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Every few years most nations conduct an official review of their defence capabilities. They assess threats, both current and those on the horizon, take stock of their carriers, jets, tanks and missiles and work out how many troops they need (and can afford). These reviews are political as well as practical – there are competing demands from vested interests – and it’s not unusual for the result to be a bit of a fudge. But at least there is a process and at the end of it nations have a decent idea of what sort of hard power they can deploy around the world. It’s about time they did the same for their soft power.

When governments consider their soft power it’s in a piecemeal manner. Maybe there is a decision to bid for a major sporting event; perhaps there’s a debate to increase funding for museums and art galleries. Even then, soft power and the impact it will have on the country’s image around the world is a bit of an afterthought.

No government has ever carried out a full audit of its soft power: strengths, weaknesses and opportunities. A proper soft-power audit would deal with every aspect, including education, business, art, design, sport and food. It would include a range of government departments and agencies; this wouldn’t just be something for a division in the foreign ministry to cobble together.

Like its defence counterpart, it would analyse the threats a country is likely to face in the coming years and work out how soft power could help to deal with them. Is there a need to add another language network to the state broadcaster? Where would it be useful for the country’s symphony orchestra to perform? Which country’s young people should be encouraged to study here?

Any foreign ministry keen to carry out its first-ever national soft-power audit should find enough to get it started over the coming pages. We highlight some examples of countries using their soft power in new and interesting ways, from exporting shoes to firing up the barbecue. And we also reveal a new winner: a nation that has had its share of ups and downs but that is ending the year on top.

01 – Germany

The country’s response to the migration crisis has been a soft-power hit but potentially one that could leave it with some thorny issues, says Sebastian Borger, the London correspondent for ‘Berliner Zeitung’.

It’s been a roller-coaster year for Germany and there is no end in sight. Under particular scrutiny from its neighbours and the wider world at the best of times, It has presented a confusing mix of policies and attitudes, in the process delighting and frustrating admirers and sceptics in equal measure. Gone is the staid, reliable, slightly boring country whose soft power relied on a predictable internationalist outlook, anchored in the European project. The scepticism bordering on phobia towards all things military remains but the country is no longer predictable or unexciting. In August chancellor Angela Merkel threw open its borders to hundreds of thousands of refugees.

Should Germany-watchers have been surprised? “Angela the Hesitant” has defied her longstanding nickname before, interestingly on the same topic. During her New Year’s Eve address to the nation at the end of 2014 she denounced those who had taken part in the anti-foreigner demonstrations organised by Pegida, the so-called “patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West”. “Too often their hearts are cold and nurse prejudices or even hatred,” she said. It was the sort of language that other mainstream European politicians had been too timid to use. Three weeks later, after the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris, she went further. Speaking at a vigil at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Merkel said: “I am the chancellor of all Germans. Islam is part of Germany.”

According to opinion polls, up to a third of her citizens disagree. There is no doubt, however, that Merkel’s abandonment of the EU’s tough Fortress Europe policy was supported by large swathes of German society. German psyche had been deeply touched by the image of the refrigerator lorry found on an Austrian motorway en route to Bavaria. It contained the bodies of 71 migrants who suffocated because their smugglers had abandoned them. The association with Nazi gas chambers was unmistakable, and unbearable for many. It was as if by welcoming the refugees from the Balkans and Syria, the usually upright, sceptical, angst-ridden populace could show its softer, more spontaneous side. “Wir schaffen das” (We can do it), Merkel told the country. Her appeal to German idealism, mixed with practical solutions, seemed to show a new, more open attitude towards the world’s problems. It also meant abandoning the EU’s impractical asylum rules. Breaking the rules for idealistic reasons? Berlin infuriated EU partners in central and Eastern Europe as well as conservative commentators both inside and outside the country. “A hippie state led by its feelings,” commented Anthony Glees, professor of politics at Buckingham University. Jan Fleischhauer, a columnist for Der Spiegel, detected an “imperialism of the heart”. Germany had forced through its policy “not with jackboots but in Birkenstock sandals”.

It seems a harsh assessment of a policy that tries to actually deal with a Europe-wide problem rather than resorting to building fences to keep migrants out. But it reflects Germany’s position as Europe’s pre-eminent power. Much like the US, it stands accused by the Left and the Right of throwing its weight around, whether it’s doing so or not. That was true of Merkel’s Ukraine diplomacy that in February led to the Minsk II agreement and eventually a tentative ceasefire in the Donbass region. It was certainly the case when dealing with the Greek debt crisis, which rapidly turned into a crisis for the entire Eurozone.

