politics & power world have long deplored the USA as the land of ‘chewing gum culture’.
Soft power, then, is based on education, history, sport, commerce, tourism, high and popular culture and the media. When it comes to the last of these, we have a great deal of choice. For example, I visit the websites of France 24 and Deutsche Welle in preference to the BBC’s. We are all aware of the extraordinary reach of South Korean K-pop – the song ‘Gangnam Style’ has had 3.6 billion plays on YouTube – but who knew that Turkish neo-Ottoman soap operas also have enormous viewerships? One series, centred on Suleiman the Magnificent, had an audience of 250 million people. Turkey’s population is only about 80 million.
Soft-power rivalry is intrinsic to the developing strategic conflict between the USA and China. China devotes $10 billion per annum (about fifteen times the ‘public diplomacy’ budget of the USA) to promoting its soft power through such vehicles as China Global Television Network (CGTN). CGTN reaches a billion people in a hundred countries. Naturally, the USA has Hollywood, but Chinese naval action movies are entering the global market at pace.
The presidency of Donald Trump has massively affected the way the USA is perceived around the world: according to a Gallup survey, the number of America’s admirers declined from half to a third after Trump succeeded Obama. The USA has sunk to fifth place in the soft-power ratings after a long spell at the top. The more the USA withdraws from international bodies and agreements, the more China offers to uphold them. China may have ‘wolf warrior diplomats’ but at least they are competent professionals and not billionaire part-timers owed a favour, as many US ambassadors are.
Until the coronavirus pandemic began, Chinese soft power seemed to be sweeping everything before it, with high-tech companies like Huawei serving as prominent vehicles. Seventy-five per cent of Africans have a positive view of China – hardly surprising since it educates fifty thousand of the continent’s future leaders every year, at a time when the USA has virtually abandoned it. So has the UK. When Theresa May visited Kenya in 2018, she was the first British prime minister to set foot there in thirty years. China, on the other hand, is in and out of many African countries all the time, many of which associate Mao with their own national liberation struggles. Repression of the Uighurs does not cut through to Westerners on any scale.
China’s initial botched handling of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan damaged its soft-power standing, as has the new national security law governing Hong Kong, but if one shifts the perspective to, for example, Saudi Arabia or Serbia, China’s efficient disbursement of medical aid is winning friends. Events in the USA are likely to mean that China’s soft power keeps growing, notwithstanding the relentless Sinophobia seen in US and British newspapers.
The militarised response by the US authorities to the protests that followed the killing of George Floyd came too late for inclusion in Winder’s book. There are not many demonstrations around the world about Uighurs or Hong Kong, but there are myriad against police racism and violence in US cities, and against Trump’s various efforts to undermine the constitution. Thanks to Trump, the USA will now be synonymous with heavily armed police and unidentifiable thugs abusing protesters.
One of the many merits of Winder’s book is that it is comprehensively global. Emmanuel Macron has been so deft in exploiting France’s soft power that in 2019 the country topped the Portland index. As
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Macron put it, ‘Germany doesn’t have a government, Britain has transformed itself into an object of international commiseration and the United States is being seen more and more as part of the problem, not the solution. So who’s left?’
France has ensured that a gimmick invented by a tyre manufacturer in the 1920s is still how we grade the world’s restaurants. One recent example of the French exercising soft power was the creation of the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the signing of a deal worth at least $1 billion to send a rotating selection of masterpieces there. In a 2018 survey of 450 international investors carried out by Ernst & Young, Paris eclipsed London as a place to do business. The new €253 million LucieAubrac international school in Paris will educate the offspring of decamped J P Morgan and Morgan Stanley bankers.
Denmark is another country to have successfully exploited its soft power. The hygge (cosy happiness) lifestyle trend, Bang & Olufsen and Lego have all contributed to this. Walk around central London and you will notice the Scandinavianisation of consumption, with Danish bakeries and the Swedish homemaking store ARKET featuring prominently. Winder also writes interestingly about Japan, a country that has massively transformed its international image since 1945, though not in the minds of its near neighbours, where memories of wartime cruelty bulk large.
Winder is a highly knowledgeable guide to this slippery subject. His book is also beautifully written in an enviably easy style. There is not a redundant sentence in it and the details are expertly chosen and revealing. The only country I missed was the Republic of Ireland, which has punched far above its weight within many international institutions.
Perhaps Winder’s most disturbing finding is that countries with illiberal governments can exploit soft power as effectively as liberal democracies. Russia’s successful hosting of the 2018 FIFA World Cup did much to counter negative impressions of a regime usually associated with sharp rather than soft power. Winder is surely right in thinking that this new great game is of high importance, and perhaps matters more than who has the latest missiles or ships.
Literary Review | july / august 2020 8