The Squandering of Soft Power

A New Age of Leadership

There was a time when the people worked for the leader, today, increasingly the leader works for the people. In a world that is moving faster and faster, and is more complex with far more unforgiving markets, it is rare that the leader can make and take all the big decisions on their own any more.

The hierarchy with the authority it accords is beginning to look dated and out of touch with the need for more collaborative cultures and environments that enable every voice to be heard. This new age leadership is much more about the so called ‘soft skills’ and less about the ‘hard skills’ that authority brings.

This challenge of ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ approaches is also playing out in our global politics, where a new approach away from the inward looking and authoritarian approaches which have become far too widespread today.

Soft Power

I recently spent a wonderful week in The Gambia, the land of my birth. We stayed in the glorious and welcoming Coco Ocean hotel. As we were preparing to leave the hotel for the airport, Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, were arriving for a royal visit to Gambia staying at the same hotel. The British Royal family are a primary example of the UK’s use of ‘soft power’.

Joseph Nye came up with the term “soft power” in 1990. He described it as a country’s ability to coax and persuade others through peaceful means – Britain has been unrivalled at influencing foreigners.

The soft power index, created by the Centre on Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California and by Portland Communications, a public-relations company, measures the use of soft-power assets across 30 countries.

After losing the top spot to France in the 2017 index, Britain is now back on top. Britain scores particularly well in the cultural, education and engagement dimensions. Meanwhile, America continues to slip down the rankings. The USA were top in 2016, but that was before Donald Trump became president, and they now lie fourth.

President Trump appears to only want to deal in hard confrontational power, and it’s my guess that America will continue to tumble down the table. Trump’s bellicose and threatening mantras of “Make America Great Again” and “America First”, are the precise opposite of soft power, and are dismissive of any form of collaboration or cooperation.

To make things even worse for their soft power, Trump has a ‘zero-sum’ approach to foreign policy, in order for him to win (and that is paramount to all he does), then someone has to lose.

When this is added to his incredibly thin skin and the enormous chip he has put on America’s shoulder, it’s a remarkable abandoning of any form of soft power which the USA had become so adept at deploying across the world.

Argentina, Brazil, Russia and China are at the bottom of the top 30 states in the index. They score about 30 points below Britain. Argentina and Brazil perform poorly in terms of enterprise; Russia and China score particularly badly on public perceptions (though their hosting of major international sporting events has helped to improve their scores).

Diplomacy Still Counts

Back to Prince Charles and Camilla. They went on to visit Ghana and then Nigeria. They were greeted with the full red-carpet treatment and will have made it very clear that the former colonial masters now hold all three nations in very high regard.

This is vital for the new (trading) relationships that Britain desperately needs with Brexit looming. Britain now needs all the foreign friends it can get. Why wouldn’t you take advantage of those you already have warm reciprocal relationships with? And what better way to kick-start this new partnership of equals than with a Royal visit.

Despite this some are starting to question whether the UK is still quite as good as it used to be with its use of its soft power. The UK may have lost the authority of its days of Empire, but it still peddles influence in far flung corners of the world.

A recent example took place as we witnessed its high-profile diplomatic role in the tragic killing of Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey. Some might wonder why Jeremy Hunt, the UK’s foreign secretary, was dispatched to Riyadh for some urgent shuttle diplomacy.

It never does any harm to be seen to be trying to heal heated international divisions. This is a very clever use of soft power.

Not everyone gets it right though. President Trump took the correct step to attend the 100-year remembrance services for World War 1 in France, as a guest of President Emmanuel Macron alongside many other heads of state.

The nefarious President Trump wasted no time in offending his hosts by deciding not to attend the ceremonies at the cemeteries as it was raining!

He then lashed out at President Macron using his favourite calling card, Twitter, with a denigrating tweet in which he said Parisians had started to learn German during the second world war before the US saved them from occupation.

Very classy indeed.

Machiavelli, a brilliant advocate of soft power, said “it is better to be feared than loved”. But the infamous Italian philosopher also cautioned that the wise always ensure that they are never hated.

From Best Practice to Next Practice

  • Soft power requires sustained investment in both financial terms and the right resources
  • Soft power is a force multiplier
  • Soft power rarely works on its own but is usually the carrot preventing the threat of a stick
  • It’s not just about government, society can play a much bigger part – with pop culture, universities and art
  • Public diplomacy and exchange programs can be hugely powerful

The last word should belong to Joseph Nye, “When you can get others to admire your ideals and to want what you want, you do not have to spend as much on sticks and carrots to move them in your direction.

Seduction is always more effective than coercion, and many values like democracy, human rights, and individual opportunities are deeply seductive.”

Prince Charles and Camilla are important emissaries of Britain’s soft power programmes but that is nowhere near enough anymore. It’s a great British beacon, lighting up what else is to follow in their footsteps.

A very different approach to President Trump and his belligerent Twitter rants.

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