Though it can sometimes be difficult to tell when listening to speeches from certain state leaders, soft power is an increasingly popular – not to mention effective – tool for many countries around the world. When it comes to making friends and influencing others, smart nations know that they need to show off their softer side.
Instead of flaunting military might or doubling down on nationalist rhetoric, the countries that have done well in our ninth annual Soft Power Survey have leaders who make time for their counterparts. They have athletes who score big when the world is watching and a cultural output that garners fans from all over. These are the nations that attract tourists and foreign students alike, making serious investments in their diplomatic network abroad.
At a time when many relationships are in flux and nations are reassessing where they stand on the world stage, soft power is more important than ever. And, as this year’s winner proves, a charismatic leader offers a boost that’s hard to beat (a World Cup win helps too). To find this year’s winner – and where your nation stands – read on.
A soft-power offensive and sporting success send France to the top.
When, on 15 July 2018, a French teenager, born to a Cameroonian father and a mother of Algerian descent, scored a goal on a football pitch in Russia, he not only sealed his country’s fate as the winner of the 2018 World Cup but also cemented his rising status as France’s newest soft-power icon. Not only was 19-year-old Kylian Mbappé a fêted football star but, as the son of immigrants, he also demonstrated that one of France’s greatest strengths in 2018 can be its cosmopolitanism.
It was a message that had long been championed by another French wunderkind. Since his 2017 election campaign president Emmanuel Macron (who was watching the game from the stands) has touted the importance of France’s place at the heart of Europe and on the global stage by defying nationalists both at home and abroad. But while angling to be the face of global liberalism would have been a competitive game at one point, in 2018 there seem to be surprisingly few who want to take up that mantle. From Brexit to America First, populism and a desire to shut borders has become the modus operandi for governments around the world.
Unsurprisingly this has done much to shake up the way diplomacy is done – and not for the better. Old alliances have shifted and morphed, while new, sometimes worrying and occasionally shadowy bonds are being formed. Yet a few stalwarts of old-fashioned international relations remain and no one is more of an enthusiast than Macron. The president is indefatigable, racking up a lengthy list of international trips in a short amount of time – and hosting many foreign leaders too. He’s unafraid of grand gestures; this is the man who gave China’s president Xi Jinping a horse. He’s able to hold his own against the most undiplomatic of counterparts; recall the aggressive handshake-off with Donald Trump, while also refusing to go back on his beliefs simply to make nice. Though his domestic popularity has flagged, internationally Macron is seen as a savvy statesman who has renewed his nation’s global ambitions.
Aside from extraordinary events, such as a World Cup win and a fresh-faced leader, France is also going strong with its old faithful approach to soft power. The country is historically a cultural powerhouse but new blood is making waves. French recording artists such as Christine and the Queens (see page 40) have stormed charts internationally, while the English translation of French-Moroccan author Leïla Slimani’s second novel Chanson Douce (Lullaby) has won rave reviews around the world and proved that she is a force to be reckoned with. A robust network of institutions, from Institut Français to Organisation internationale de la Francophonie, help spread the French language and culture abroad.
And following a dip in tourism after terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice, the number of visitors to France has rebounded. Last year saw a record 89 million tourists visit the country; 2018 is on track to see just as many.
What’s more, the future looks bright for France. With the 2024 Olympic Games being awarded to Paris, the capital is preparing to be in the global spotlight (mayor Anne Hidalgo has long been implementing smart urbanism solutions to improve the city). While challenges remain both abroad and at home – the twin threats of terrorism and xenophobic nationalism can’t be ignored – France has much to cheer about. Even off the football pitch.
Total international aid spend: $11.1bn
Olympic medals won at last Summer and Winter Games: 57
Good: Lending the Bayeux Tapestry to the UK raised France’s profile.
Bad: Xenophobia still simmers in France and could boil over.
France’s textile industry is underappreciated abroad. Paris should be shouting about the nation’s linen and craft industries.
Despite turbulent times, Germany is holding on to its good name.
Angela Merkel has taken a hit at home politically. It took her months to form a coalition government with the Social Democrats earlier this year, which has weakened her on the world stage. Yet she remains, along with Macron, the face of European co-operation and liberal cosmopolitanism. The widely shared image of her and the French president facing off with a petulant-looking Donald Trump at the G7 meeting in Québec this summer summed up this dynamic perfectly.
Though Merkel will step down as chancellor in 2021, it’s important to remember that not all Germany’s soft power lies with its leader. Munich is building its innovation hub, while Frankfurt has started to benefit from London’s loss ahead of Brexit and Berlin maintains its cool clout.
Foreign students: 374,951
Good: The media landscape in Germany remains robust.
Bad: Reports of far-right mobs rioting make for uneasy reading.
Despite political headwinds, Germany is still recognised as a bastion of efficiency; it also has a strong economy and great quality of life.
Top food and cultural exports mean Japan is hitting all the right notes.
Tourism to Japan is booming: in 2017 it welcomed 28.7 million visitors. And, as the 2020 Olympic Games approach, Japan is preparing to host even more people by improving infrastructure and building hotels.
Political stability has continued under prime minister Shinzo Abe and international spending is strong too: Japan is the second-largest contributor to the UN’s development budget. The country’s culinary prowess and design continue to appeal and cultural recognition is extending beyond anime and J-pop. This year saw Japanese film Shoplifters win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, as well as the international release of Haruki Murakami’s latest book Killing Commendatore, which received widespread acclaim.
Total international aid spending: $16.8bn
Good: Japan continues to invest in infrastructure across Asia.
Bad: The country’s resistance to accepting refugees hasn’t eased.
Cultural outpost Japan House – which shows off the best of the country’s design and cuisine – is great for promoting Japan abroad.
By no means perfect, Trudeau continues to shepherd his nation.
It’s been a tough year diplomatically for Canada, though some troubles were of its own making. Justin Trudeau’s tour of India saw the PM and his family parading the country in over-the-top traditional outfits, some of which were described as “too Indian even for an Indian”, leaving the leader looking foolish.
But Trudeau – and foreign minister Chrystia Freeland – did many things right too. Between the G7 meeting in Québec and the renegotiation of Nafta, Canada managed to protect its own interests while also highlighting its commitment to protecting global stability. Despite the speed bumps it is an example of a country that not only cares about soft power but also (usually) knows how to use it effectively.
Total international aid spending: $4.3bn
Foreign students: 494,525
Good: Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and CBC’s Alias Grace brought renewed love for the Margaret Atwood novels.
Bad: CBC deserves a better international presence.
From Drake to Shawn Mendes and The Weeknd, Canadian recording artists are well represented on charts around the world.
The nation continues to be a reassuring presence on the world stage.
Switzerland is a nation that understands the power of an enduring brand: watches, pocketknives and Helvetica are all a tangible shorthand for Swiss excellence. What’s more, Geneva and Zürich are home to some of the world’s biggest businesses (ABB, Rolex, Nestlé) and international organisations (International Committee of the Red Cross, World Health Organisation).
The country is known for its political and economic stability, making it the perfect place to host major events such the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos. Its cities are known for excellent quality of life and are home to people from all over the world, while its universities attract plenty of foreign students every year.
Total international aid spending: $3.1bn
Good: Art Basel has set the example of how to make an art fair into a global brand.
Bad: Tourism is still relatively low compared to its neighbours.
The country isn’t known for its cultural output, with too few contemporary singers, film-makers and writers catching attention abroad.
The nation has set itself adrift as Brexit looms on the horizon.
Brexit has continued to hurt the UK’s image on the world stage. By choosing to leave the EU, while at the same time positioning itself as an opponent of the bloc, it comes across as antagonistic, stubborn and undiplomatic to the rest of the world.
In spite of its political class, its cultural touchstones – which span everything from the Harry Potter franchise to Shakespeare and the Bond films – are still global goodwill generators. The British Council continues to work in more than 100 countries. The BBC World Service broadcasts in more than 40 languages and is a respected news source. Meanwhile, sport spectacles such as the Premier League and Wimbledon draw in devoted fans.
Total international aid spending: $18.1bn
Foreign students: 442,375
Good: A British education is still considered a globally appreciated asset.
Bad: The UK routinely fails to use its multiculturalism as a selling point.
The royal family is once again a soft-power star: the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle was watched by some 29 million people.
The Swedish brand continues to thrive – despite the Nobel no-no.
One of Sweden’s biggest soft-power assets suffered this year when the Swedish Academy announced that, for the first time since 1949, there would be no Nobel prize for literature awarded this year. The announcement followed on the heels of resignations and allegations of sexual misconduct and malpractice. To make up for it, the Academy promised to award two prizes next year.
Elsewhere, however, the Swedes continue to shine. The nation’s pop heavyweights rule the charts, not least with popstar Robyn having returned with a new album after an eight-year hiatus. Meanwhile, big brands such as Volvo and Ikea thrive. Sweden is also one of the largest donors of international aid as a percentage of its GDP.
Total international aid spending: $5.4bn
Foreign students: 35,100
Good: The film The Square earned nominations at the Academy awards.
Bad: The nation isn’t known for its sporting skills – even winter ones.
The elections saw the political stability that characterised the country for decades suddenly turned on its head.
A shake-up is needed for Australia to remain an attractive proposition.
The brouhaha over nationality, whereby more than a dozen politicians were ousted from office for holding dual citizenship, didn’t paint Australia in a good light. That turmoil was followed by a new prime minister (the fifth in eight years). The country has frozen its foreign-aid budget and anti-immigration policies are being championed. A sporting snafu, when members of the men’s cricket team were caught cheating against South Africa, was a humiliation.
Yet it wasn’t all bad for sport diplomacy this year: the 2018 Commonwealth Games allowed the Gold Coast to show off its best side. The staples of Aussie soft power are still there and visitors have been keen to enjoy the nation’s sun, sand and single-shot flat whites.
Total international aid spending: $2.8bn
Good: The previous government committed to an official review of the country’s soft power.
Bad: It’s unclear if that will now be a priority.
The country is well covered in foreign media thanks to the number of international journalists and bureaux that are found here.
The US is squandering its soft-power wins – at what cost?
Can a Twitter account kill a nation’s soft power? The US has fallen in our ranking, directly and indirectly due to Donald Trump’s combative diplomatic relations. Whether attempting to rip up trade deals such as Nafta, trashing Nato or sounding off over “shithole countries”, he has offended allies and potentially ruined relationships in the name of making America great again.
The good news is that much of the world realises that the US is about more than this administration. Its universities are among the best, innovation in Silicon Valley is second to none, it has produced more Pritzker and Nobel prize winners than any other and its music and films are enjoyed around the world.
Total international aid spending: $39.3bn
Olympic medals won at last Summer and Winter Games: 144
Good: American brands such as the nfl are attracting fans in London and beyond.
Bad: Reports suggest that there are fewer foreign students than before.
A strong ambassadorial presence abroad would do wonders for the US but there are dozens of unfilled posts in the nation’s embassies.
Sun-seeking tourists and foreign investors are more than welcome.
As UN secretary-general, António Guterres is one of Portugal’s soft-power superstars on the world stage. Meanwhile, at home, Portugal’s warm hospitality and quality manufacturing have won it an ever-increasing number of fans in the form of visitors and foreign investors. “Made in Portugal” has become synonymous with quality, whether it’s traditional trades (such as shoe-making) or newer ventures (technology).
Tourists can’t seem to get enough of the nation, from thriving capital Lisbon to the sun-drenched shores of the Algarve. Portugal also showed the world that it knows how to throw a party when it hosted the Eurovision Song Contest in May.
Cultural missions: Institution of Co-operation and Language of Portugal
Foreign students: 42,564
Good: Lisbon’s Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology continues to wow.
Bad: A diplomatic spat with Angola over convicting Dos Santos-era ministers.
Portugal isn’t singing its own praises enough: the country needs to spread the word that it’s no longer just a sleepy spot to catch the sun.
The nation’s charming prime minister is a boon at home and abroad.
Jacindamania has gone global. This little country continues to punch above its weight, largely thanks to its charismatic prime minister Jacinda Ardern (see page 94). The left-wing leader has made a splash with a number of headline-grabbing foreign trips, which included a visit to Buckingham Palace while heavily pregnant and dressed in a Maori cloak, and months later holding her infant daughter at the UN General Assembly meeting.
But it’s not just photo ops: New Zealand has boosted its foreign-aid spend by almost a third, with funds primarily going to the South Pacific region. The move was designed to counter China’s influence and came at a time when Australia was scaling back its foreign aid. The result? All win for New Zealand.
Foreign students: 106,000
Total international aid spend: $614m
Good: Maori culture has been given better recognition.
Bad: The country is a choice location for Hollywood films but could improve its own cinema output.
Though Ardern’s been a positive, having a single politician act as the face of a nation is a recipe for disappointment.
Despite diehard leaders, Italy has held onto its good name – just.
Political stability has often been a problem for Italy at home and this year proved no exception. The country’s new Eurosceptic, anti-immigration leaders haven’t been doing it any favours on the world stage: soon after coming to power they turned away a migrant ship carrying hundreds of refugees; since then deputy PM Matteo Salvini has made a steady succession of headlines for his anti-immigration rhetoric.
Yet Italy has weathered controversial political leaders in the past. In spite of who’s at the helm, the nation’s culture and cuisine continue to give it a good name. Meanwhile, Milan is making its pitch to woo businesses spooked by Brexit and international events from Salone del Mobile to the Venice Biennale continue to draw crowds from all over the world.
World Heritage sites: 54
Tourists: 60 million
Good: A remix of Bella Ciao, Italy’s most famous anti-fascist folk song, became Europe’s unlikely summer hit.
Bad: Poor infrastructure mars the country and costs lives.
The men’s football team didn’t qualify for the World Cup. But its women’s team did; they should be supported in the 2019 competition.
The country’s new premier is a force for diplomatic good.
Despite the political turmoil over the Catalan independence referendum in 2017, tourists are still champing at the bit – not to mention the jamón – when it comes to visiting Spain to experience its nightlife and art offerings. Last year it was the second most visited country in the world.
The new prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, has proved he’s more serious about diplomacy than his predecessor. In fewer than six months on the job, the 46-year-old politician has made a concerted effort to get face time with counterparts around the world including Emmanuel Macron, Evo Morales and Justin Trudeau. It’s a promising indication that the leader will be just as concerned with foreign relations as he is with internal ones.
Foreign students: 95,000
World Heritage sites: 47
Good: Madrid-manufactured Loewe continues to impress.
Bad: In a pride-bruising turn, Spain’s football team was defeated by Russia at the World Cup.
Though the chaos following the Catalan independence vote has calmed down, underlying tensions remain and could boil over again.
Nordic cool continues to rule – and Denmark delivers yet again.
Danish design is still the byword for cool, the country is still a superstar when it comes to churning out extraordinary TV dramas and its quality of life continues to set it apart. Copenhagen – a staple top contender in our Quality of Life survey – is the birthplace of New Nordic cuisine and is attracting more tourists than ever. But it hasn’t been completely rosy at home this year. A burqa ban led to protests and negative headlines around the world. Diplomacy abroad has been better. For a country of its size, Denmark has an ample number of embassies and consulates. It was also the first to appoint a technology ambassador to Silicon Valley.
Cultural missions: 7 offices of the Danish Cultural Institute across the globe
Total international aid spending: $2.3bn
Good: Lego is making an odd but interesting push to attract adults.
Bad: Despite being a Nordic country, it didn’t win a single medal at the Winter Olympics.
Bang & Olufsen continues to attract new fans and this year collaborated again with film director David Lynch on a new set of speakers.
The nation deserves a medal for its diplomacy at the Winter Olympics.
South Korea got an early start on splashy diplomacy this year, as Pyeongchang played host to the Winter Olympics in February. The nation’s athletes performed capably, coming in seventh on the medal table. But the real story was the soft-power successes, like when the athletes from both North and South Korea walked the opening ceremony together. That set the stage for South Korea’s next victory where president Moon Jae-in navigated several historic meetings with Kim Jong-un. Moon has largely been viewed as the mediator between North Korea’s dictator and Donald Trump but his ability to steer through the first steps toward tentative peace on the peninsula was widely applauded.
Cultural missions: 32
Total international aid spending: $2.1bn
Good: K-pop boy band BTS stormed the world’s charts.
Bad: Samsung faces fines for deliberately slowing down phones to boost sales.
South Korea has long proved the value of exporting its culture as a soft-power strategy and it’s nice to see formal diplomacy is catching up.
The Dutch lead the way when it comes to nation branding.
The European home to the likes of Netflix and Nike, the Netherlands is a country that is open for business. Progressive policies, excellent universities and an innovative technology sector hit all the right notes. The Hague continues to resonate around the world as the home of international justice while Amsterdam’s art and culture offerings are top-notch. The Netherlands has been at the forefront of water diplomacy: it appointed the world’s first diplomat focused solely on water in 2015. Dutch icons from Philips gadgets to tulips and bicycles continue to charm.
The anti-tourism stance embraced by Amsterdam doesn’t give the Netherlands the friendliest of faces to visitors.
It would never shout about it but Finland is a soft-power maverick.
Finland is a nation that tends to fly under the radar when it comes to soft power, at least compared to neighbouring Sweden. But playing host to one of 2018’s most publicised political powwows – between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin – allowed the Finns to flaunt their feathers on the diplomatic world stage. More quietly, the country’s education system is excellent, while sauna diplomacy – which Finnish ambassadors regularly partake in – is a brilliant way to remove barriers. And though Sweden may protest, Finland still lays the best claim to Santa Claus.
People are still trying to make kalsarikännit – the Finnish word for “drinking at home alone in your underwear” – the new hygge.
The nation needs to push on with its peace-keeping mission.
From awarding the Nobel Peace prize to actively brokering peace deals around the world, Norway plays a pretty strong hand in the soft-power stakes. But while it achieved soaring success with its involvement in negotiating the Farc peace deal, it has recently gone quiet at a time when bringing people to the table would be especially useful. Still, prime minister Erna Solberg has done much to bolster her nation’s image, particularly when it comes to forging ties. She was honoured with the Global Citizen award by the Atlantic Council for her commitment to international development.
The small nation of just five million scored top of the podium at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang with 39 medals.
At times heavy-handed, China shows it can tread softly too.
There aren’t many nations that invest in soft power as vigorously as China. From the rapid expansion of Confucius Institute, its cultural and language centres, to the growing Belt and Road Initiative that sees it building infrastructure around the globe, money is being used to buy goodwill and influence. Yet some of China’s manoeuvres have been met with suspicion; the aggressive approach chimes a little too closely with its approach to military power. But it’s the less insistent means of soft power – from panda diplomacy to tourism – that China does well.
With some western nations disavowing globalisation, China has taken up the mantle of championing economic co-operation worldwide.
Its power to convene the world’s powers is not to be underestimated.
It’s a boon and burden to Belgium that Brussels is the capital of both the country and Europe. The nation benefits from hosting this seat of power but it also must deal with being associated with stifling red tape. This year saw the EU go head to head with the UK in Brexit talks in a series of high-profile meetings in Brussels. (Neither side can claim that they’ve gone well.) But Belgium is also home to Nato and Tintin, which are less fraught soft-power assets. Its football team also put in a thrilling showing at the World Cup, coming in third place.
Belgium is more than just Brussels. More attention should be paid to charming cities such as Antwerp and Ghent.
The city-state wields more power on the global stage.
The Lion City has long been a bustling business hub that attracts players from around the world; the top-notch airport and first-rate F&B scene also help in that regard. But this year saw the city-state take a more formal role on the diplomatic stage. First, Singapore took up the chair of Asean for 2018, hosting two summits for the organisation that’s made up of Southeast Asia’s power players. What’s more, the island’s safe and secure reputation got a boost as it hosted an historic meeting between Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
Censorship holds back culture and media, which means that there’s little to make waves about abroad.
The once ultra-conservative country is changing its ways.
The Republic of Ireland continues its march of progress: after legalising same-sex marriage in 2015, the country voted to legalise abortion in 2018. Though domestic, both of these policies have worked to signal that the conservative Catholic country is at last becoming socially progressive. Then there’s taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who continues to charm on the world stage while also playing a central but calm figure in the tricky Brexit negotiations between the UK and the EU. The economy is doing well and, as ever, the vast diaspora is still enthusiastically promoting Irish culture abroad.
They may be ubiquitous but they’re in need of a rethink: the Irish pubs found around the globe, from Denver to Dubai, are too often dire.
Although a cultural heavyweight, a political downturn is afoot.
The country continues to draw millions of tourists who are eager to take in the culture, cuisine and Alpine countryside. Few cities tick the quality-of-life boxes – think clean streets, verdant parks and thriving cafés – like Vienna. Yet Austria has hit a diplomatic rough patch as the country’s right-wing coalition government turns increasingly inward. Anti-immigrant and anti-EU attitudes have thrived, both in and out of government. Meanwhile, as Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has criticised longtime allies such as Germany, the foreign minister’s friendship with Vladimir Putin has raised eyebrows.
The Austrian Culture Forum – with 30 branches around the world – is a smart way to capitalise on one of the country’s biggest strengths.
Despite pressing problems, India is finding it feet.
India is a country plagued with systemic problems: mass poverty, widespread corruption and horrific levels of violence against women. And yet several of its soft-power strengths have managed to penetrate anyway: yoga is mainstream worldwide, tourism is on the up and its films and food have global appeal. Then there’s the country’s space programme, which is gaining traction (see panel, opposite). And this year India snagged a bit of global prestige in the form of the Pritzker prize, which for the first time was awarded to an Indian architect, BV Doshi.
The clock is being turned back – to the despair of many.
This year has not been an easy one for Brazil: political scandals continue and a far-right president was elected to the dismay of numerous people around the world. After hosting the World Cup in 2014, Brazil’s football team failed to advance past the quarter finals at this year’s event – a tough hit for the nation. But, dicey politics and sporting snafus aside, Brazil’s brilliant beaches and arresting architecture continue to resonate. The country is also making a name for itself with its slick horror flicks, such as As Boas Maneiras (Good Manners).
Unless political chaos and corruption are addressed once and for all, Brazil’s international reputation will fall as fast as its economy.