In August, former UK Labour politician and fluent German-speaker Denis MacShane gave his German friends a stern lecture. “Finger-wagging and self-righteousness from Germany is grating to the rest of Europe,” he opined in the Handelsblatt newspaper: “Forget the ugly American, it is now the ugly German.” MacShane was by no means alone. Merkel’s and particularly her finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble’s stern attitude towards Athens, while delighting smaller North European countries, drew fire from most of the South as well as from Washington. A lot of the complaints came down to what MacShane called a lack of “strategic-minded magnanimity”, which is at odds with Merkel suddenly throwing open the country’s doors.

How the tremendous influx of migrants will affect the country’s economic performance is anyone’s guess, although optimists seem to be in a minority. “The longer-term prognosis for Germany looks poor,” says Keith Wade, chief economist at fund-management group Schroders. This is mainly due to the economic slowdown in China and other emerging markets, a rapidly ageing population, commitments to the Eurozone and the billions spent on support for migrants. Meanwhile, Volkswagen’s manipulation of its diesel engines has done tremendous harm to the reputation of German engineering abroad. The roller-coaster ride continues.

In numbers

Embassies abroad: 155
Cultural missions: 144
Total international aid spending per year: $16.2bn
Foreign students: 207,000
Think-tanks: 194
Olympic medals won at last summer and winter Games: 63

Soft-power superstar

Angela Merkel

Politician

She is still the most powerful politician in the most powerful country in Europe. And she still sums up the best of Germany: clever, considered and compassionate.

Choppy waters

The year that was

Down

Far-right demonstrations organised by Pegida take place in Dresden and other cities across Germany, culminating in a 25,000-strong protest in January.

Up

Deutschland 83, about an East German spy in West Germany’s army, is the first German television drama series to be shown on US television.

Down

Germany leads Eurozone efforts to force a new bailout deal for Greece. The severity of the deal – and the apparent joy German politicians such as Wolfgang Schäuble take in Greece’s subjection – shocks many, even in Germany. Der Spiegel describes it as a “catalogue of horrors”.

Up

As European leaders struggle to deal with waves of refugees and migrants, Angela Merkel announces that all Syrians arriving in Germany would be able to claim asylum. It is a bold move that changes the debate.

Down

One of the Germany’s biggest brands, Volkswagen, admits to cheating emissions tests on its diesel cars. The company’s CEO Martin Winterkorn says it had “broken the trust of our customers and the public”. He later resigns.

02 – USA

Barack Obama's brand of diplomacy has done wonders for America's image around the world

For decades US values and lifestyles have been pumped into living rooms around the globe. We watch American films and television programmes, listen to its music and read every story about its celebrities. We also listen to the country’s politicians and, so far, the current race for the White House has done little for America’s global image. However no politician has arguably done more to promote Brand America in recent years than Barack Obama (even if this isn’t always appreciated at home). Despite foreign-policy failings in the Middle East, Obama, in seeking rapprochement with Cuba and Iran, has ushered in an era of more globally engaged diplomacy.

In numbers

Embassies abroad: 177
Cultural missions: 0
Total international aid spending per year: $32.7bn
Foreign students: 740,000
Think-tanks: 1,828
Olympic medals won at last summer and winter Games: 132

How to improve

The US often tries to ram its values down other nations' throats; more cultural nuance and understanding that Uncle Sam isn't universally applicable would help it in the long run.

Soft-power superstar

Beyoncé

Pop star

Brand Beyoncé is seemingly untouchable: talented, bold, beautiful and, refreshingly, an easy rung above her husband in the megastar stratosphere. All of America should watch and learn.

Informal diplomacy

America's soft touch

When the US ambassador to Britain took up his post in 2013 he started touring schools, asking pupils to write down what they didn’t like about his country. “I didn’t know what I’d get,” admits Matthew Barzun. The “war on terror”? Surveillance? Maybe climate change? But instead of concerns about America’s role in the world, students were far angrier about US domestic policy. “Nearly half the young people wrote the word ‘gun’,” says Barzun. Police brutality, racism and healthcare also came up regularly. Three quarters of the responses “are pure domestic policy”.

