Rule soft Britannica
Anyone who watched even part of the opening and closing ceremonies of the London Olympics 2012, let alone tracked the average Briton’s revelling in the reflected glory of the games’ success, realized that a lot of the United Kingdom’s global standing lies in its status as a soft superpower.
There is a lot of statistical evidence for this. The UK is the world’s second largest exporter of popular music, trailing only the United States and well above Ireland and Australia who vie for third place. The full extent of the UK’s strength in this field was evident in the closing ceremony. Ditto holds for Britain’s standing in theatre, art, (Prince Charles has a different view) and literature. This is also true for applied creative fields like architecture, advertising and the like.
Even the British film industry earns the same as Bollywood each year – about $ 2 billion or 7 % of the global pie. I personally have a fondness for British humour and still mourn the death of Punch magazine – even though it is so culturally unique that much of it is difficult to export (Mr Bean and Benny Hill aside).
A common statistic, though I haven’t quite worked out how it is calculated, is that the UK has “the biggest creative industry per capita in the world.” No surprise that urban economist Richard Florida is the most favoured global advisor of David Cameron. Florida argues that the creative sector is the competitive advantage of Western economies.
There are more distinguished analysts of Britain’s cultural rise than me, but my theory as to this is twofold.
First, is the overarching importance of finance in the UK economy. One of the things I learnt from my year at the Asia Society in New York was that financial centres are generally founts of the creative arts. Financial capitals tend to be culturally tolerant, attract brains which have an attraction for the abstract, and have large oodles of money which can be deployed in cultural consumption.
Second, Britain was able to tap into the strength of its civil society, its traditional respect for the rule of law and general individualistic culture (“an Englishman’s house is his castle” and all that) to produce the sort of environment in which creativity could thrive. Melvyn Bragg is one of those who argues the British “found a way to emerge from the loss of a territorial and an industrial empire” and one of the chief ways was “to swing towards the arts and culture.” And, he argues, partially bury the rigidity of its class system. Lohiaites pay attention: the great social leveller is pop music.
Florida (the person) has argued that cities or regions that combine “talent, tolerance and technology” are best placed to be creative hubs. I would toss in derivative trading as well. One of the interesting arguments he makes is that cities that provide a tolerant environment for homosexuals tend to be more creative – because gays are disproportionately involved in creative pursuits.
Does all this make the UK a soft superpower? That I am more sceptical about. There is a difference between being a cultural power – which the UK undoubtedly is – and a soft power. A soft power, to turn to Joseph Nye’s standard definition, is about an “ability to influence another to act in ways in which that entity would not have acted otherwise.” He defines three sources of soft power: culture, political values and foreign policy.
I concede the first to Britain, though I am wary of the argument that making a person consume your pop culture products necessarily changes him in a deeper sense. Osama bin Laden was a fan of the Arsenal football club (after 9/11 he was officially banned for life from its stadium). A Madrid train bomber was a David Beckham acolyte. The Taliban nowadays play cricket. But it didn’t make them take on a liberal democratic worldview.
Britain’s contribution to political values is a historical legacy – and no greater legatee exists than India. But its contribution in that area these days is not so obvious. Among the European states it is the most wracked by the contradictions of trying to be a hard-nosed modernist like the United States and a postmodern pillar of the European Union.
And then there is its foreign policy. The three pillars of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office used to be the US, the European Union and the Commonwealth. The last has been reduced to a symbol, somewhat like the monarchy which remains its biggest supporter (though it is still taken seriously in Africa). London is still divided about the second. That it can have a government today actually fighting internally about whether to stay in the EU says something about how much influence Britain and Brussels have had on each other.
Finally there is the special relationship. This relationship is not particularly discernible from Washington. The US has special relationships with many other countries. More importantly, Britain has a dwindling ability to contribute to the US’s global interests. It sent a lot of soldiers to Afghanistan but, Indian officials note tetchily, lobbied the hardest for a US withdrawal regardless of the consequences. In the US’s “pivot to Asia” it is hard to see what role the UK has.
The UK compensates with a large overseas aid budget, the British Council and the BBC. But these institutional agencies are thin substitutes for being able to serve as a model for other countries, being a swing player in global diplomacy and deploy a carrier task force and a million tonnes of wheat to help a tsunami-hit nation.
Not everyone would agree. The UK-based Institute for Government issues a global ranking of soft power. The 2011 version, The New Persuaders II, ranks the UK as second to the US at 6.78 out of 10 as compared to 7.41 out of 10. In the subindices, the UK is second in culture, diplomacy and education but bombs in business/innovation and government.
Pax Britannica is today Cultura Britannica. But soft power nation I question. A soft power state would be contributing to a Novo Pax Britannica and that isn’t too evident.