What Happens When Soft Power Has to Stay at Home?

Main Image Credit Whitehall, London. Courtesy of Pikrepo.

The coronavirus pandemic has put many of the central sources of the UK’s soft power on pause. These must be protected, and new opportunities should be seized, for the UK to remain a global leader in soft power.

Before the coronavirus pandemic struck, the UK’s foreign policy focus had largely been on completing Brexit and on trying to provide the substance behind its ‘Global Britain’ slogan. Soft power, a country’s ability to affect others through the power of attraction, was seen as a crucial element of the UK’s role in the post-Brexit world. Hence the creation of a soft power strategy by the Foreign Office and the inclusion of soft power in the upcoming but postponed Integrated Review, as well as a growing number of non-governmental initiatives such as the BFPG and British Council’s ‘UK Soft Power Group’.

Yet, due to the consequences of the pandemic, many of the sources of the UK’s soft power (and indeed those of other countries across the world) have been shut down or put on pause. In the UK, for example, we currently have no Premier League, museums across the country are shut, universities face a large drop in expected international students, and international tourism to the UK is effectively non-existent, with inbound tourist numbers predicted to be down 54% for 2020 – a figure that right now feels optimistic.

This is not to say these sectors haven’t been responding to this crisis in ways that continue to add value to the UK’s soft power: sports across the UK are carrying out charitable initiatives while they look for innovative ways to resume activity; museums have online virtual tours. But their impact is undeniably much less than pre-coronavirus.

How might this reflect on the UK’s overall soft power in 2020? Traditionally, the UK has fared well on global soft power rankings, coming second in 2019 in Portland’s SoftPower30, one of the most respected soft power rankings. The SoftPower30 identifies a number of different categories of soft power including culture, education, government and more, which are then weighted. The changes brought about by coronavirus will result in the relative importance of each of those categories shifting; some areas have ground to a halt but others – such as technology and science – are thrust to the forefront as countries grapple with the virus and a search for a vaccine. Whether Portland specifically change their own weighting for their 2020 rankings remains to be seen, but either way, the soft power landscape will not look the same by the end of 2020.

Seizing the Opportunity: The Example of China

As this landscape shifts dramatically, the newer opportunities available to build and exert soft power become ever more important. One of the most visible attempts to capture these to date has been by China. Despite its international reputation suffering from perceptions of its initial handling of the virus, China has been busy trying to boost its international image. Initiatives have been numerous, from both the public and private sector, including shipping PPE to the Gulf states, test kits to the African Union, as well as sharing public health expertise. China also supplied PPE and testing kits to Italy, a move that drew public praise from Italy’s foreign minister and helped China continue to build its image as a benefactor.

Whilst examples of faulty equipment and pointedly undiplomatic behaviour of  Chinese ‘wolf warrior diplomats’ have undermined these efforts to some extent, China is hoping to come out of 2020 with a more positive international reputation and greater influence. The US has felt threatened by this attempted soft power offensive and has retaliated by upping its diplomatic and trade spats with China. This has ranged from President Trump referring to coronavirus as the ‘Wuhan virus’, to the White House releasing a 20-page report criticising China’s ‘malign activities’. It remains to be seen who the winners and losers of this soft power skirmish will be, but what is clear is that new battle lines are being drawn.

Foreign Policy as Soft Power

This brings us to what Portland defines as the most important subjective sub-index of soft power: foreign policy. Former Prime Minister Theresa May recently reminded the UK government of its ‘responsibilities on the world stage’, criticising its apparent lack of global leadership in dealing with the pandemic at hand. Whilst the UK’s domestic handling of the pandemic is open to some criticism, the argument about the international response seems slightly misplaced. The UK has taken an active role in promoting international action – in particular on vaccine research, development and roll-out. And, already a leading aid donor, it has put at least some of its money where its mouth is, with commitments of over $1 billion to the international effort. Recently, the UK co-hosted the Coronavirus Global Response International Pledging Conference, as well as the Global Vaccine Summit.

The UK should continue to lead on initiatives such as these to show its ‘Global Britain’ credentials, bolster its foreign policy leadership and boost its soft power at a time when many of its traditional soft power sources are on standby.

Protecting the UK’s Soft Power Assets

Until the switch can be flipped back on and these soft power assets powered back up, the UK faces the challenge of protecting their survival as many are suffering gaping financial wounds. As well as seizing the new opportunities presented by the crisis, the UK should focus on helping these sources to build the resilience to both withstand the impacts of the pandemic, but also emerge in as strong a position as possible. Depending on the pandemic’s progression, these measures could include financial bailouts or other support. As a spokesperson for

London Mayor Sadiq Khan said, culture ‘must play a key role in helping us recover from this public health crisis’.

Perhaps the most significant action taken by the UK government has been its extraordinary furlough scheme, which pays the wages of workers on leave because of coronavirus and costs the government about £14 billion a month. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has also recently made a positive move and appointed Neil Mendoza as Commissioner for Cultural Recovery, and Arts Council England created a £160 million emergency fund for theatres, galleries, museums and artists affected by the pandemic.

It would be wrong then to say that the government is not taking important measures to support this sector, but will they be enough to counteract the devastating scale of the virus’s impact? Recent reports highlight that the British Council, one of the UK’s main soft power institutions, may not have a future unless more support is provided.

The UK should double down in its efforts to protect and build its soft power in the midst of a pandemic that is impacting every aspect of our lives. By combining these two approaches of protecting traditional sources and making the most of new opportunities, the UK has the opportunity to remain at the forefront of global soft power in 2020. But, like many other aspects of the response to this pandemic, it is going to require a lot of money.

Edward Elliott is a Senior Associate at the British Foreign Policy Group.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


Explore our related content