The fallacy of soft power

The world runs on cold national self interest, not cultural capital

This article is taken from the March 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

You may have missed it, but British statecraft recently scored a triumph. The United Kingdom ranked second in Brand Finance’s Global Soft Power Index, trailing only the United States.

For the Senior Communications Officer of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO), these were glad tidings that affirm Britain’s stature in the competition for prestige and regard. It followed an “historic 2022, as the world celebrated the Platinum Jubilee and mourned the loss of Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II”.

This recognition follows the UK government’s own claim in the Integrated Review of 2021 that Britain is a “soft power superpower”, an aspiration that surely drives terror into our foes. Yet puzzlingly, Houthi militants persistently fire on British and American ships. Haven’t they read the league table?

Does Britain feel like a superpower to you, of any kind? It’s easy to like the thought that Britain exerts strength internationally through its celebrated heritage, from TV studios to the Premier League, from medieval churches to the City. It serves as a psychological balm when our material existence is under strain.

Often asserted, rarely observed, it is evidently something people want to believe without really looking

The nation’s infrastructure may creak and crumble, its debt may soar, its borders may be in chaos, its energy infrastructure run down, its hospitals overburdened, its steel industry decimated, its property unaffordable, its army and navy depleted, with the navy struggling to crew the surface fleet. But rest assured, Britain’s cultural cachet makes it a colossus abroad. Huge, if true.

Like most dodgy concepts, “soft power” is a moving target. It can be lazy shorthand for anything non-military, for “diplomacy”, a lever policymakers pull or the velvet glove on the iron first. But if it’s just the “glove”, it is merely supplementary.

In a more ambitious version, a polity’s culture and values, its institutions, language, art, literature and iconography, will cause others to pre-align their interests with that polity. Yet it works not so much as a hypothesis as a creed. People who should know better, in Whitehall, industry and civil society, revere the image of British “soft power” as axiomatically true. Often asserted, rarely observed, it is evidently something people want to believe without really looking. Let’s look.

Britain’s relative prestige in the world, like its material position, was stronger in 1956 than in 2024. Europe was shattered by the world war and the future Asian giants, India and China, were not yet great industrialising powers. British institutions were internationally respected. Yet in 1956 when national interests clashed over Suez, none of this mattered a jot to the new, actual superpower, the United States.

In that crisis, despite Britain’s eminence and the Anglophilia of American elites, President Dwight Eisenhower coerced Britain out of its campaign against Egypt, with military pressure — fouling the sonar of the British ships in the Mediterranean — and with economic leverage — threatening to sink the pound. Suez was an easy test of soft power theory, and it flunked. And all the cultural treasures in the world could not extinguish anti-colonial revolt.

Aircraft carrier HMS Theseus leaves Portsmouth for the Mediterranean and Egypt during the Suez Crisis, August 5th 1956. (Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Any decent conception of power must be partly relational. That is, it must deal with the interaction between moving parts. For soft power to count, it must get others to do things they otherwise might not do. Which brings us back to the Soft Power Index. How does the Index measure and track soft power? Over two glossy pages, its “methodology” hardly deals with behaviour. Rather, it establishes the scale of countries’ soft power by opinion polling, asking people how far other countries bear influence, familiarity and reputation.

This is little more than pub talk, writ large. It supplements this question-begging data with faith statements from luminaries. Even the incisive journalist Andrew Neil claims, “More and more films and TV series seem to require a London location for at least part of the shoot  … [on the show You], Americans dress up in Victorian garb and try to speak with British accents. Series four is entirely based in London. That is Soft Power for you.”

Is it? Thus formulated, “soft power” becomes circular and unfalsifiable. The input of cultural appeal is indistinguishable from its output. We get others to know, like and respect us in order … that they know, like and respect us. Without an account of cause and effect, there is no theory of power here at all.

In a Twitter exchange, I suggested to the FCDO Senior Communications Officer that lovely cultural assets (the jubilee and the national mourning for the late monarch) aren’t effects or proof of soft power. They are inputs. Did these events get others to alter their behaviour in ways that accord with British interests? Did such events help induce a favourable US-UK trade agreement? Or a UK-Canadian one? Apparently not. And these are countries that eagerly consume British cultural fare.

When challenged, defenders of the concept typically withdraw into generalities

How reliable has British soft power ever been in Washington, for that matter? The irony of the Anglo-American special relationship is the disconnect between cross-cultural affection and unsentimental policymaking. From recognition of Sinn Fein to steel tariffs, not signing up to the International Criminal Court or the treaty on land mines, from disbanding the Iraqi B’aath party to invading Grenada, America — like all leading states — does what it likes. As for the BBC and its World Service, so often touted not just as a good thing but as a delivery system for British influence and a guard against disinformation, did its outreach get India not to raid the BBC offices in Mumbai and New Delhi?

In other words, where’s the beef? when challenged, defenders of the concept typically withdraw into generalities. The FCDO officer replied that soft power could not have such a “deterrent effect”, but that “culture, education, monarchy are important to the brand, add to tourism + economy, warm people to the UK in the long term”. Again, the circularity, plus the troubling use of the term “brand”.

