Balance of soft power

Image of Peter Aspden

I came out of the Underground on a warmish evening this week, and stumbled into a demonstration. The protesters were from Brazil and their message, mostly against their government’s profligate spending on next year’s World Cup, was less distinctive than the famous yellow football shirts worn by many of them, and the sound of drums being played in the kind of syncopated rhythms that tend to perplex the Anglo-Saxon musical ear.

About an hour later, at the launch of a new British Council report on the exercise of “soft power”, a reference was made to Brazil’s increasing impact on the world’s cultural scene. The report’s author, John Holden, might have been reporting from the front line of the demonstration. Brazil’s outstanding exports in the cultural field, he said, were football and samba, as well as contemporary art. So what I had witnessed was an (unwitting) exercise in soft power: ordinary Brazilians projecting their country’s expertise in certain cultural forms, even while railing against their own leaders.

That is how soft power works. It is not, strictly speaking, an exercise in power at all. There is no coercion, and it is not a zero-sum game. To watch Brazilian football and listen to its samba music is to hold warm feelings towards Brazil. No one gets hurt, there are no victims. But there is currency in having the world’s best footballers, and its most infectious beats. People want to visit Brazil. They spend money there, and also on its exports. Brazilians, in turn, feel cherished and proud. If the government can ride out the protests over the World Cup – nothing will banish them like a Brazilian victory – a virtuous circle is formed.

And yet the report doesn’t quite see it like that. Its very subtitle – “Culture and the Race for Soft Power in the 21st Century” – implies a degree of competitiveness among nations for the world’s hearts and minds. Governments are waking up to soft power, and want to direct it more effectively. Holden himself woke up to it when he heard Michael Jackson’s “Rock My World” in the middle of a trek in Madagascar. The effects of soft power may be subtle but its global reach is impressive.

There is a change in the balance of cultural power that is as palpable as the shifts in the world economy. The British Council has taken nearly 80 years, since its formation in 1934, to establish its 196 offices worldwide to “promote ... a wider appreciation of British culture and civilisation”. In comparison, China has opened more than 300 branches of its Confucius Institute in the past 10 years. It is finding out that soft power is difficult to control, however. The country’s most globally resonant cultural figure by far is Ai Weiwei, a Socratic maverick who continues to remind the world of China’s weaknesses, even while it accumulates ever-greater strength.

Those in soft power circles talk of the importance of “mutuality and exchange” in their cultural bartering. In a media and tech-savvy world, it is self-defeating for a government to be seen to be too obviously seeking to influence the world through its culture. The British deal with this dilemma through the use of irony. There were no Henry V-style stirring speeches in the Olympic ceremony but there was a parachuting Queen.

But we are fooled if we think that all is cuddly in the world of soft power. There are governments that are using culture to make some hard points. Qatar, not known for its commitment to freedom of expression, is pouring money into education, broadcasting and high art. China hosts glitzy contemporary art fairs in which it is money, rather than difficult ideas, that flows most freely.

The culture of the west has remained dominant for centuries because its brand was truly and intrinsically strong. From ancient Greece onwards, culture and freedom of expression were regarded as indivisible. To take part in cultural activity was to reassert the value of saying what you liked. Art expressed humanity. It has been a long struggle, with many a reversal along the way, but that underpinning has widespread acceptance today. And that is how culture acquired its power, soft or otherwise.

In today’s “race” for soft power, there are more cynical motives at work. And the countries of the west are as much to blame as anyone. Speaking at the launch of the report, Lord Howell, chairman of the House of Lords committee on soft power, commented wryly that a group of recent Japanese visitors, having been given a thorough tour of all that Britain’s culture had to offer, were asked to name their highlight: a visit to a Burberry store, said one. The softening of power is one thing but the softening of culture should give us still greater pause for thought.

‘Influence and Attraction: Culture and the Race for Soft Power in the 21st Century’, published by the British Council in association with Demos

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