What the state tells us

By Kurt-Jürgen Maaß

The hunters and the hunted (Issue II/2021)

This is music to the ears of German foreign policy makers and foreign cultural politicians: Germany stands not only for an economic miracle, or wirtschaftswunder, but also for a “cultural miracle”. At least that is how British journalist Robert Winder views it in his new book “Soft Power. The New Great Game”: morally and materially devastated in 1945, the Federal Republic of Germany rebuilt its international reputation through a rigorous reappraisal of history and comprehensive cultural, educational and information services “almost entirely by soft means” so successfully that it came top in all country rankings of the past ten years. He also says that reunification and the reception of one million refugees in 2015 and 2016 did much to overcome the world's dark memories of the Nazi era and build trust.

“Soft Power” is Robert Winder's fifth book. In the 1990s, he was head of the arts section of the left-liberal daily newspaper “Independent” for five years. In his latest work, he seeks to show how states today score points with their foreign policy by emphasising “soft” issues such as language, culture, sport, education, science, art and music, but also migration, globalisation, communication and technology, instead of using military or economic power (“hard power”). A country's past is also of utmost importance for “soft power”, an “overflowing well” to be able to survive in the international competition of “storytelling”.

In this context, Winder is sceptical about whether the usual country rankings are realistic. He takes a more pragmatic approach and examines how more than thirty countries around the world tell their “story”. He describes the Trump years in the USA as “creative destruction”; they have almost used up the formerly large soft power supply. Winder sees his homeland, the UK, as “blessed” with an enormous pool of soft power, but fears that xenophobia and Brexit mistakes are masking much of it. In the case of France, Winder cites cuisine, wine and food as well as fashion, painting and tourism as successful sources of national soft power.

Soft power is the new big game in international relations.

One focus of the book is Russia. Here, Winder does not follow the methodology of the major ranking studies, but analyses the ways in which soft power is used by Russia as a weapon to impose its desired national narrative and to shake the credibility of other countries. In 2005, Putin had called the disintegration of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.

Putin's “response” was a mixture of hard power (Crimea, eastern Ukraine, Syria) and many soft power approaches: international sporting events, cultural institutes abroad, promotion of pride in Russian history and renewal of religious values. Putin also uses foreign TV channels and social media to promote his own interpretive authority on international facts and to sow discontent in other countries through disinformation, troll armies and cyber viruses. Winder calls this a “media war”. Soft power is also an integral part of Chinese foreign policy. Carefully crafted, it serves China to promote doubts in many countries about whether the model of liberal democracy is really the best and only way to run a modern society. Winder calls this the “war of ideas”. Here, since 2007, the equivalent of more than ten billion US dollars a year have flowed into student exchanges, Confucius Institutes, foreign television stations and, above all, the “Belt and Road Initiative”, the new Silk Road, an economic and geopolitical “project of the century”. According to Winder, however, the soft power strategy, which has not been implemented on this scale by any other country, has one major opponent: China itself. Censorship, disinformation, suppression and even total surveillance mask China's soft power and even lead to increased mistrust.

Soft power, as Winder sums up his analytical “journey around the world”, is “a means to an end” and a new big game in international relations. Winder's writing is extraordinarily exciting, extremely factual and thoroughly researched. It is a critical and smart book that leads to many surprising insights, a must-read for policy makers and practitioners of foreign cultural policy, a mix of best practices and fresh ideas and analytical approaches.

Soft power. The New Great Game. By Robert Winder. Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2020.

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