Soft power and the arts (1/3)

who would have thought?This week saw the release of two major studies in the UK on culture and soft power: Soft Power Today from the British Council and the University of Edinburgh, and The Art of Soft Power from King’s College London. There’s a lot of depth to each of the reports, and I’ll write about each of them in subsequent posts. I’m relatively new to this aspect of cultural policy, so consider this introduction my own attempt to get a few things sorted out, and some preliminary questions.

I began with Joseph Nye’s seminal article from 1990. That was a time when the future path of global economics and power was uncertain, and Nye can be excused for not seeing all that would happen in the decades to come. Japan is given prominence as an economic power, China is treated as an underdeveloped backwater, South Korea (which turned out to be tremendously effective in the soft power arena) does not get mentioned at all. But his key points have had staying power: pure military might is less important than it once was for accomplishing national strategic goals, transnational corporations continued to have growing influence on patterns of trade and politics, and technology and the new information economy would make natural resource endowments of decreasing importance.

What is soft power? In a twitter conversation with the British Council, they put it succinctly (I think they were still limited to 140 characters): “We define it as a country’s ability to make friends & influence people not through military might, but through its most attractive assets”. So, for example, Andrew Rose found that all other things equal, a country’s ranking in terms of international opinion on whether it is “a mainly positive or negative influence on the world” had a significant effect on that country’s exports – just as we as individuals prefer to buy from companies of which we hold a good opinion, so do importers.

So where do the arts and culture come in? How a country is perceived can certainly be effected by its popular culture (see, again, South Korea), and over a long period this has been a great source of influence for the US (as Nye notes in his 1990 essay). Whether its “high” culture has much impact is hard to discern – in a piece this week in The Guardian, Tristram Hunt thinks the Louvre Abu Dhabi marks a great advance in French soft power, at the expense of the British – but we will maybe better know when the noise from press fawning over the building has died down a bit. In Cultural Trends, Stuart MacDonald wonders about the effect of the Brexit vote on Britain’s soft power, and I think this is the more promising avenue to take.

What I mean is: soft power is about perceptions of what a country is like, its culture in the widest sense of the word. In a recent piece revisiting soft power, Joseph Nye, visiting China, reminds them that it is their civic life, rather than their government, or any official cultural policies, that will have most influence. The US has been popular culturally despite its governments, though with the election of a president who is the worst practitioner of soft power that could be imagined (his grasp of hard power is similarly incompetent, come to that) we will see if that changes.

I have two worries, and they are related. First, what if every country believes it has soft power, because who could fail to like the people that we are? Canadians (I am one) are particularly attracted to this idea. Denmark is proud of its soft power rankings: “Denmark has climbed up two places from last year’s index to the 9th place in 2014/15 owing to, among other things, popular Danish TV series such as Borgen, The Killing, The Bridge and The Heirs and Copenhagen’s global brand as a bicycle-friendly city.” Gruesome murders and bike paths, what’s not to like? So in any study of soft power it’s important I think to look for bias in how soft power, and “likability”, are defined.

Second, as Nye makes very clear, soft power is … power. It’s the ability to get other countries to do what you want them to. It’s doing it not by military or economic threat, but by getting them to want what you want. Nye uses the example of raising children, how it’s made easier when you instill in them preferences that match your own, which is a metaphor that makes me very uneasy.

So … I’ll look forward to reading these new research reports, be back soon.


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  1. I think the term soft power is so narrow and utilitarian that it might lead to confusion. The term “cultural diplomacy” is wider, and I think, creates a better approach to understanding the meaning of soft power.

    The CIA’s manipulation of the arts world during the 50’s, 60s, and 70s is an astounding example of how the American government covertly influenced the arts for the sake of soft power.. I recommend Francis Stonor Saunder’s book about this, “The CIA and the Cultural Cold War.”

  2. I think you’re oversimplifying the role of Danish TV series in Denmark’s rise in the soft power rankings – and as a result short-changing how that country’s rise has come about.

    The strength of these series lies not in gruesome crimes, but in the depth and complexity of the characters. Murders have held fascination for humankind since Greek tragedy and earlier – because they heighten the drama and create pressure situations that bring out the essence of each character in sharp relief. Danish crime drama operates in a studio system that draws on a common pool of actors, making it the closest we have to TV that showcases the quality and sophistication of ensemble acting, which has been in decline in English-speaking countries for decades.

    You also don’t mention the way these series so compellingly weave in the challenges of immigration, women’s issues, single parenting, terrorism, and, yes, Russian interference that we all now face.

    The growth of Denmark’s soft power must also surely be attributable to the way that country, along with its Scandinavian neighbors, have organized their societies. Here in America, a large part of the popularity of Bernie Sanders’ message was his public embrace of the kind of health care that the Scandinavian countries offer their citizens.

    • Kit, thanks for your reply. I was maybe too flippant, I should have added that I really *enjoy* “Nordic noir”, for exactly the reasons you give. My question, which remains, is how that manifests itself into “soft power”. The social democracy of Denmark and its neighbours I can see as an attractive model that would have global soft power appeal. But the trickier question is how a country’s *art* affects that.

      • Maybe look at Flemish painting as a historical example of how a small country – the Netherlands – used soft power to promote national economic interests worldwide.

        • …and use that as a barometer to measure how much things have changed in our digital age?

          “The true art form of our time isn’t music or dance or painting or poetry; it’s marketing” – Germaine Greer

      • How a country’s art affects soft power? Well, speaking of the Nordic countries, Finland spends large sums on classical music. This country of 5.5 million has 8 conductors on the world stage, more than the USA which has 58 times the population. They included Esa-Pekka Salonen, Jorma Pnaula, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Asmo Vänskä, and Susanna Mälkki. Two of the world’s most famous composers are also Finish: Magnus Lindberg and Kaija Saariaho. Salonen was GMD of the LA Phil for about 15 years. Lindberg was resident composer of the NY Phil. These people lend Finland great prestige among the intelligentsia, a clear expression of soft power.