Saturday, 1 July 2017

Soft Power and the British Council: As Others See Us (2014)

I’ve been undertaking some work on British soft power, and in discussing soft power as a resource first and an instrument second, I found the British Council’s 2014 report, As Others See Us (available here - As Others See Us). This report - and others like it - lead me to the conclusion that the British Council, while a remarkable instrument of cultural diplomacy, does not understand what soft power is or how it works for the benefit of the UK. 

As Others See Us is a useful guide to what is attractive about the UK, and reveals levels of international familiarity with British culture, politics, education, and society. It is less valuable to understanding soft power, and the notion that culture, historic attractions, cities, the countryside etc. should be ‘at the centre of thinking about the UK’s efforts to engage internationally’ is a serious error of judgement. The simple reason is that these are ways of making the UK more familiar. Soft power is what happens elsewhere. The report is wholly quantitative and provides no qualitative evidence whatsoever for its claims.

1.      The report does not reveal any data about the background of the respondents, other than gender and age. As serious scholars of communications are aware, it is necessary to understand fully the cultural, political, and social contexts in which audiences overseas live, how their attitudes and values are formed, and from where they receive their information about the UK. Are these ‘opinions’ of the UK formed and transmitted via the networks in which they function? Are they taught in schools or by families? Are they shaped by local media reports or by listening to the BBC World Service, reading Twitter etc.? The opinions measured in this report are only meaningful if contextualised by their source. Hence, Chart 17 (“What people think the UK should be proud of”) reveals that the NHS receives quite a low score (16%). Do respondents understand what the NHS is and how it works? What is their level of engagement? We don't know, because the research does not tell us. We need to separate their familiarity with the NHS as an institution/concept, and their understanding of how the NHS reflects British values of equality. This may be a theme that the instruments of British public diplomacy need to engage with more systematically.          

2.      The report measures familiarity, not soft power. Of course respondents overseas are familiar with the Monarchy and Shakespeare. They are highly visible, more accessible stories, non-threatening, and certainly more “sexy” than difficult and complex political ideas, values, institution, and processes. However, this is very different from understanding, accepting, or rejecting the values these cultural icons represent or are seen to represent. A staunch Republican will most likely visit Buckingham Palace because it is a tourist attraction; she may enjoy reading about the Monarchy’s history, and appreciate the Palace as a fine old building. Yet, this does not mean that seeing Buckingham Palace will change her basic values about the concept of Monarchy. These values have been formed because of her interaction with many different social influences and the effect of cognitive processes that shape opinions. Perhaps this implies the British public diplomacy machinery needs to focus less on communicating the superficial aspects of the Monarchy - the pomp and ceremony, the Castles and Palaces – and emphasise more the political role that the Monarchy plays, its alleged contribution to democratic stability etc. It is the difference between the Monarchy as something that is valuable to the British political culture and soft power, and the Monarchy as a valuable tourist attraction. Similarly the House of Lords, which stood accused by Prime Minister Theresa May of being ‘unelected’ and as opposing the government’s Brexit plans when she called the 2017 General Election. However we think of the Second Chamber, it exists and it has an important role to play in the political life of the UK. To many in the international audience the House of Lords may seem little more than an example of British eccentricity, a quaint and charming throwback to earlier times. Do we make sure overseas audiences are familiar with the positive arguments for retaining an unelected House, and why even the Church, via the presence of Bishops, have a representation there? Do our public diplomacy instruments explain why a democracy has an undemocratic institution at its core?    

3.      In one area the data presented does chime with my overall approach to soft power. In Chart 10 (‘Comparison of the factors that influence UK attractiveness and the attractiveness of countries in general’) the survey demonstrates that the ‘current and past actions of government’ make the UK less attractive. This conforms to the proposition that how a government behaves affects how it is seen abroad. This may also explain the low score for the attractiveness of the UK’s system of democracy (Chart 17). Again this may be due to perceptions of political behaviour and problems; it does not provide a breakdown of the processes by which democracy is practiced in the UK (for example, transparency and accountability), nor does it convey the reality that political democracy also occurs outside Westminster - and indeed London – and often via civil society at very local levels. 