Britain in this picture is not so much a country pursuing a way of life in a hostile world as a corporation with a “brand”, existing to attract customers and enjoy “warm” feelings. Under the slightest scrutiny, the “soft power index” turns out to be little more than a tourism index. On that measure, Spain and Mexico are superpowers, while in the ranks of regional heavyweights, Thailand outranks Japan.

The whole “soft power” proposition is not just cloyingly self-congratulatory. By making people feel good about their country’s place in the international pecking order, it deflects from the harder means-ends decisions that a serious country must face. Worse, it encourages the dangerous conceit that soft things — from diplomatic gestures to popular culture — can offset or replace hard capabilities.

Consider the advice of Simon McDonald, former permanent secretary at the Foreign Office and head of the Diplomatic Service. McDonald’s manifesto, Beyond Britannia, denounces the nostalgic pursuit of great power status embodied in Brexit and argues for a fresh statecraft built around “soft power”.

For him, Britain’s soft power is more latent than manifest, awaiting an enlightened government to unlock it. Since Britain can no longer play the hard power game, it should barter away its nuclear arsenal, downgrade the Royal Navy into a local fleet and give up its permanent seat on the UN Security Council to the European Union.

This programme is a gamble. Exchanging a survivable, continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent for greater worldwide repute? Winning hearts and minds by trading away veto power at the UN for an organisation Britain isn’t part of? This grand bargain is staked on the bet that international life is about getting other countries to admire your moral authority and enlightened gestures. Events, however, suggest otherwise.

Britain and its allies checked Putin’s aggressive expansionism not primarily by tweets

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the “global south” nations from South Africa to Kenya to India to Brazil responded not with virtuous internationalism, but by hedging and trading with Moscow. They did so even though Russia shows no signs of nuclear disarmament. To the contrary, it issues veiled nuclear threats.

The international arena is not an audience of moralists aching to be “led”, but one of calculating regimes pursuing cold self-interest. McDonald denounces the swaggering, backward-looking nationalism of the Brexiteers. But by suggesting that Britain can revive its influence via the soft stuff, he offers the image of a global audience waiting for the guidance of British leadership. Who is the “great power” nostalgic and sentimentalist in this story?

We have been here before. Liberal denunciations of the Iraq war of 2003 charge that by invading illegally and unleashing bloody chaos and committing torture, the United States and Britain squandered their “moral authority”. The war was a disastrous blunder, but the “moral authority” complaint runs up against the facts.

Despite public protestations against the military adventure, the French government gave intelligence assistance behind the scenes and soon afterwards integrated its military command into NATO, while Germany provided intelligence assistance in Baghdad and allowed extraordinary rendition flights from its soil. In 2015, after discovering that the NSA had tapped Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone, as Jeremy Shapiro recalls, “German officials messaged in backroom seminars that the alliance could never be the same. A few months later it was the same.”

To suggest, as McDonald does, that we should turn to “soft power” is not a daring, fresh challenge, but a tired routine. As Perry Anderson said of Francis Fukuyama when he made similar arguments after Iraq went wrong, “The miscellaneous proposals with which [the book] ends — greater reliance on soft power, more consultation with allies, respect for international institutions — are of a desolating predictability, the truisms of every bien-pensant editorial or periodical in the land.”

The violence in Ukraine and Gaza has once again revealed to us that the world revolves around harder currencies, of blood and iron. With a vengeance, today’s battlefields force public debate to reckon with material things: the defence industrial base, energy supplies, mass and logistics, manpower and shipyard capacity.

Saddam Hussein defied the United States while consuming Frank Sinatra and Jack Daniels

Britain and its allies checked Putin’s aggressive expansionism not primarily by tweets and summits. They did so with money, training, military intelligence and guns.

These are the hard capabilities McDonald claims Britain is no longer capable of wielding. That seaborne trade has resumed through the Black Sea is only possible because Ukraine militarily holds Russia’s fleet at risk. Yet asked about Britain’s support to Ukraine, McDonald plays the definition game: “These all to me feel in the soft power side of life: to draw other people’s attention to something, to galvanise activity.” If “soft power” can be reformulated to include arming and training Ukrainians to kill Russian soldiers, the term is meaningless.

History does not support the notion that cultural attraction generates behavioural deference. If anything, there is a disconnect. In our time, Saddam Hussein defied the United States for 13 years even while consuming Frank Sinatra and Jack Daniels. Islamists from Egypt or Saudi Arabia crave the pleasures and technological wonders of the Western societies that they want to burn.

And recall wishful visions two decades ago, that Western offers of prosperity could make a rising China into an equity stakeholder, deferring to American primacy. In more distant times, even invading predators liked the civilisations they looted. Recall the invaders that sacked Rome yet minted coins in the likeness of emperors, or the crusaders who diverted their expedition to plunder Constantinople.

Without hard foundations, appeals to authority carry little weight. In 1945, Stalin notoriously dismissed papal disapproval: “The Pope? How many divisions has he got?” This may not capture the full complexity of diplomacy. But it is a better “first cut” guide to the world than the Soft Power Index, or mandarins who mistake popularity for strength.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover