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Putting the power into soft power


By dxw

At our recent soft power meeting participants had the opportunity to hear about cases of soft power in action. Specialist worked together to produce strategies for implementing soft power assets.

Putting the power into soft power

12-14 October 2011 (WP1117)

Practitioners, academics, communications experts and business people, all gathered to discuss the challenges of turning the theory of soft power into practical activity; covering issues such as the role of the military, business, international organisations and other non-state actors.

Over the past decade the negative backlash resulting from hard power action has propelled the use, need and reputation of soft power as a necessary and effective tool in foreign policy. Recent events in the Middle East and North Africa highlight the potency of civil society, free media, and the voice of a people. The role and potential of soft power in today’s more technologically advanced and interconnected world is impressive and far reaching if harnessed effectively by states, international organisations, and the increasing plethora of non-state actors. The negative international response to hard power has left a large space for soft power to move in and repair damaged reputations, while providing new roles and opportunities to an array of actors on the international stage.

Throughout the meeting participants were reminded to acknowledge the change that has occurred in recent years with soft power coming to the forefront. It has allowed us to view soft power as the over-arching umbrella, with hard power being one of the tools, and to recognise the complimentary nature of these two forms of power.

Participants had the opportunity to hear about India’s experience, Norway’s reputation in peace and reconciliation, and the work of the UK’s Olympics Team. India’s experience of exporting their culture has proved to be a powerful tool in influencing global perceptions of their country. For example, the importance of Indian civilisation, history, culture, cuisine, democracy, IT, their economy, and a figure as highly respected as Gandhi all impact positively on global opinions of India. Norway is globally recognised for its work on peace and reconciliation. Its expertise, network and long term commitment has built a deep trust in its abilities. One point that was emphasised as crucial to Norway’s popularity is the importance of creating the arena and then stepping back, not dominating the process. Their role is based on the understanding that no one owns the truth, no one owns peace. Being silent, listening, allowing debate and discussion, in and of itself encourages the values Norway seeks to spread.

The importance of global perceptions in enhancing soft power assets should not be undermined; Norway is the perfect example of this. The UK’s Olympics Team are in the unique position to promote the UK’s reputation. Encouraging positive perceptions of the UK through sports initiatives in developing countries, and the exchange of cultural ideas and British values influence the degree to which British soft power assets are successful and trusted. The Olympics provide the opportunity to restore national faith in Britain, and promote British interests abroad. Building credibility is key for soft power assets, without it, their reach is short and influence light.

The conference also looked at business, the military and social media as wielders of soft power. Many leading figures in business undertake philanthropic endeavours through which they influence the image of their company and personas, such as Bill Gates. Furthermore, large multinationals show off their commitment to CSR and sustainability in order to demonstrate their commitment to the environment and local communities; all of which reflect positively on their brands. Large corporations that have a strong affiliation to a particular country are also able to positively and negatively influence a nation’s soft power capability depending on its reputation. If a particular brand is associated with a certain country, states can then build upon the goodwill of such brands to further their soft power impact. With regard to the military it was noted that while traditionally a hard power, it has adopted certain soft power characteristics, for example, support with infrastructure post-war, the protection of religious sites, providing food and water and building trust and confidence with local populations. These new roles have blurred the lines between the traditional roles of the military as they have moved into the humanitarian arena. There is however much debate on whether this is a positive change or not; as participants pointed out, there are inherent differences between the military and soft power. Firstly, the military is in essence a hard power tool, it is measurable and quantifiable, soft power on the other hand is slow moving, based on influencing minds and therefore difficult to measure and understand. Secondly, those that practice soft power need to accept a loss of control, whereas the opposite is true of the military. Lastly, the military is about victory, whereas soft power is inherently about trust, with no thought of victory. The military deliver fear quickly, not trust. Social media has been a growing form of soft power; participants had the opportunity to take a close look at Facebook as a soft power tool. With 800 million members it has one the largest audiences in the world; almost all companies now have a Facebook page within which they are able to promote their brands and values. It is a source of information, up-to-date news, and allows individual involvement and participation. Police, embassies, government agencies and NGOs all have Facebook pages through which they are able to influence and manage their ideas and spread them to a larger audience thanks to the ease of accessibility Facebook provides. Facebook helps to:

  • cut bureaucracy
  • amplify messages
  • change perceptions
  • harness existing ecosystem
  • localise targeting
  • direct representation
  • tap creativity
  • encourage awareness


Participants’ concluding thoughts:

There is a need to speak of power in an integrated way, moving beyond forced dichotomies, accepting the need for security before peace, and realise that values can be used as tools of conflict (clash of civilisations).

It takes a long time for a country to build a reputation and only moments to lose it. Soft power needs to become aligned with foreign policy objectives, the soft power repercussions of any action need to be considered.

Never forget that states are judged by what they do, not what they say. To instigate progress we need to develop a common language and common understanding.

To remember the importance of stepping back, removing the self interest of a single nation, and take a broader perspective of self interest, understanding the age old adage of, with great power, comes great responsibility.

Further information

Conference on Putting the power into soft power

Blog from Wilton Park – British soft power

Blog from Philip Seib (meeting speaker)

Blog from Indra Adnan (session chair)