4.      I agree with the report’s recommendation 6 (p.13) that more needs to be done to encourage an ‘international outlook’ among young British people. However, this is easier said than done, especially after the Referendum to leave the UK and in areas of the UK where immigration and the ‘international’ is seen defined as a problem for local communities. 

5.         This British Council report concludes thus:
‘Much of the soft power literature and many studies to date have placed significant importance on business brands and the actions of governments as determinants of a country’s soft power. There is no doubt that these are important factors. However, this research has found that for young educated people in countries of strategic importance to the UK, these factors appear to be less important than culture, countryside and landscape, cities, and people in determining a country’s attractiveness. Given the importance attributed to them by young people across the world, there is a strong case that they should feature more prominently in future models conceptualising soft power and attempts to enhance the UK’s international engagement and standing’ (emphasis added, p.26).

However, these are problematic claims because the report confuses attraction and soft power, using them interchangeably. The actions of governments are determinants of soft power; culture and countryside are important for attracting publics to the UK. Understanding the former helps us to understand why values are accepted or rejected, and therefore how and why British public diplomacy may be influential overseas; understanding the latter helps us design campaigns to attract tourists, students, and investment. Familiarity and soft power are not synonymous. Surveys like those undertaken for As Others See Us may reveal high levels of acquaintance with British institutions among publics overseas, and this may translate into attraction; but such surveys say nothing about soft power.  This confusion is common and limits the capacity for international influence, and it needs redressing if the UK wishes to move forwards in challenging times. 

Friday, 2 June 2017

Chinese soft power 'Trumps' US soft power: America's withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement

The Trump administration is flushing American soft power down the drain.

In my publications I have repeated a very clear statement: China has public diplomacy, but no soft power. This conclusion was based on the Chinese government's apparent commitment to expanding its platforms of communication - to know us is to love us - without paying sufficient attention to the way it behaves abroad and towards its own citizens. The continuing absence of democracy, the abuse of human rights, and China's policies in Tibet, Xinjiang and towards Taiwan have constantly undermined the more positive stories about the country's transformation since the early 1980s. Some of my publications addressing the absence of Chinese soft power are available here - Rawnsley

As I noted in my last post, the election of Donald Trump as the US President has presented substantial challenges for American soft power (Post-Trump Chinese cultural diplomacy). The Trump administration's attitude to soft power is captured in the aggressiveness of the President's philosophy: America First. This is at odds with America's contribution to the international system since Harry Truman who said, 'no matter how great our strength ... we must deny ourselves the license to do as we always please.' We might call Trump's turn the Milwall approach to soft power (fans of Milwall Football club were notorious in the 1990s for violence), namely: 'You don't like us, we don't care', an attitude originally ascribed to President Putin. The reorientation to hard power under Trump demonstrates that the US still has a preference for 'something that could be dropped on your foot or on your cities, rather than something that might change your mind about wanting to drop something in the first place' (1).

 On 1 June 2017, the death knell of American soft power under Trump rang loud and clear as the President decided the US would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. This is an explicit abrogation of America's share of the burden of tackling climate change and was a signal that 'America first' really means 'the rest of the world last'. The problem is that climate change is everyone's problem. Future generations of Americans will be victims of President Trump's short-sightedness.

In the wake of Tump's decision, China's soft power capacity is increasing, and this is demonstrated by the agreement between Chinese and EU leaders to issue a joint statement calling the Paris agreement 'an imperative more important than ever'. The promise of plans by China and the EU to lower carbon emissions by 2020 is a significant step forwards. Since 1949, China has rarely worked with other countries outside the communist orbit, but by doing so now on such a pressing issue, Beijing is showing maturity and an astute understanding of how modern international politics are configured. Mutual interest and shared responsibility must challenge America first. As the US retreats from the world stage and President Trump demonstrates his lack of understanding of how diplomacy works, China is gaining the power to help reorder the international system.

Soft power is about moral authority. It is about leadership and leading by example. It is about accepting responsibility and stepping up when necessary. Soft power is not under any circumstances a panacea for problems in the hard power domain, and no amount of presentation or spin will change opinion about misjudged, unethical, or poorly designed policies crafted and executed by governments in the national or international arena. Getting the right policy right is absolutely essential and must be the core function of government. Credibility – the currency of modern political communication – depends on the consistency between actions and rhetoric. The questions for governments is not, ‘How can we make them like us more?’, but rather, ‘How do we wish others to see us?’ and ‘How can we govern better?’.