Governments often think soft power is something they do abroad but what they do at home can matter even more, particularly for nations such as the US, which hosts more than 1,500 foreign correspondents. School shootings make headlines around the world, while surreal comments from the more outlandish Republican presidential candidates are discussed on talk shows everywhere from the UK to Australia. Twenty-four-hour news networks and social media have helped to spread messages, both negative and positive, that would have previously stayed inside borders. Barzun has an optimistic outlook though: “People have really high expectations of what the US does.”

03 – UK

The mix of innovation and tradition has kept the UK on top of its game

Like the US, the UK’s soft power often succeeds despite, rather than because of, its government. That success may be tested even more in the coming months, as the country debates its membership in the EU, a discussion which is unlikely to do much for the country’s international image. Many of its strengths are traditional: outstanding art galleries and museums, the English language and the bbc. But many are relatively new: it is one of the most successful multi-racial societies the world has ever seen, it has the Premier League and there is London’s burgeoning food scene. It is this mix of the old and the new that keeps the UK riding high.

In numbers

Embassies abroad: 152
Cultural missions: 200
Total international aid spending per year: $19.4bn
Foreign students: 427,000
Think-tanks: 287
Olympic medals won at last summer and winter Games: 69

How to improve

The UK has some of the finest universities. Embrace the fact that thousands of students from around the world want to study there. Let more in and look more kindly on those who want to stay once they graduate.

Soft-power superstar

Sir Ian McKellen

Actor

Shakespearean actor and Hollywood star, British gent and gay icon, Sir Ian McKellen embodies much of what makes modern Britain a success.

04 – Japan

By growing Japan's diplomatic presence, Shinzo Abe has put the country back on the map

Japan, the country that gave us anime and umami, is a powerhouse when it comes to cultural exports. With realpolitik, less so. But the globetrotting prime minister Shinzo Abe is trying to change this by demonstrating that pacifism doesn’t have to mean passive diplomacy. Japan is now spending bigger sums on PR overseas and not just for the 2020 Olympics. This year, the foreign ministry is leading a €500m project to build a Japan House in London, Los Angeles and São Paulo, which will promote Japanese design, craftsmanship, technology and food, and it’s funding multi-million-dollar posts at elite US universities for the first time in decades.

In numbers

Embassies abroad: 143
Cultural missions: 22
Total international aid spending per year: $9.2bn
Foreign students: 150,000
Think-tanks: 108
Olympic medals won at last summer and winter Games: 46

How to improve

Japan needs to broaden its cultural exports beyond anime and J-pop and come clean about its wartime past. And why not draw attention to its chefs, whose techniques and ingredients have influenced the world’s best?

Soft-power superstar

Haruki Murakami

Author

Haruki Murakami’s novels are best-sellers that have been translated into more than 50 languages. There’s a universal appeal (and possibly a Nobel Prize) in his fantastical twists and pop-culture references.

05 – France

The message of liberté, égalité, fraternité continues to be heard loud and clear

The French language enables France to wield influence in 29 countries where it is officially spoken but also beyond. The Ministry of Education in Paris draws up the curriculum for the 500 or so Lycées Français across the globe. The French capital is also home to other influential institutions such as the Académie Française (the official custodians of the French language) and the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie. Created in 1970, the oif has 57 member states and 23 observer states that represent close to 900 million people. But the rise of Front National and the Charlie Hebdo attacks have damaged France’s image.

In numbers

Embassies abroad: 166
Cultural missions: 215
Total international aid spending per year: $10.3bn
Foreign students: 271,000
Think-tanks: 177
Olympic medals won at last summer and winter Games: 49

How to improve

There was a time when the world’s top restaurants were predominantly French. However tastes have changed and the birthplace of Le Cordon Bleu needs to adapt to demand for lighter, healthier options.

Soft-power superstar

Christine Lagarde

Politician

The IMF chief is regarded as one of the world’s most powerful women. Might she be eyeing an eventual stint at the Élysée Palace upon her return to France?

06 – Australia

The nation is not shy of showing off its assets but Australia should rethink its asylum policy

Australia is lucky in that its three biggest assets – overwhelming natural beauty, laid-back locals and balmy weather – aren’t about to go anywhere. The arts, in particular television and cinema, also help. Bestselling Australian novels are routinely optioned for international screen adaptations. Still, perceptions of Australia weren’t helped in 2015 by its then prime minister Tony Abbott, whether he was eating raw onions or giving a knighthood to Prince Philip. His replacement Malcolm Turnbull – a popular centrist with wide appeal at home and abroad – is a republican. He may compel Australia to reimagine its place in the world yet.

