The hardening of soft power

Great jubilation this week at the Arts Council’s findings that the value of the creative industries has zoomed 10% to be worth nearly £12bn a year to the UK economy (even though the figures relate to 2014-15, before the effects of Brexit have been recorded). The debate about why none of this largesse is manifested in funding for the arts is for another time.

Because more significant is the report from King’s College called The Art of Soft Power, the first academic attempt to quantify soft power, which is the use of “stand out” national qualities to influence, persuade and seduce foreign institutions and populations, and its use in diplomacy. And in the pre- and post-Brexit years its importance will never have been more crucial.  
The report coincides with research by Edinburgh University’s Institute for International Cultural Relations, commissioned by the British Council, which finds that the soft power of national culture is having a significant impact on foreign investment, overseas student recruitment, tourism and influence in places like the UN General Assembly (all, coincidentally, under threat from Brexit).
The trouble has been that there are no tangible statistics, and it seems that the diplomatic corps on all sides are keen to keep the whole thing opaque. Their basic tool is subtlety whose usefulness is compromised once its components are quantified.
The King’s report reveals that this soft power is actually used pretty hard. Back in February six paragraphs appeared in the Daily Telegraph announcing that the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, was creating a new £700m “empowerment fund”, soft power to help UK interests abroad, specifically to counter Russia’s influence. How this was to be done was not elaborated on, and there was no comment from the Foreign Office, but it came as the European Union was declaring the need for new strategies to put culture at the very heart of international relations.
The Kings researchers, Melissa Nisbett and James Doeser, talked to 20 diplomats from ambassador rank down and found that there’s nothing very soft about the way these resources are being deployed. They found embassy staff and politicians using art to form new divisions in confrontations and that it is being provocatively used (particularly by the Russians) to “bring forth acts of violence and extremism”, as one of their diplomatic interviewees told them, and “to use theatre in a way that really changes how a broader conversation is being held” according to another.
They found the whole world of diplomacy to be a kind of performance art, ritual and performance that is perfectly suited for using the arts. This has gone way beyond instrumentalisation, politics and the arts are now indivisible in the context of diplomatic relations. As another of their envoy respondents said, “We can disagree on Crimea, on Georgia, but we all love Chekhov”. The United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG), the microcosm they chose for their research, has its own cultural programme that last year put on 28 exhibitions, ten concerts, nine film screenings and four poetry readings.
Soft power, the report cautions, should not be confused with cultural diplomacy. The first is using our cultural profile to win business, gain leadership and be universally known; the latter is about finding common ground, communicating, educating. The irony is that our two most powerful agents in both have been the BBC World Service and the British Council, both funded by the Foreign Office and both savagely cut by the government. The double irony is that this report was launched last night in Bush House, the headquarters of the World Service until, in its shrunken state, it was withdrawn in 2012. The building is now part of the King’s College campus.


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