A symbolic rankings table published by a British public relations firm has revealed that France has supposedly become the world’s leading “soft power,” overtaking the United States. But what does it mean?
“Soft power” is a recent term popularized in the 1990s by U.S. academic Joseph Nye. His theory opposed American military inventions and overly offensive positions by promoting the hypothesis that international relations were in fact dominated by strategies of cultural influence. The idea is that people will listen to a government on matters of global affairs if it represents a respected or envied country. Following this thinking, the American Dream, the U.S. lifestyle and everything the United States represents are actually more influential than the firepower of its armed forces.
Unmeasurable soft power is the opposite of hard power, which is military and quantifiable. In an example of the former, the Vatican has no personal army to speak of, but its global influence is far more significant than the Swiss Guard would have us think. Nye was partly right, although his theory is undermined when confronted with opponents who do not believe in the virtues of soft power. Hitler, Bashar al-Assad and Kim Jong-un were and are unmoved by the charms of the United States or by French fashion.
The theory of soft power seems more decisive when it comes to economic trade. A nation’s positive image adds a certain extra cultural value that can direct economic flows. Consumers pay a higher price for French perfume than its actual value, because they feel like they are sharing in a part of French civilization. However, no one purchases Chinese products for the culture, but rather because China — whose soft power is negligible, if not negative — sells at the lowest price on the market.
Soft power also decides tourist flows. France takes advantage of it, in the same way as Italy and Spain, whose climates and monuments both attract visitors. A similar phenomenon can be seen in migration to countries that enjoy a positive image, such as the United States and Germany. This cannot be said for objectively superior destinations such as Canada and Australia, which attract fewer people because they have less soft power.
But can a country work on soft power and improve it? It would be no mean feat, as the image of a nation is underpinned as much by myths as realities. France’s first place on the list owes a lot to a certain idea of it that dates back to Louis XIV, Balzac, and the Impressionists. Contemporary France is not as well known, and contributes less to this favorable image than its past. Soft power therefore cannot be decided, but it can be maintained and influenced. France has its Instituts Français and Alliances Françaises, Germany has the Goethe-Institut, Spain has the Cervantès Institute and China the Confucius Institute. The United States has nothing similar, although cinema and music probably suffice.