In numbers

Embassies abroad: 97
Cultural missions: 0
Total international aid spending per year: $4.2bn
Foreign students: 250,000
Think-tanks: 29
Olympic medals won at last summer and winter Games: 38

How to improve

Improve asylum-seeker policies. If the government’s measures are proven to deter people from trying to reach Australia by boat, then surely asylum claims can be more speedily processed and conditions made bearable.

Soft-power superstar

Cate Blanchett

Actress

This year's lead roles mean that the actress is due another glut of Oscar nominations. Australia would give Blanchett her own postage stamp if she hadn't already been given one in 2009.

07 – Sweden

Generosity aside, Sweden needs to do more to make its new residents feel welcome

Sweden is a force to be reckoned with in business, culture and politics. Its neighbours can’t match the sheer number of its big brands such as Volvo, Ikea and h&m and, over the past decade, the country has become the world’s number-one exporter of chart music. Every autumn Sweden attracts the attention of global intelligentsia as the Nobel Prize laureates are announced. In the current refugee crisis in Europe, Sweden has – alongside Germany – shown its liberal side. The country opened its doors to refugees back in 2013, giving all asylum seekers from Syria permanent residency.

In numbers

Embassies abroad: 89
Cultural missions: 2
Total international aid spending per year: $6.2bn
Foreign students: 28,000
Think-tanks: 77
Olympic medals won at last summer and winter Games: 23

How to improve

Sweden gets points for generosity but integration – especially outside Stockholm – has become an issue. The way established parties have dealt with the rise of the far-right Sweden Democrats has so far been a failure.

Soft-power superstar

Hans Rosling

Statistician

Professor Hans Rosling, whose entertaining way of debunking myths about global health, poverty and migration has made him a celebrity statistician.

08 – Switzerland

It knows what it’s about: its expertise and exactitude would be a welcome export

Switzerland should be the nation that gives all others hope. It’s small; just 8 million people are packed in among the mountains and lakes. It’s rarely influential on the international scene (can anyone name the Swiss foreign minister, for example?) yet it is well-run, the economy seldom suffers shocks, its schools are excellent, healthcare is second to none and everyone wants to go there on holiday. It makes things – and does so exceedingly well. Despite the launch of smart watches, a perfect piece of Swiss precision is still most people’s number-one choice. It is a country that has an identity and, on the whole, it plays up to it well.

In numbers

Embassies abroad: 106
Cultural missions: 11
Total international aid spending per year: $3.5bn
Foreign students: 44,000
Think-tanks: 71
Olympic medals won at last summer and winter Games: 15

How to improve

Swiss Federal Railways is one of the best national railways in the world. It’s time it started competing for contracts abroad. Who wouldn’t want their railways run by the Swiss?

Soft-power superstar

Roger Federer

Tennis player

The “Fed” of today is very different from the one who topped the tennis rankings for years on end. Ever the perfectionist, he wants to carry on doing things his way for as long as he can.

09 – Denmark

Despite its wealth and famed happiness, Denmark's swing to the right is a concern

“I love Denmark!” proclaimed Hillary Clinton during the recent Democratic presidential candidate debate. Even the Americans are waking up to the fact that Denmark’s ongoing prosperity and happiness might be down to their high levels of equality. Socialism is not quite as dirty a word as it used to be. The Danish welfare system, albeit much reduced, remains its strongest soft-power card. But the Danes are hardly socialists. Earlier this year they elected a right-wing coalition. More seriously, the new government has engaged in a kind of anti-soft power by paying for adverts in Arabic newspapers pointing out that Denmark is no country for refugees.

In numbers

Embassies abroad: 72
Cultural missions: 9
Total international aid spending per year: $3bn
Foreign students: 22,000
Think-tanks: 34
Olympic medals won at last summer and winter Games: 9

How to improve

The new government might want to rethink those “stay away” advertisements in Arabic newspapers. It’s not such a smart way to operate in a globalised world.

Soft-power superstar

Lego

Toys

Lego has now overtaken Mattel to become the world’s biggest toy manufacturer. At its current rate of production, it is said that by 2019 there will be more Lego men on Earth than there are humans.