In asserting a commitment to the Paris agreement and the need to work with other countries to manage, if not find solutions, to the problems created by climate change, China is demonstrating its moral authority and leadership. Although problems remain - China remains heavily dependent on coal - the government is investing in renewable energy, while seeking multilateral ways to deal with environmental problems.

Since the mid-1990s, we have discussed the rise of China in economic and military terms. Now finally we can add speak about China's soft power in a more meaningful way than Confucius Institutes and CCTV. On climate change at least, China is showing its potential global leadership that may fill the space left by America's soft power collapse. Speaking during a visit to Germany, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said that China 'will continue to implement the promises made in the Paris accord. But of course we also hope to do this with the co-operation of others.' He added that China, as a major industrial power and the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gasses, has an 'international responsibility' to prevent climate change. Following Trump's decision Hua Chunying, spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said 'The Paris Agreement contains the international community's coherent opinion on climate change. It was a hard-won result'. It was a hard won result easily lost.

This new commitment to soft power complements the Chinese government's investment in the One Belt, One Road Initiative which sees Chinese-funded investment on a scale that surpasses the Marshall Plan. Are we finally witnessing the dawn of the Chinese century?

Admiral Mike Mullen of the US Navy summarised the problems with American soft power and we can make the connection between his observations and the Trump administration, especially its decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement:

To put it simply, we need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our acts and much more about what our actions communicate. Each time we fail to live up to our values or don't follow up on a promise, we look more like the arrogant Americans the enemy claims we are. (2)

(1) J.S. Nye, (2011), The Future of Power (New York: PublicAffairs), p.82.
(2) M. Mullen (2012), ‘Getting back to basics,’ Joint Forces Quarterly, issue 55, p.4.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

On Chinese Cultural Diplomacy post-Brexit/Trump

In February 2017 I was invited to deliver the opening address to a two-days conference on Chinese cultural diplomacy in Prague. This is the text.

We are told that the Chinese have a saying: May you live in interesting times. And I understand this is intended as a curse rather than a blessing.

Every generation claims its own interesting times. Every generation embraces what it assumes is the uniqueness of its experience.

I can say without a doubt that I am now living through some of my own most interesting times. It is difficult to recall such an unpredictable, volatile, and often frightening moment since the we lived under the shadow of imminent nuclear war in the early 1980s - a time of unchecked populism, sweeping racism and bigotry, a time when being an "expert" is suspect, a times when "alternative facts" bleed into everyday narratives. The normalisation of abnormal politics is perhaps the most disturbing and distressing development of all.

At such times, we must turn to and depend on the Arts to make sense of our world and our place in it. Culture is not only a sanctuary from chaos - who doesn't want to see La La Land to escape the dismal Trump Land - but Culture also provides another voice to challenge the powerful and give succour to the powerless.

Of course this is not new. At every troubled turn in history, pain, confusion and terror have been the catalyst for artistic achievements. In the 20th Century alone think of Picasso's Guernica, the novels of Erich Remarque, Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn, Primo Levi and John Steinbeck; Arthur Miller's The Crucible, the music of Shostakovich; and the whole wave of artistic expression that reflects and comes to terms with the trauma of the Vietnam war. Here in Prague, Franz Kafka is a justly celebrated figure, and much of today's political turbulence might well be labelled Kafkaesque. Meanwhile, Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a seminal account of life during the Prague Spring. Since President Trump's inauguration the 20th January, no book has been referenced more than Orwell's 1984, with 'alternative facts' resembling Big Brother's Newspeak. In the UK, 1984 has experienced an increase in sales of over 90% since January,

Sometimes the dry treatises of philosophy and political science speak to us with less urgency and less relevance than Culture.

In opening a conference examining Chinese cultural diplomacy I make no apologies for these reflections - for what may seem digressions from the subject we have all gathered to discuss.

