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Our columnist explores soft power and Asia’s growing clout


soft power, first developed by Joseph Nye in the 1980s, has always fascinated me. Defined as the ability to co-opt others through appeal and attraction, it contrasts with hard power, in which force and money are used to persuade others. Hard power can come from a nation’s GDP, military assets or population size; while soft power is all about culture, diplomacy, education, innovation and values.

Soft power rankings have existed for several years. British consultancy Portland Communication’s 2017 rankings were published recently with following top 10: France, the UK, the US, Germany, Canada, Japan, Switzerland, Australia, Sweden and the Netherlands. Monocle’s top

10 list for 2016/17 was almost identical, with Denmark edging out the Netherlands.

Now if these were the rankings from the 1970s I suppose I could be sanguine, but my first reaction here in

2017 borders on incredulity.

Are these really the 10 most influential and (key point) attractive countries in the world? I firmly think not.

Firstly, the top three countries have been through tremendous turmoil over the past 10 years across all relevant dimensions. The global financial crisis, the unpopularity of successive governments, the isolationist tendencies manifested in recent presidential and referendum elections, the declining competitiveness of education and digital engagement, and the broad inefficacy of a good deal of their foreign policy all point to a decline in influence and appeal.

Secondly, even within the Western world, surely the relative appeal of more socialist democracies – Denmark, Sweden, Norway – has significantly increased versus their fiscally conservative counterparts. Large swathes of the UK, France and the US now believe that a greater emphasis on educating, supporting and encouraging the poorest in society is the way forward. This is both influence and appeal.

But thirdly, where on earth is Asia on this list? Only Japan appears, despite obvious challenges in competitiveness and diplomatic efficacy. Where is Singapore, which is seen around the world as the example of how to run a competitive, environmentally friendly, digitally excellent capitalist economy? Where is South Korea, with the global impact of its culture, from food to film? And where is China, the economic miracle of the past two generations, with its language now taught everywhere in the West, its diplomatic might and wide influence in the rest of Asia and Africa in particular? I get that South Korea and Singapore are small and that China has its problems but Switzerland and the Netherlands are small, too, and you can’t tell me France, the UK and the US don’t also have their problems.

These rankings all point to an issue that I find troubling: to almost all of us, Asia is a critical part of our lives, culturally and economically, and yet it remains ignored to a large extent in macro polls and rankings such as this. Perhaps it’s just time to create our own?

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