10 – Canada

Canada's role may be changing on the world stage but its soft-power prowess still impresses

In an opinion poll published in September 2015, during this year’s general election campaign 41 per cent of Canadians said that they believed their nation’s standing on the world stage had diminished. A series of recent political scandals, a contested response to the migrant crisis and an expansion of Canada’s military role overseas seemed to be the contributing factors. But Canadians should take heart: the nation’s soft-power standing remains firm. From Canada Dry ginger ale, Canada Goose parkas and sleek train-carriage design to the latest chart-topping record by the likes of Drake, The Weeknd and Braids, Canada’s soft-power offering abroad is diverse and should be a source of pride at home.

In numbers

Embassies abroad: 128
Cultural missions: 1
Total international aid spending per year: $4.2bn
Foreign students: 120,000
Think-tanks: 96
Olympic medals won at last summer and winter Games: 43

How to improve

Strengthening Canada’s fragile economy at home and projecting a more nuanced foreign policy overseas will help reassert Canada’s soft-power credentials.

Soft-power superstar

Ryan Gosling

Actor

Hollywood loves the gravel-voiced actor who can skilfully balances the line between serious thespian and heart-throb. Canada loves him because he talks about his home country in interviews.

11 – Spain

Despite economic troubles, Spain remains an enticing prospect

The fashion world is excited about Loewe, La Liga still fuels worldwide replica shirt sales and the national basketball side took home the European trophy; people are once again talking about Spain for the right reasons. Food, film and football have long shaped Spain’s reputation but a younger generation of Spaniards – forced abroad by a shortage of work – is boosting the country’s image. Thousands of architects are sketching at international firms and entrepreneurs are championing their brands at trade fairs and fashion shows; this roving army of ambassadors is winning hearts but also challenging stereotypes. There are still some constraints; it doesn’t help that Catalonia is itching to disassociate itself from Spain. This hasn’t stopped millions of tourists though. And 2015’s numbers are set to eclipse last year’s record: 68 million visitors prove that Spain’s allure endures.

How to improve

The new king and queen Felipe VI and Letizia Ortíz are young, stylish and articulate but are still woefully underused on the world stage. Dispense with caution for a more targeted international message.

Soft-power superstar

Barozzi Veiga

Architecture firm

Trained in both design and engineering, Spanish architects work in the world’s leading firms. Barozzi Veiga won the EU Prize for Architecture for Poland’s Szczecin Philharmonic Hall.

12 – Italy

Cultural and culinary offerings distract from Italy's pressing domestic problems

All eyes were on Italy this year for the Expo 2015 world’s fair in Milan and the event’s theme – feeding the planet – allowed the bel paese to flaunt one of its most prized soft-power assets to a hungry public. Despite a few hiccups in the run-up, the six-month feast went off well and helped to deflect attention from a string of problems that has plagued Rome in recent months. Failing infrastructure, entrenched corruption and the resignation of the city’s mayor has made front-page news and had people second-guessing the decision by officials to bid for the 2024 Olympics.

Still, the election of pragmatic Sergio Mattarella to the presidency by reform-minded prime minister Matteo Renzi ensures Italy’s top leaders are taken seriously. And Renzi has emerged as a defender of southern Europe and become the most high-profile centre-left leader, President Obama aside, in the northern hemisphere.

How to improve

The world’s cultural superpower (it has 51 Unesco sites) lacks funds to upkeep its monuments. Films and TV shows promoting them could attract tourist dollars.

Soft-power superstar

Michele Ferrero

Confectioner

When Michele Ferrero passed away this year, sweet tributes poured in. No surprise: his family’s chocolate-hazelnut concoction Nutella is being spread in 75 countries.

13 – New Zealand

The small nation punches above its weight with sport and cultural offerings

New Zealand has just spent €7m on new digs across the road from the UN in New York; the country was elected to the Security Council this year on a platform of helping small states and emerging economies. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, meanwhile – a Pacific-wide trade pact partly started by the tiny island nation a decade ago – was finally signed in October, though time will tell if this is something everyone will be happy with.

Kiwis have always been known for their sporting prowess (never mind the All Blacks; at 17, golfer Lydia Ko is the youngest-ever number one) but in recent years cultural icons, such as best-selling singer Lorde, Hollywood heavyweight Peter Jackson and Flight of the Conchords’ Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, have wielded influence far greater than you’d think possible for residents of a far-flung country of 4.4 million. Their secret? New Zealanders are beguilingly unaffected, with an honest charm and a dry sense of humour.

How to improve

The Conchords’ McKenzie and Clement have never had a show commissioned by a New Zealand network so better support for global players at home would deliver more creative riches.

Soft-power superstar

Helen Clark

Politician

After losing to John Key in 2008, former PM Helen Clark headed to New York to reform the United Nations Development Programme. She’s believed to be lining up for the top job at the UN.