For since the unfortunate turn of events on 23 June 2016 when a majority of my fellow countrymen decided we should leave the most successful and peaceful trading alliance in recorded history, I've been returning again and again to soft power and I have reason to question my longstanding agnosticism. What is soft power? How is it accumulated? How is it exercised? And, perhaps most importantly, how do we maintain and nourish it? And in unpacking the concept into its component parts it seems we must pay far more attention to cultural diplomacy and cultural relations than we have in the past.

Certainly in the first few weeks of what will be an interminably long Trump Presidency - four years might as well be forty - US soft power has been challenged and undermined at every turn. For soft power is about moral authority, the legitimacy and credibility of a government's actions that is rooted in how a government treats its own citizens and how it behaves abroad. I don't need to labour the relevance of Trump, nor of Theresa May and Boris Johnson for that matter. How can the US and UK with any degree of credibility continue to lecture countries like China on the need to advance universal rights and values? When the Foreign Secretary likens the French President to a Nazi POW officer, how can we take seriously his - and British - moral authority?

In a speech to the UN in Geneva in January 2017, the Chinese President Xi Jinping called on the world to "build a community of shared futures of mankind and achieve shared and win-win development." While Xi advanced a compelling commitment to China's economic growth, exports, and overseas investment, he also said: "We always put people's rights and interests above everything else and have worked hard to advance and uphold human rights".

In the past, such claims would have met with ridicule, having little credibility among those who know the full extent of the Chinese government's commitment to human rights.

But these are interesting times ... And the US's credibility in upholding moral values or exercising moral authority is weakening by the day. Why should we judge Xi Jinping's claims to be any less legitimate than Donald Trump's?

 Soft power RIP ... almost ... but not quite.

First, the eruption of protests around the world in response to some of the more disturbing policies of the Trump administration demonstrate the formation of new ways of understanding soft power - one that arises spontaneously in civil society and challenges the defilement of cherished values. The democratic spirit embodied in these protests is a powerful narrative that has resonated around the world; they have created new relationships, new senses of community and empathy - the very embodiment of of cultural diplomacy and cultural relations.
And secondly, as I noted, culture often thrives best in troubled times. Art feeds off tormented souls.

And speaking of souls ...

The US State Department once said that 'Cultural diplomacy reveals the soul of a nation'.

It is the act of telling stories about ourselves to others, defining who we are and from where we have journeyed. This is why thousands around the world have chosen to highlight the inconsistencies in American values forged in history (and values which have contributed to both soft and cultural power) and American actions.

While there is no settled definition of cultural diplomacy, words that crop up in all discussions include 'mutual understanding', 'tolerance', 'respect', 'challenging prejudices', 'shared interests'. Cultural diplomacy is therefore a normative project.

Former Chinese President Hu Jintao alluded to a more sinister understanding of cultural diplomacy and talked about culture and tradition as areas of international conflict. In 2012, he wrote in the magazine Qiushi that "we must clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of Westernizing and dividing China, and ideological and cultural fields", he said, "are the focal areas of their long-term infiltration ... We should deeply understand the seriousness and complexity of the ideological struggle, always sound the alarm and remain vigilant and take forceful measures to be on guard and respond".

This view echoed  Lu Shulei from the Central Party School who warned China about "some powerful nations" who "wish to use culture as a weapon against other nations" and urged China to "work hard to raise our country's soft power".

Even Xi Jinping and the present leadership declines to discuss "mutual understanding" as a goal of its cultural outreach, preferring instead to continue to lament our allegedly distorted view of modern China. His talk of a "cultural renaissance" to rejuvenate Chinese values, strength, and moral superiority over western values is designed to renew what he calls "cultural self-confidence".

Thus taking Hu Jintao's assessment of the risk of western cultural imperialism one step further, Xi Jinping has linked this cultural renaissance to a nationalist agenda through the China Dream. Artists have been instructed to make the Chinese nation central to their work to spread Chinese values and promote the Chinese spirit.

For example, China's Film Industry Law which came into effect on 1 March calls on movies to "serve the people and socialism". It will not allow co-operation with foreign organisations engaging in what are considered to be "activities damaging China's national dignity, honour, and interests, or harming social stability or hurting national feelings," and subjects that "defame the people's excellent cultural traditions" are banned.

