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Global trends in cultural engagement and influence


Author: Alistair MacDonald


The UK is, currently, the world’s leading soft power. But there are many uncertainties for the future. Brexit itself has yet to happen and the full repercussions of the UK’s decision to leave the European unx will not become clear for years perhaps decades to come. This paper provides a soft power perspective on the changed world the UK faces as it charts a new course in the post-Brexit era.


The comparison analysis highlights both the commonalities and diversity of approaches adopted by states to develop their soft power activity. Some countries’ approaches are clearly proving more effective than others, with levels of spend and size of physical networks not necessarily the most important indicator of soft power success. However, the longer-term implications of the rapid change in soft power spend are unclear and it may simply be that there is a time lag between increases in activity and impact. Soft power has always been a long-term investment – it takes time and continued engagement to foster trust and shift perceptions. It would be reasonable to anticipate growing influence for those states that are now significantly ramping up their activity. The long-term impact of China’s engagement with Sub-Saharan Africa is particularly telling in this regard, public opinion is already becoming more positive and it will be fascinating to see how this develops as relationships mature.


There are certainly lessons for the UK from the different approaches of other soft powers. Germany’s investment in cultural relations has had a direct benefit to its economy and is a model worth careful scrutiny. The emphasis on student mobility – both bringing international students to the country and ensuring young Germans gain international experience in Asia is particularly important. The Commonwealth represents a clear opportunity for the UK. As a family of nations, it is united by shared values – democracy, freedom of speech, human rights and the rule of law – as much as it is by its shared linguistic, legal and cultural history. These values are robust foundations on which the UK can build greater multilateral lixs. The experience of Brazil with the CPLP offers insight on how the UK might seek to re-energise the Commonwealth.


– Consider its soft power priorities for the future. In recent years it has been reducing its soft power footprint in developed nations, targeting funding on the developing world. While the priority given to the Global South makes strategic sense for the UK’s long-term security and prosperity, there is an urgent need for investment in the developed world to restore trust and confidence with European allies and deepen connections with countries like Canada, Japan, Australia and the US to safeguard the UK’s position in the short and medium term.


– Address the growing skills gap in the UK workforce by encouraging language learning in schools and universities and supporting the outward mobility of UK students – it isn’t just linguists who need international experience, intercultural skills are increasingly important in a globalised economy as the German experience shows. The UK should also continue to participate in Erasmus+ and look at ways to expand opportunities outside the EU and its immediate neighbourhood, for example through the introduction of a similar programme for the Commonwealth. Exchange programmes like Erasmus+ that promote the two-way traffic of international students both build relations with future leaders and empower citizens of the home nations to confidently and effectively engage internationally.