The Soft Power 30
France has emerged as the overall world leader when it comes to soft power.
The nature of power has never been more complex. It had long been held that traditional hard power involving armies and economic might ruled the day. This resulted in a straight-forward power exchange – whoever was stronger was dominant.
Now, we are living in an increasingly complex multi-dimensional, and interdependent world. Power has become more diffuse, moving from West to East, as well as away from governments altogether as more non-state actors leverage international influence. This is in large part due to the digital revolution, which has eroded national borders, creating challenges and opportunities in equal measure. It has also allowed citizens to mobilise in new ways, and build bridges across geographical divides.
What does this mean for global affairs? Countries are realising that old-world hard power can no longer influence outcomes and achieve their foreign policy goals as they might desire. Instead, it is the ability to encourage collaboration and build networks and relationships which is the new currency. As Professor Joseph Nye, who first coined the phrase "soft power" 27 years ago said, "power with others can be more effective than power over others". But while there is a growing enthusiasm for soft power in global capitals, it has not always been matched by the understanding and capability required to deploy it successfully.
Fundamental to deploying this is a clear and accurate measurement of a nation’s soft power resources.
This is the aim of The Soft Power 30 index – the world’s most comprehensive comparative assessment of global soft power. It combines objective data and international polling to build what Professor Nye has described as "the clearest picture of global soft power to date."
It can take many generations to build soft power. So it is no surprise that the results of the 2017 Soft Power 30 index are broadly in line with those seen in 2015 and 2016. But while the same countries fill the top five spots, their positions in the rankings have changed. Our findings show that European soft power is recovering. North America’s capability is on the decline, while Asia is on the rise. The US has dropped two places from last year’s top spot, while France has emerged as the overall world leader when it comes to soft power.
Undoubtedly the most impressive yearon- year performance from 2016 to 2017 is France overtaking the UK, US, Germany, and Canada to secure the top spot. This result may come as a shock given the French landscape just a year ago: President Hollande’s popularity rating was at a record low, the nation was reeling from the devastating effects of a series of terror attacks, and the wave of far-right populism was gaining ground. France’s soft power has no doubt seen a boost with the defeat of the Front National and election of its youngest ever president, Emmanuel Macron.
Elected on a pro- Europe platform of reform, the president is riding a wave of both domestic and international popularity (his La République En Marche Party and its allies secured 361 out of 577 seats in the June parliamentary elections). Macron has now been handed the mandate to help lead France through a period of pro-business and pro-EU reforms. What emerges from these reforms will likely be a more dynamic and energised France that plays a leading role in the EU and perhaps shows greater global leadership overall. Once again, France’s greatest strength lies in its vast diplomatic network. It is unrivalled in terms of membership to multilateral and international organisations, as well as in its diplomatic cultural missions.
And with Macron having long campaigned for cooperation and integration, it is not unreasonable to expect France’s global engagement and influence to grow. Culturally, France also puts in a strong performance. The threat of terrorism has not stopped tourists flocking to France and enjoying its rich cultural offering, cuisine, and lifestyle – France’s restaurant scene is unrivalled, its film sector continues to flourish, and its museums and galleries are some of the most visited in the world. Macron’s digital savvy has been critical to France’s success in this year’s Soft Power 30.
He follows in the footsteps of Trudeau and Macri, who each used social media to galvanise their domestic and international audiences while riding a wave of popularity to electoral victory. But like Trudeau and Macri, Macron faces the challenge of maintaining momentum. We’ve seen a well-documented effect of leaders unable to sustain their online success; Macron should be working hard to keep his audiences excited. Crucially, the president’s impressive online following also helped France rise four places in the overall polling scores, from 9th to 5th.
And looking specifically at perceptions of French foreign policy, France rose nine places in the polling data, from 15th to 6th. As with the UK, France slid down in the Enterprise sub-index. Historically lagging behind major rival Germany since the Eurozone’s sovereign debt crisis, Macron will be feeling the pressure to translate his pro-business agenda into a dynamic and global economy. If he can succeed, France will be well placed to extend its lead in 2018.