The accelerated technological and digital advances of recent decades have made the world a more complex, multidimensional and interdependent place. National states have seen their capacity to exercise their political power limited, even in the arena of international relations. The conventional idea of military and economic power has lost out against “soft power” or the capacity to influence without using violence or coercion. The digitalisation of life and politics is a phenomenon that explains the importance of soft power and especially the importance of digital diplomacy when thinking up new world scenarios. But, there is no clear consensus on the effectiveness of the latter or on digital tools in general as trustworthy factors to build stable relations of power and influence.
- The field of overseas relations and diplomacy has been heavily affected by recent technological transformations and the digitalisation of life and politics.
- Against this backdrop, the conventional idea of power as the sum of military might and economic strength has lost relative weight.
- More fluid and flexible notions of power as the non-coercive capacity to influence (soft power) have gained ground in both academe and in the political arena.
- Despite the difficulties in measuring power of this kind, recent research has drawn up a ranking, placing France as the most powerful nation in terms of soft power and identifying recent trends in the field of international relations.
- To consolidate a position as world powers and possess the capacity to influence the international scene, countries, governments and different players must pay greater attention to soft power, especially to digital tools, even if there is no clear consensus on them.
What is soft power?
As a consequence of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, marked by accelerated technological and digital advances, the world has become more complex, multidimensional and interdependent and national states have seen their capacity carry out the activities that characterise them constrained. In foreign affairs, the countries with the greatest influence internationally have slowly taken on board the fundamental idea that the classical way of conceiving political power in the old world (power is equal to military might plus economic power) no longer has the same capacity to attain the desired goals. This form of hard power is still vitally important, but how it is exercised can no longer be based solely on imposing, unilateral logic. Instead, the capacity to encourage co-operation and build networks and relations have become the new currency.
The term soft power was coined in the late 1980s to understand this changing reality. According to G. John Ikenberry of Foreign Affairs, the best way to define soft power is as “a country’s capacity to persuade others to do what it wants without using force or coercion”. The person who coined the idea, political analyst Joseph S. Nye Jr, explains in Foreign Policy that “a country’s soft power can come from three resources: its culture, its values and its foreign policy.” This characterisation allows the multidimensionality of soft power to be appreciated along with the difficulty when addressing it, understanding it, measuring its scope and identifying which countries of the world hold it.
Measuring soft power: Soft Power 30 – A Global Ranking of Soft Power 2017
With a view to overcoming this difficulty and to addressing soft power globally, strategic communication consultant Portland and the USC Center on Public Diplomacy (CPD) have drafted the publication Soft Power 30 – A Global Ranking of Soft Power 2017 that condenses one of the most complete global comparative assessments of soft power, combining both objective and subjective data and international surveys.
This way, based on an exhaustive review of the academic literature on the issue and bearing in mind the 3 sources identified by Nye – mentioned above – the ranking seeks to capture a wide range of factors that contribute to the efforts of a nation to build soft power.
A systematic analysis of these data enables the report to draw the following main conclusions:
- France is at the top of the list and, along with the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany and Canada, comprise the top 5 of the list. Spain is number 15.
- The victory of Brexit in the United Kingdom and of Trump in the United States have caused these countries to drop in the ranking against 2016 (United Kingdom was top and USA second) at the same time as “an integral world rebalance has accelerated significantly with long-term consequences for the future of political, economic and security relations throughout the world”.
- This process of global rebalance, accelerated by Brexit and Trump, is basically the result of 3 phenomena: the transfer of power (the axis of power is shifting from West to East, and from nation states to non-state players), sudden, volatile geopolitical changes that accelerate global rebalance to a large extent and the evolution of the means of influence through digital platforms.
- As a consequence of this political uncertainty that has become the dominant issue of 2017, global affairs should be governed pursuant to two principles: 1) everybody matters now, from small states with little power to NGOs, sub-national governments, cities, multinational corporations and even individuals and 2) soft power will be far more critical for remodelling and mobilising fluid networks in support of stability, prosperity and security.
The analysis contained in the report explains current international volatility and also the importance of soft power as a resource to be exploited by those countries and non-state players who seek to have some kind of global influence. The digital revolution plays a vital role in this respect.
Digital diplomacy and politics as a power factor
As digital tools become more common and are adopted by more and more state and non-state players, strategies and tactics for using them more effectively are evolving rapidly, so the digital component of soft power grows increasingly in terms of relevance and importance. In the field of diplomacy, its importance and potential in undeniable for introducing messages and reaching audiences.
According to Ilan Manor, researcher from the Department of International Development of the University of Oxford, over the last ten years, the use of digital technologies in diplomacy has become increasingly diverse: “Norwegian ambassadors are using Skype to converse with university students; Palestine is adopting Facebook as a means to make commitments to Israeli citizens; The Indian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is developing computer games for children of the Indian diaspora, while the Georgian Ministry of the Diaspora offers online courses in the Georgian language; United Nations Ambassadors are using WhatsApp to coordinate their voting on several resolutions, while the Kenyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs is using Twitter more and more to provide emergency consular aid. And more recently, Foreign Affairs Ministries have started to use software programmers to analyse large data sets or to manipulate social media algorithms using bots”.
The potential is almost unlimited. But there are doubts around the effectiveness of these tools and whether or not they belong in the field of diplomacy. According to Shaun Riordan of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, “diplomatic analysts should be more cautious with social media as these are necessarily easy tools for diplomats”. On the other hand, Oxford professor Corneliu Bjola highlights three points to bear in mind:
- The exacerbation by social media of the emotional component over rational arguments when discussing complex problems;
- The increasingly important role of artificial intelligence and bots on social media, which could drastically diminish the possibility of developing significant relations with audiences online;
- The rapid take up of digital tools without a general strategy of how they should be used to support certain overseas policy objectives could cause problems of policy coordination and implementation.
Instability and volatility in current international politics presents serious challenges for global players and countries. Soft power as a concept, but also as a fluid and flexible form of power is a very important dimension to bear in mind when grappling with this specific scenario. The most important world powers, listed by Soft Power 30. A Global Ranking of Soft Power 2017, have managed to consolidate their position too as important benchmarks in this area and all the other global players should learn from them. But all that glistens is not gold and the pros and cons of bringing digital tools into politics should be analysed in detail by each particular player. As Riodran highlights, “to date, diplomats have trusted latest-generation instruments created for other purposes, adapting them to their needs. The next challenge will be to work with software programmers to design new digital tools that are up to the job and meet the needs of 21st century diplomacy”.