14 – The Netherlands

Pairing a rich heritage with a liberal outlook is a sure road to success

The Netherlands plays its part on the world stage, despite its relatively small population, giving more aid than most and not shying away from multilateral organisations. Like all other western democracies, the nation can rely on a deep well of soft power. Its universities welcome foreign students, The Hague has global prominence as a city of international justice and Amsterdam attracts tourists in great numbers.

Ever since the Golden Age, the Dutch have punched way above their weight in making, showing and selling art. The Rijksmuseum, the European Fine Art Fair and galleries such as Fons Welters embody a Dutch aptitude for giving history phenomenal contemporary appeal. One blot is the nation’s football team. Once a source of immense pride, now it is something of an embarrassment after its failure to qualify for next year’s European Championships.

How to improve

It’s time the Dutch realised how damaging the annual global outcry over the ‘Zwarte Piet’ tradition has become.

Soft-power superstar

Philips

Electronics

Its lightbulbs are exported all over the world and help make our homes glow and streets feel safe. Maybe it’s time to stick a Dutch flag on all the boxes.

15 – South Korea

Business is booming but more respect for press and speech freedoms would be a boon

Thanks in part to its soft-power appeal, South Korea has emerged out of the shadow cast over the peninsula by its cranky northern neighbour. Smartphones, cars and pop music produced by South Korea’s chaebols are in the respective pockets, driveways and ears of consumers around the globe. The increased popularity of Korean culture across East Asia, known as the Korean Wave, continues to improve the nation’s standing. Tens of thousands of Chinese tourists arrive in Seoul on plastic-surgery junkets; if they can’t sing or act like their favourite Korean celebrities, at least they can try to look more like them.

Following the Volkswagen emissions scandal, Hyundai might be feeling some schadenfreude. Its cars are already some of the West’s most popular imports and 2016 could see the firm increase its market share even further.

How to improve

Freedom of speech and the press are still concerns in South Korea as well as protest crackdowns by the police, which sometimes seem like they came out of Kim Jong-un’s playbook.

Soft-power superstar

Ban Ki-moon

Politician

Many South Koreans consider the UN Secretary General as the country’s bearer of soft power and hope he’ll make a bid for the presidency in 2017.

16 – Norway

Top-notch diplomacy makes Norway a must at every negotiating table

Norway brokers peace by drawing on its lack of a colonial past to gain the trust of warring parties. Notable successes include the end of civil wars in Mali and Guatemala and the ongoing negotiations between Colombia’s government and the Farc guerillas. During the 1980s and 1990s Norway introduced what became known as “kitchen-table diplomacy”; leaders in conflict were invited for a chat over breakfast. Norway is also home to the Nobel Peace Prize, which still wields considerable soft power in the world.

How to improve

Norway won’t be able to rely on its oil supply for ever. It has plenty of experience in preparing for life after oil to help other petro-nations.

Q&A- Olav Njølstad

Permanent secretary to the Norwegian Nobel Committee

Oslo

Advising the five people responsible for selecting each year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, Olav Njølstad wields considerable soft power from his book-laden office at Oslo’s Nobel Institute.

Does the Nobel Peace Prize still serve a purpose?
Alfred Nobel probably would have been surprised that the prize is still around. He felt unless the problem of war was solved within 20 years, civilisation would disappear. That the prize is still here confirms that there is still a need for it. We need the soft power of the Peace Prize as one of many instruments to push the world in a better and more peaceful direction.

How influential do you believe the Peace Prize is?
I think that it has made a small but important difference. It shines a light on work done in favour of peace and conflict resolution so it is a way to inspire people and also to celebrate results that have already been achieved.

What does the prize mean for Norway's soft power in the world?
I do think the fact that the prize is being awarded by a Norwegian committee has contributed substantially to the image of Norway as a peaceful and peace-promoting country. But other factors have contributed as well, such as Norway’s role as mediator in various peace talks around the world.

The prize has often proved controversial. China cut diplomatic relations with Norway after Chinese dissident Liu Xiabo’s 2010 win. Must it provoke?
It is crucial for the prize that from time to time it starts a debate. The worst thing that could happen is that people stop caring. I think Liu Xiabo was a good decision. I’m convinced that in 20 years from now this prize will be seen differently in China.

17 – Austria

Being centre-stage in European geopolitics plays to Austria's advantage

The past months have seen Austria shine as both efficient transit-nation and generous refugee host nation, making it a visible, critical presence in recent European geopolitics. But the small Alpine country also asserts a quieter, longstanding soft power: its perennial role as Central Europe’s diplomatic hub is obvious in the Iran nuclear deals reached here in July. Austria’s evergreen assets include top-notch culture and cuisine, a focus on local manufacturing, stunning landscapes and unflappable, quirky hospitality.

How to improve

Communicate Austria’s strengths and differences from big neighbour Germany. But watch domestic politics: rural areas have seen the rise of the hard-right Freedom Party.

18 – Finland

Progressive education and the export of success stories continues to impress

Despite remaining in recession, Finland continues to impress, especially in the fields of architecture and design. Education remains a central pillar of the Finnish story, with the focus increasingly on innovation and expertise. Finland makes deft use of its natural beauty too. The choice of art duo IC-98 to represent the country at the Venice Biennale has showcased both the country’s environmental consciousness and its passion for cutting-edge technology.

How to improve

The rise of the Finns Party is at odds with Helsinki’s pro-diversity rhetoric. Solving this contradiction would boost Finland’s international reputation.

Finland's makeover

Recipe for success

What do other countries know about Finland? That it’s the home of Santa Claus and saunas and possibly that it’s the birthplace of fearless rally drivers and hockey players. There’s much more to this Northern country though but getting that message through to the world is easier said than done. To get people to take notice, Finland Promotion Board, the organ co-ordinating the country’s marketing, has created a new visual identity.

“Up until now we haven’t had a common visual identity,” says Mari-Kaisa Brander, head of communications at the prime minister’s office. “Each time we’ve promoted Finland at fairs, for instance, different organisations have created their own communications without co-ordinating their messages or visual styles.”

The new identity consists of a new typeface called Finlandica, flag logos and “Suomi-Finland” logos showing the word Suomi – Finnish for Finland – in combination with other languages such as Chinese, Japanese and Russian. The identity, created by advertising agency Hasan & Partners, is meant to convey honesty, functionalism, transparency and quirkiness; everything the Finns are rightly proud of.

“Finland has completely transformed itself in just 100 years,” says Brander. “We want the world to know that we’ve done this by taking care of each other and by being practical, solution-oriented and reliable. No visual identity alone will make Finland number one in global brand rankings but sending a clear message is a good start.”

19 – Portugal

A skilled workforce has helped Portugal weather the financial crisis

Portugal’s success comes on the back of two unfashionable concepts: hard work and moderation. There is a highly skilled, bilingual workforce that is attracting international brands, particularly across textiles, furniture and technology. At a time of increasing xenophobia, the government and the wider population have eschewed intolerance, with policies such as the Golden Visa encouraging foreign investments. Meanwhile, Portugal’s beaches, sunshine, and food and wine culture contribute to the country’s growing appeal.

How to improve

Portugal has paid a heavy price in the financial crisis: high unemployment, low wages and bare-bones pensions. It’s time to deliver real growth at home.

20 – Belgium

It’s time Belgium made more noise – and showed a more united front

Belgium should have always punched above its weight as the host country for the EU and Nato headquarters but that has not always been the case. Recently however it has become a louder voice in foreign policy. The centenary of the First World War and the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo had brought many high-profile visitors while also reminding the world of the country’s strategic importance and culturally its citizens are quietly making waves all over Europe.

How to improve

Just one tourist board for the French-speaking south and the Flemish-speaking north would be a good step to promote Belgium.

21 – China

Soft power only gets you so far but expansionism won’t go unnoticed

China specialises in the top-down soft-power approach: the government has built railroads and airports in Africa, promised a snowy Beijing to land the 2022 Winter Olympics and expanded a network of overseas cultural centres. In the past year China got a boost with president Xi Jinping’s environmental pledges. And yet, the country hasn’t exactly seen a reciprocal return on its efforts. Cultural centres are fine but they don’t allay fears over China’s expanding might when it simultaneously builds airstrips in the disputed South China Sea.

How to improve

Soft power can’t only be a government-led exercise. China needs to encourage and allow film-makers, artists and writers to engage with the rest of the world.

22 – Brazil

This has been an annus horribilis; the Olympics are a welcome distraction

An acute political crisis, which has led to calls for president Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment plus a record devaluation of the real has made this a year to forget. Internationally though its reputation remains solid. Many of Brazil’s soft-power strengths – beaches, sport and the sunny and welcoming disposition of its population – exist regardless of political upheavals. And with the arrival of the Olympics in Rio in August, Brazil will again show the world what it does best: put its internal problems to one side to welcome guests with a smile.

How to improve

Increase efforts to sell the country to the world. Brazil receives fewer than six million tourists per year. A country with so much to offer should be doing better.

23 – Singapore

An aviation hub, Singapore’s art scene is taking off too

From its bustling port to its busy skies Singapore is an attractive business and logistics destination. With Singapore Airlines relaunching the world’s longest passenger flight to the US next year and Changi Airport receiving a major extension, the nation’s strength in the aviation sector is clear. In recent years the country has also shaken off its reputation as a cultural backwater. The opening of the largest Southeast Asian modern-art collection demonstrates a fresh ambition to capitalise on regional talent.

How to improve

Singapore’s 50th birthday showed a finesse in producing major public spectacles. The festivities should cement the nation’s status as an events hub for Southeast Asia.

24 – Poland

Returning expats are helping this new democracy flourish

Few European nations’ soft power is as wrapped up in its membership of the EU as Poland’s. From Donald Tusk becoming president of the European Council to the hundreds of thousands of Poles who have moved west for work, the country’s dour-from-afar image has changed dramatically since joining the EU. A new generation of entrepreneurs, many with skills gleaned abroad, are busy kick-starting Warsaw’s creative, cultural and culinary scenes.

How to improve

While the country has undoubtedly profitted from so many Poles heading west over the past decade, it could benefit from more people returning home.

25 – Turkey

Bridging the Middle East and the West has its ups and downs

The West is again turning to its old partner in the Middle East as Turkey presents a possible solution to Europe’s migrant crisis. Turkey, meanwhile, has been channeling its influence elsewhere; it has tripled its tally of embassies in Africa since 2009 and said it is the continent’s voice at the G20. Turkish firms have been nabbing infrastructure contracts once destined for China and Turkish Airlines has ramped up its routes to African capitals. The forthcoming airport in Istanbul could prove an intercontinental transit hub fit to challenge the Gulf carriers’ dominance.

How to improve

Authoritarian curbs on press freedom continue to blight Turkey’s image internationally. Protection for journalists enshrined in law would turn this around.

How to improve your soft power

By Steve Bloomfield

  1. Allow dissent
    Freedom of speech is far more than a basic human right, it’s the fuel for a nation’s creativity. Governments don’t have to like their artists but they don’t need to fear them.

  2. Invest in universities
    Great universities act as magnets, attracting the best and the brightest from around the world. Graduates who head home are likely to leave with affection, while those who stay will boost the economy.

  3. Have a smart immigration system
    Refugee policy can have a huge impact on a nation’s global image. Smart immigration laws aren’t simply about appearing humane; as the US has shown, a country’s policy can tell a story of a nation that’s a land of opportunity.

  4. When disaster strikes, lend a hand
    In the days that follow a natural or humanitarian disaster the world’s richer nations are called upon for support. It should be an easy soft-power win but too few governments are quick enough to reach for their wallets. It doesn’t have to be money; as Israel demonstrates with its disaster experts, there are many ways to make an impact.

  5. Don't shun protectionism
    Protectionism may be a dirty word for some but there can be merit in saving industries that are closely entwined with a nation’s image. The US bailout of the car industry allowed it to survive and American cars are still sold all over the world.

  6. Don't forget that people watch the news
    David Cameron launched the “Britain is Great” campaign just weeks after calling parts of his population “frankly sick”, following the riots. Egypt took out adverts promoting its tourism around the same time as it locked up Al Jazeera journalists. Israel would like to be known as the “Start-up Nation” but it has struggled to sell this image beyond the Jewish diaspora.

  7. Invest wisely in sport
    This doesn’t mean expensive stadiums; in fact those are often a waste of money. It means playing fields for all to use and funding for community sports teams. At the elite level it means investment in sports that your country is good at. All of this will improve chances of sporting success and help to create a healthy nation.

  8. Promote things you're good at
    This sounds basic but not every nation manages to do it. If your food is fantastic but unknown, fund some restaurants abroad; if your art galleries are your best asset, crow about them.

  9. Play to your strengths
    Be honest. France would struggle to sell itself as a nation of entrepreneurs while the Gulf States are never going to convince anyone they are beacons of sustainability.

  10. Don't do stupid stuff
    If you invade countries or kill your own people no amount of soft power will ever help you.

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