Soft power is a precious commodity and needs protecting. But even if your nation and its government seem to lose their way, fear not: you can fix this without them.
Hungary did not have a good summer in the international press. Its stance on the migrant crisis – basically, we don’t want you settling here – was condemned from front page to op-ed. Hungarians! What are these people thinking? Have they no heart? And then when a TV reporter was seen to trip up a running migrant, the country’s image suddenly looked more dented than a car pushed off a cliff. Its fate was sealed. And what soft power it may have had was surely gone.
But is that really how to judge a nation? To take the views of an outspoken leader – Viktor Orbán – and then rate everything about that country through the prism of his political views? Whatever the Hungarian government’s stance on a single issue, its people are more interesting than that and have views, ideas and passions that should not be swept away so easily.
That has been made clearer to me this month after I read the story by our reporter Tom Burges Watson (see page 87). We sent him to Hungary to look at how, as clothing production gets reshored to Europe from Asia, the country is seeing a boost to its network of factories that turn out lines for everyone from international brands to home-grown labels. The people who run these factories and fashion studios are looking beyond their borders with the selfsame ambition and attitudes as you would find in Paris, Milan or London. And for them there’s some good news: as we check the labels in our shoes, jackets and shirts and see the legend “Made in Hungary” we will have very different thoughts about their country and what they stand for.
But there are also clear winners in the soft-power game in this issue. Well, it is the Soft Power Survey after all. When you head over to page 57 you will see that this year we have named Germany as the league leader (it’s the country’s second time in the top spot). But even as we lowered the crown onto their collective heads and stepped back, we wondered, “Is it about to slip?” And in part that migration story comes into play again. There is no doubt that from Kabul to Aleppo, Cairo to Tunis, Germany’s standing is as never before. But in many ways opening the doors to a large number of refugees and economic migrants may turn out to be the easy bit. Unless integration happens at a pace, and homes and jobs can be secured, people may see Germany in a less cosy soft-power glow. We’ll see how the nation manages over the next 12 months. But for now, Herzlichen Glückwunsch Deutschland.
The soft-power theme also appears in our lead Design story this month when we head to Stockholm to visit the glorious embassy of Norway. Designed by the architect Knut Knutsen in 1948, it showcases the country’s heritage, design credentials and artists with a simplicity, modesty and skill that has remained unabashed ever since. When people walk through the front door they are immediately enveloped in a mini outpost of all good things Norwegian.
But here’s the sad thing. Old-guard diplomats (from the UK to Denmark, Australia to Canada) are increasingly finding that their nice digs are up for sale and that their ministry has come up with a plan for them to be some sort of digital diplomat (it normally seems to involve them not having a proper desk and spending rather too much time trying to log on to the wi-fi in a café). These decisions are taken to impress the electorate at home at a time of austerity and to ensure that small-minded journalists are kept at bay (we recently asked to photograph an ambassador in his embassy for a story and he declined, fearing that it looked too nice and that some hectoring newspaper back home would give him a hard time). But these decisions should not be taken to appease the domestic audience: they need to address perceptions out there. And when the stuccoed house with a nice garden is swapped for a pokey apartment where no entertaining can take place, then the wrong decision has almost certainly been made.
Soft power is a precious thing; it needs defending. As this issue hits the desks of the people who promote this rare commodity, hopefully some will realise that they need to do more in a world where everyone is watching.
- Knowing how to entertain people – from a diplomatic party to a great night at the cinema watching your nation's films.
- Feeding people well; taste travels. When we eat Peruvian or Greek, a link is made. Something happens in our brain.
- Understanding when to shut up: not all globally angled state media hits home.
- Teaching your kids to speak more than one language.
- Being nice to your neighbours and having them over for a fun time.