03 Aug Brexit Britain and the Soft Power Trend Line
Last month Portland, in partnership with the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy, launched the third iteration of its Soft Power 30 index. After falling from the top spot in 2016, Britain has maintained its number two position for the second year in a row, albeit with a lower score. So what can we divine from the results on the current state and future course of British soft power?
Our findings – and indeed Britain’s 2017 ranking – suggest that so far the potential damage from Brexit has been limited, with the exception of a decline in international perceptions. But of course, we must remember that Brexit is not yet Brexit and the UK remains a member of the EU. As a result, assessed objectively, not much has changed for British soft power. What the future holds, however, is another story.
Britain’s soft power assets – both government controlled and privately held – remain strong.. The BBC World Service maintains its position as the world’s most trusted news provider and it has the largest global audience of any state-funded broadcaster. The British Council remains an exemplar of cultural exchange and educational engagement. Government departments like the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department of International Development are widely regarded as world-class in their fields. Additionally, the private and philanthropic sectors are huge contributors to British soft power. The UK’s contribution to development and human rights reform is shown through UK-based NGOs like Oxfam, Amnesty International, and Save the Children. The UK’s dynamic creative industries project contemporary culture to global audiences; and British universities attract hundreds of thousands of international students every year.
The good news for UK plc is that these assets haven’t gone anywhere. It is these assets that have kept Britain in 2nd place and guarded against a slide down the rankings. However, as our international polling data indicated, the years ahead – which will be dominated by the complex negotiations of exiting the EU – do not bode as well for the future of British soft power. If Britain is to maintain its enviable position as a major soft power player, there is much work to do. Our concern is that there is precious little capacity within the government to get it done.
Leadership and governance
Breaking down The Soft Power 30 framework is a useful starting point for assessing the relative strengths and weakness of British soft power. The framework is structured around a set of six sub-indices that measure the constituent parts of nations’ soft power assets. One of the six, the Government sub-index, takes into account metrics like political values, institutional stability, and government performance. Getting these factors right for any government is a considerable challenge, but for one hamstrung by a divided cabinet, weakened Prime Minister, and hung parliament, all while trying to deliver the most complex administrative and legal manoeuvre of Brexit, this challenge is colossal.
Britain’s relative rank in our Government sub-index remained the same this year, but its absolute score fell by almost five points. An improved performance requires both strong institutions built up over time, and compelling political leadership – the latter of which, one could argue, is currently lacking in the UK.
Looking across the English Channel, the Soft Power 30 reported an impressive rise through the overall rankings by France, moving from fifth to first. This, we assume is due in no small part to Emmanuel Macron’s victory over the far-right Front National. Elected on a pro-Europe platform of reform, the president has come in with a clear, ambitious agenda of reform and a foreign policy that emphasises international partnership and a larger role for French global leadership.
By contrast, Theresa May has a difficult road ahead of. The PM and her cabinet seem some distance away from a clear consensus on the priorities for Brexit, how to deliver it, and what kind of nation the UK is to become from March 2019 onward. Until these issues are resolved, it is hard to see the UK performing better on the Government sub-index of The Soft Power 30.
In the twelve months following the launch of our 2016 Soft Power 30, we have seen a violent uptick in global geopolitical uncertainty as old alliances have been severely strained, long-standing international norms disregarded, and the post war international order creaking under the weight of uncertainty.
As HM Government spends the next two years expending nearly all of its energy on divorcing its largest trading partner and close allies, it will be critical to develop new relationships. The UK will be leaving one of the most influential multi-lateral organisations in the world. To mitigate the downside of this fact, the UK will need to double-down on its commitment to gain influence in other international clubs. The Commonwealth presents the most obvious opportunity.
International perceptions are critical to a nation’s soft power standing. The international polling data used in the 2017 Soft Power 30 shows public opinion of the UK has remained largely stable in non-EU countries, but public perception of the UK within Europe has taken a significant hit in the wake of the referendum.
As a result, the government needs to carefully manage messaging around the flashpoint issues of Brexit. Doing so effectively can stem some of the damage done to Britain’s reputation following Brexit. Immigration, citizens’ rights, and trade protectionism are going to be the most prominent issues. The government must invest time in shaping a narrative that strikes an appropriate balance between delivering Brexit, but not regressing into Fortress Britain.
The lesson from “America First” and what it has done to perceptions of the US is a poignant one for the UK as it manages Brexit. Negative opinion can swing quickly in reaction to changes in policy and messaging, whereas positive momentum takes much longer to build up. Should the Brexit negotiations turn acrimonious, we can expect European public opinion to further deteriorate.
While Britain remains a global soft power heavyweight and leads the diplomatic charge across a range of issues, Brexit undeniably poses a risk to the country’s soft power advantage. Looking forward to Soft Power 30 2018, perceptions may deteriorate further as negotiations become more fraught and complex, causing Britain’s overall score to fall again. The challenge now for HM Government is channelling Britain’s soft power arsenal to weather the storm, while not losing sight of new relationships and opportunities. This is no mean feat but with a strategic, creative, and more concentrated approach, we are hopeful Britain can land on its feet come March 2019.