How can a nation get its voice heard on the world stage and encourage trade and tourism? If you don’t have resources and the weight of numbers on your side, then maybe it’s time to wield some ‘soft power’. By Tyler Brûlé.
What do you do you if you’re a middle to heavyweight player on the regional stage but you’re not really having much cut-through on the world stage? Do you book a stack of tickets on Etihad and fly off to the IDEX arms bazaar in Abu Dhabi and place a surprise multi-billion dollar order for an arsenal of weapons that will keep tens of thousands of people in jobs and guarantee that at least your neighbours nod at you when you zoom past in your new patrol boat (see our story on page 42)?
Do you embark on overhauling the national curriculum and devote 50 per cent of class time to singing lessons and shake up the entertainment laws so there’s an incentive scheme to encourage the opening of more karaoke lounges. Then after a decade do you unleash the vocal talents of your nation on an unsuspecting world and virtually overnight become a pop-culture superpower (see page 91)?
Or do you pay a visit to a South Korean shipyard and have them build you a fleet of ferries so you can create an international floating retail powerhouse that will allow you exploit all those channels that require some form of maritime connection combined with the attractions of duty free (see our Expo story on page 155)? As your flag flutters in ports around the world you’ll be seen as not only a player on the high seas but you’ll be using shopping as a form of soft power to engage nations.
As many nations struggle to find their voice in UN chambers or in other global forums, converting the world to their cultural and commercial ways by getting people to push a shopping trolley, pick up a basket or part with cash in new ways might be the more sensible way to go than getting into bed with tricky (even sticky) nations in the wrong corners of far off continents or pursuing grands projets that will never really be convincing. For sure, some nations have the advantage of sheer numbers and resources to wield power hard and soft in a number of ways, but others are somewhat limited.
During the research phase of our retail survey, I stopped over at Seoul for 24 hours and after a run, steam, splash, soak and shower in the gym it was evident that here was an element of soft power that Korea wasn’t exporting. Although Japanese housewives have been cramming into Korean 747s for years to be scrubbed and pummelled by burly women in Seoul bathing houses, Korea has been keeping its rather brutal but oh so refreshing bathing culture to itself. It shouldn’t. Just as food has done much to encourage tourism and trade with countries that might have languished in obscurity had emigrants not opened up restaurants in powerful capitals, the same goes for those other pursuits that are essential to most people’s daily regimes – washing, communicating, moving about, sleeping and using the toilet.
Should Korea still be plodding away producing cars that look like anyone else’s but their own or should it be focusing a portion of its industries on owning a whole soft power movement that can spread Korean culture alongside technical ingenuity? Smart minds in Seoul could create a global collection of Korean spa-style gyms and hotels and these could be filled with a range of Korean products built specifically for the purpose. Consumers from Geneva to Perth to Santiago could experience a new way of burning calories and getting clean in a social setting while Korean brands could gain a reputation for being good at things that touch consumers’ daily lives.
As Japan tries to reignite its exports it might go one further than just selling bullet train technology as an element of soft power. Why not sell the whole integrated rail concept that sees everything touching the rail experience owned by one group (think Tokyu Hotels, Tokyu Department Stores, Tokyu rail lines and a Tokyu hospital)? And Germany? If you don’t want to get into fire fights in Afghanistan then let the Bavarians loose to build more airports and use your power on the runway.
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For more from our editor-in-chief, read his column in the FT Weekend.