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soft power ireland

Pluck of the Irish

Josh Fehnert on why, despite not quite making the cut in Monocle’s Soft Power Survey, Ireland’s moderation, spirit and diaspora are quietly influential the world over.


If there’s such thing as a softly spoken superpower – able to quietly project goodwill and often get its way – Ireland is surely a contender. While the mind might go to clichés of green fields and Guinness, Ireland is able to punch well above its weight on the world stage. How? Well, having a grateful diaspora helps, especially if it extends to the White House (“Top of the morning, Joe!”), as does knowing that Brussels has your back. The presence of the blundering UK pressing political self-destruct next door helps too.

Global goodwill comes all the easier when you’re a small, wealthy democracy with a policy of military neutrality. Its good brand was in the top 20 according to the 2023 Anholt Ipsos Nation Brand Index. It’s a top 10 in the United Nations Human Development Index and is perceived to be among the least corrupt, according to Transparency International. It has a free press, is increasing its global aid contributions and has invested in 22 new embassies and trade missions since 2018. Ireland’s gdp shot up 5 per cent this year with similar growth forecast for 2024 – figures that France, Germany and the UK can only dream of. A low corporate tax rate of 12.5 per cent has helped to draw investment and being a lively, liveable Anglophone country with plenty of pubs means that many put down roots here.

Beyond the numbers, there’s nuance. Social progress in recent years has been swift. The fact that a country once ribbed for its fondness for “the drink” is set to become a world leader in health warnings on alcohol packaging illustrates the point. Not to mention the vast legislative leaps made on marriage and gender equality in the past decade. As the power of the church waned, Ireland put faith in education and training. Today it’s one of only a handful of nations where more than 50 per cent of the adult population has completed tertiary education.
This once strict Catholic nation is also now led by Leo Varadkar (pictured, with Joe Biden), a gay doctor of Indian origin with a penchant for colourful socks. That these changes have left people more likely to raise a glass than an eyebrow, and that politics here remains a sensible centrist affair, is also remarkable in an age of fighty populism. Ireland’s proportional representation system is partly responsible: coalition governments are common. “That’s led to moderation,” says Mark Henry, author of An Optimist’s Guide to Ireland at 100. “And a consistency in policy about education and our success attracting inward

While the mind might go to clichés of green fields and Guinness, Ireland is able to punch well above its weight on the world stage. Having a grateful diaspora helps

investment.” Even the nation’s cultural tropes are being rewritten. Irish writers account for four of the 13 on the 2023 Booker Prize longlist and it has four Nobel literature laureates. And who’s that on top in the historic Eurovision stakes? Ireland, tied with Sweden on seven. Films, filmmakers and actors got plenty of attention and Hollywood nods at the 95th Academy Awards, including the nominee for the best international feature film (Irish-language tearjerker An Cailín Ciúin), best actor shouts (for Paul Mescal and Colin Farrell) and wide acclaim for Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin.

Not all the nation’s far-flung talent took the gongs for which they were nominated and that’s one way to understand Ireland’s subtlest successes in the soft-power stakes: everyone loves an underdog. Even the nation’s rugby team – ranked first in the world for most of 2023 – were seen favourably despite crashing out of the Rugby World Cup in France at the quarter-final stage. The team told a tale of bravery, pluck and valour rather than ignominy in defeat. By contrast, the harder-to-love England  side exceeded expectations but remained almost unanimously disliked. Ireland’s reputation for being reliable, and its peoples’ for being good-humoured, have helped to define its consistent popularity and influence abroad. Even if it doesn’t always get a trophy for its trouble.

Josh Fehnert is Monocle’s proudly part-Irish editor.

soft power icon — siya kolisi

Game changer


The South African rugby team’s charismatic 32-year-old captain, Siyamthanda Kolisi, sealed his standing as one of the game’s most recognisable figures in October when he led the Springboks, the country’s national team, to triumph in the Rugby World Cup – its second in succession and record fourth in total. The flanker, known as Siya, had rewritten his country’s sporting history before when, in 2018, he became the first black player to be appointed as captain of a team that was, historically, the preserve of the country’s white elite. During apartheid, rugby in South Africa was segregated and the Springboks were barred from competing in the first two Rugby World Cups.

Now, Kolisi is the embodiment of a unified sport supported by members of all of South Africa’s many and varied demographics. His eloquent post-match interviews regularly feel like soliloquies on rugby’s more poetic qualities: teamwork, sportsmanship, respect. And Kolisi’s powers extend far beyond the pitch – particularly in his charitable and philanthropic work, which have made him a unifying figure in a country still attempting to bridge long-drawn divisions. His by-now-familiar habit of singing traditional southern African songs, such as “Shosholoza”, as he took to the field became a talking point around the world. The unabashed renditions seemed to express a joy at his exalted position and a broader sentiment that felt, to many fans, more universal and more explicitly expressed than those traditionally conjured by a game of rugby.

Kolisi presents South Africa as a country of aspiration and social mobility, where neither race nor class need be impediments to an ascent to the summit of national life – and he does so in front a global audience. Every now and then, a sports star transcends the arena that forged them. In Kolisi, South Africa has a charismatic ambassador whose influence extends far beyond the field of play. He embodies, for both South Africans at home and his legions of supporters abroad, how potent a feeling it is to sing when you’re winning.

andrew mueller on...
Unbelievable truths

You’re wrong about the Middle East. To be clear, you might have a firm grasp of the dynamics of the conflict in Gaza and a reasonable understanding of the history that led to this unhappy point but, right now, something that you believe to be the case is flatly untrue. To be even clearer, the author of this column does not exclude himself from this assessment. You should not beat yourself up about this (unless you’re among those who are confidently sounding off on social media on the basis of such misapprehensions, in which case you should). The present Israel-Hamas conflict, ignited by the terrorist group’s vicious assault of 7 October, has been harder to make sense of than most because of a particular combination of factors. Some of these are the depressing eternal elements of warfare – for example, protagonists seeking to command the theatre of information with a combination of evasion, obstruction and invention.

Others are recent developments. If there is a single representative demonstration of our new age of confusion, it is perhaps the 19 October front page of Libération. The French daily splashed with a photo of a protester at a pro-Palestine demonstration in Cairo, brandishing a poster of an injured infant screaming in the rubble of Gaza. Libération’s photo was authentic but the protester’s image was an AI-generated simulacrum.

It’s long past time that we ceased indulging the nonsense that social-media platforms are neutral conduits of conversation, like phone lines. They are publishers

Inevitably, this prompted widespread wilful missing of the point from the malevolent and/or ignorant on all sides of the argument, a cacophony worsened by the acquisition of an influential social-media platform by Earth’s thickest billionaire. This will get worse until or unless the regulation of social media is taken seriously, to say nothing of the regulation of artificial intelligence.

This columnist’s solution to this problem is doubtless no less utopian or impractical than this columnist’s solution to the Israel-Palestine issue. But basically it is this: it’s long past time that we ceased indulging the nonsense that social-media platforms are neutral conduits of conversation, like phone lines. They are publishers and should be as accountable for what appears on their platforms as any newspaper. (Libération quite properly followed up with a detailed explanation of their misunderstood front page, though it’s certain that vastly fewer people read that than bought excitedly into a narrative of deliberate deception.) Social-media companies do occasionally remove inflammatory or inaccurate content. This demonstrates that they can. They need to be told that they must and, if that necessitates hiring armies of sub editors, that’s their problem. 

Andrew Mueller hosts ‘The Foreign Desk’ on Monocle Radio. Listen live at every Saturday at midday London time or download as a podcast.

culture — france

Art house 


It took French artist Nicolas Floc’h six months to canoe down the Mississippi river, during which he documented the weird colours that bubble up from its depths. His patron was the Villa Albertine, a US-based arts institution established by the French embassy, which is reinventing the artist residency as a means to refresh – and somewhat revive – French soft power on this side of the Atlantic. “It’s inspired by the Villa Medici,” says acting director Judith Roze, referring to the famed patrons’ palace in Rome, which has been owned by the French state since the 19th century. “The goal is to forge new connections between the cultural scenes of the two countries.”

The residency programme is in its third year and artists in any discipline can apply.  They don’t need to speak French; the only requirement is that their project is rooted in the US.

Marseille-based music producer Djellali El Ouzeri, for instance, spent this autumn combing through the sound archives in Atlanta and gathering street ambience to create a sonic “bridge” between the two cities. Other residencies have included research stints by social scientists and philosophers.

In 2024, Villa Albertine will bring artists from 15 countries to the US. “There’s a good stock of Francophilia here but it’s also true that the US is increasingly turning to other geographies than Europe,” says Roze. “Too often the image of France is about the past and there are a lot of misunderstandings about French attitudes towards diversity. So it was important for us to say that France is also a portal to other places in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.”

The villa’s programming is administered via 10 outposts across the US, with its headquarters in New York. Housed in the Payne Whitney Mansion, the Gilded Age home of the philanthropic Whitney family on Fifth Avenue, the villa has just completed an extensive reimagining of its fifth-floor atelier, which overlooks Central Park and will be used to host gatherings. “Villa Albertine is not just a residency programme,” says Roze. “It intends to be a global platform of exchange between the US and France.”

diplomacy — singapore

Sunken treasures


More than 1,190 years after an Arabian trading ship sank in the waters south of Singapore, ceramicists Ng Seok Har and Michelle Lim (pictured above) are still learning lessons from its porcelain cargo. The duo founded Singapore-based Mud Rock studio in 2013; it has since become the country’s premier purveyor of handmade ceramics, supplying Michelin-starred restaurants and fashioning gifts for diplomats and monarchs. “There’s a long history of soft power in ceramics,” Lim tells monocle. She has given guided tours of the Tang shipwreck at Singapore’s Asian Civilizations Museum, focusing on its vast array of painted bowls, ewers and other treasures. These, she says, tell the story of cultural exchange, trade and international relations across oceans.

Mud Rock’s creations perform a similar role today. Soon after the studio was founded, Singapore’s high commissioner in Canberra hosted a dinner that was served on its plates. The ministry of foreign affairs has commissioned Lim and Ng to make ceramics to be gifted to royal families and dignitaries across the world, including those from Sri Lanka, Tanzania and the Vatican. Mud Rock’s beautifully rendered vases, bowls and tiles showcase Singaporean art and local craftsmanship, offering new perspectives on a country associated more with finance and business than with artisanal pottery.

“We don’t want our work to be hidden behind a cabinet,” says Lim. “We imagine people bringing it out every time they meet a Singaporean.” One of the studio’s most memorable commissions was a 90th birthday present for Queen Elizabeth II. They created an intricate tea set inspired by a tingkat, a traditional tiffin carrier, with etchings commemorating the monarch’s connections to Singapore, such as her first visit in the 1950s and the tembusu tree that she planted on one of her later trips. Lim and Ng made nine versions before settling on the final set, which they hand-delivered to the UK to ensure its safety. “There was immense pressure,” says Lim. “But it was an incredible honour.” 

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