As one of my MA students noted when we discussed this in class, this is a method of regulating both content and access by foreign organisations to the Chinese market unless they meet politically-accepted and ideologically-driven criteria. What those criteria are remains anyone's guess, as the vagueness of the regulations is what gives them power. National dignity, defamation, the national feelings can be whatever the Chinese state wants them to be and under whatever circumstances.

And this politicisation of culture appears to be working. The Pew Opinion Poll organisation found in 2016 that around three-quarters of Chinese who responded to the poll (c.77%) believe there is a real need to protect China from foreign influence. Contrast this with a mere 37% who see the widening gap between rich and poor as a major problem.

It is unfortunate that China has chosen not just to politicise its culture in this way, but also to situate Chinese culture within a perceived global competition for cultural hegemony. Perhaps I am naive in rejecting such claims and dismissing the twin threats of Americanisation and cultural imperialism.

I prefer a more complex picture of the world where culture flows in multiple directions, and where the original source is often forgotten or is irrelevant. It is rare I disagree with my literary hero, George Orwell, but I cannot accept his conclusion that all art is propaganda; and therefore I cannot accept the Chinese view of cultural conflict.

At the same time, it would be naive to pretend that power and culture are not bound together. Questions that arise from any discussion of cultural diplomacy must include, Whose culture is represented? Who gets to decide?

As a Brit I am all too aware that the image of my country abroad is dominated by the Queen, Castles, Shakespeare, poor food, warm beer, Harry Potter, Sherlock, and cricket. But this is a tiny snapshot of a complex cultural landscape that covers four different countries, not to mention socio-economic experiences within them. Why would Shakespeare represent the working class community in which I grew up? His concerns are universal and timeless - love, death, cruelty, power, superstition. But might the films of Ken Loach or the television scripts of Paul Abbott have greater resonance and narrate those themes in more appealing ways?

For a country the size of China with huge demographic and ethnic differences, the question of Whose culture? is perhaps more relevant. Who has the authority - and the legitimacy - to decide whose cultural experience is communicated and for what purpose? This is a question I would ask any nation-state promoting a cultural agenda. For China, the answer is clear and straightforward: the CCP and Xi Jinping gets to decide.

The current Chinese commitment to resisting western culture is a form of Occidentalism, a way of understanding the intersection of identities and cultures that complements the Orientalism associated with Edward Said. In historical terms, there is little difference between the way Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping have viewed western culture and, for example, the Japanese scholars who gathered together in Kyoto in 1942 to discuss "how to overcome the modern". And the modern meant to the Japanese, as it does to the Chinese today, the west. We are told in accounts of this meeting that the participants compared Westernization to "a disease that had infected the Japanese spirit". One film critic advocated a war against "the poisonous materialist civilization". Writing on Occidentalism, Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit observe the following: "All at the conference agreed that culture - that is, traditional Japanese culture - was spiritual and profound, whereas modern western civilization was shallow, rootless and destructive of creative power ..." Such sentiments certainly echo Hu Jintao, Xi Jinping and all the others in modern China who rail against western culture as poisonous, who describe Chinese culture as superior, and call for the protection of Chinese culture from western influence.

When such Occidentalism determines cultural policy in China, the situation is bad; when such Occidentalism justifies terrorist atrocities committed by Al Qaeda and Islamic State, it becomes reprehensible.

In 2010, outspoken journalist and blogger Chen Jibing discussed the limitation of China's international outreach:

[I]f we truly want China's voice to gain a foothold on the stage of world public opinion, I am afraid it is far from sufficient to put our energies into communication channels and the technical side alone. ... But the difficulty lies in making the world accept China's viewpoints. In the final analysis, the origin of the influence of the media or any cultural product lies in the true and credible nature of the facts of the news and in moral values with appeal.
The moral and credible nature of the facts ... Suspicion of experts and the media ... alternative facts ... fake news ...

In short, as I have said on many occasions when speaking about this subject, there is no obvious correlation between enjoying and liking China and Chinese culture, and liking the Chinese political system and its behaviour at home and abroad.

And so we arrive back at our starting point: That soft power is about moral authority. We do well to remember that while the moral authority of governments is weakening, the renewed importance of art and Culture, relocates soft power away from the political centre and in civil society and the cultural industries.

May you live in interesting times indeed ...