald argues, soft power is becoming increasingly more important – “being liked, trusted, and respected has never mattered more”. This is why, according to Sir Martin Sorrell, countries need to invest in their “leadership, strategy, and structure” to ensure soft power efforts are implemented and promoted effectively.

What is clear is that nations cannot thrive in one dimension. Today’s soft power investments may well provide tomorrow’s hard power solutions.

Image by @uxgun on Unsplash

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Jon Gerlis is Public Relations and Policy Manager for the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR).

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