World, Analysis

Soft power in the era of disarray and uncertainty

The Soft Power 30 Index of 2018 is a clear indication of the challenges that are faced by Western democracies and of the challenges that come with the conceptual definition of soft power in an era of rising non-Western powers

Soft power in the era of disarray and uncertainty

By Senem B. Cevik


Power, while it is a fundamental component of international relations, is also an elusive concept that is very difficult to measure. The role of power in politics has evolved together with the globalization and advancement of digital technologies. There is now a diffusion of power, which has moved from the West to the East and away from governments towards non-state actors.

In the ever-growing age of information power is not about whose army wins, but rather is about whose story wins. Particularly in the era of fake news and disinformation. the power of stories has become a vital part of the warfare that is based on power rather than information. The story that each nation wants to tell is the heart of its global appeal and these stories are persuasive. Political scientist Joseph Nye coined the term soft power, which is the act of persuading others to support your desired outcome through culture, politics, and foreign policy. Nye argues that a country can achieve its preferred outcomes in world politics because of other countries admiring its values, emulating its example, and aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness. Soft power, since it was first coined during a bipolar world order, has been crucial to the effective conduct of foreign policy. To be sure, the development of the concept of soft power is a byproduct of the liberal international order, which has been led by the United States.

In its essence, the liberal international order began as a US-led Western initiative that fostered free and open states with the objective of blocking Soviet expansion and the spread of communism. Thus, the rules determined by the liberal international order reinforced the ideas of democracy and freedoms, two core values that have long determined the United States and Western democracies. On the other hand, the Soviet Union built up its own order and alliances, which offered a path to prosperity that did not include the ideas of democracy and freedom. Although the bipolar world order collapsed with the victory of the liberal international order, the remnants of the Cold War become more noticeable during the 2000s. As power is becoming more diffused, moving from the West to the East, the concept of soft power is encountering major challenges. With the most notable of these coming from illiberal democracies and even authoritarian states that exercise a variant of soft power. The year 2018 has been a symbolic year in which the world experienced global chaos from a wave of populist-nationalism in the West. Furthermore, we are currently witnessing an isolationist US, who is recalibrating its foreign policy and failing to lead and uphold the very international order it created. This vacuum created by the US is being filled by rising powers, who are, in effect, challenging the status quo. A key challenge to soft power comes from the ways in which the rising powers, such as China and Russia, employ a soft power that contradicts its foundational definitions.

Portland Communications recently published its annual Soft Power 30 for the fourth year in a row. This timely report thoroughly investigates the 30 global soft power nations during a time of unwavering uncertainty and therefore sheds light on global trends and developments. The Portland Soft Power Index embarks on the idea that each nation should have an account of available resources, and in addition, an assessment of where and how these resources can be effective. Joseph Nye has previously argued that there are three main sources of soft power: culture, political values, and foreign policy. The Soft Power 30 index assesses the soft power resources of countries by looking at these three main sources, combining them with both objective and subjective data. The objective data includes sub-indices of government, culture, global engagement, education, digital, and enterprise. To gather the subjective data, Soft Power 30 polls 11,000 people across twenty-five different countries. In the current soft power index, the foreign policy sub-index has the heaviest weight of all the sub-indexes with 25.9 percent, friendliness has the second heaviest with 20.9 percent, and government sub-index has the third place with 20.8 percent. To be sure, the Soft Power 30’s objective data is more favorable to liberal Western democracies given its emphasis on government and foreign policy.

Thus, the metrics used to assess government naturally favor nations that are defined by Western liberal democratic standards since that is also where the concept of soft power emerged from. As a result, nations that have significant cultural resources but exercise sharp power, such as China and Russia, are at a disadvantage in assessing their soft power. Countries like Turkey, which also have stronger cultural and engagement scores but fall fairly behind in the government and foreign policy sub-index, are also at a disadvantage with regard to their composite score. The Soft Power 30 subjective data sampling does not include enough countries in Africa and those in the Russian orbit, posing a limitation to understand the real-time appeal of the non-Western rising states in certain parts of the world. Nonetheless, Soft Power 30 is the most extensive research available that unpacks both where a country stands, and the emergence of rising powers is a challenge even to the definition of soft power.

This year the United Kingdom topped the list as the number one soft power country, followed by France, Germany, the United States, and Japan. Although there are many uncertainties facing the United Kingdom, it still has a substantial set of soft power assets regardless of the Brexit deal. Following Britain as the second most prominent soft power country in the world is France, who, although down from its first-place spot from 2017, still embodies a cultural hub for the entire world. The sudden spike in French soft power due to its popular president Emmanuel Macron partially faded in 2018 and the impacts of the recent Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vest) street protests are unknown at the moment but France is in a volatile situation facing domestic discontent. The uncertainties found in both the UK and France can impact their soft power within the next year. Germany is the third soft power country in the world, which is largely owed to the global respect that Germany has gained under Chancellor Merkel as the leading force of liberal democracy. Although the German leadership has faced shaky grounds and will see more uncertainty as the Merkel administration comes to an end, Germany has proved itself capable of leading European values and pursuing multilateralism.

The United States demonstrates a downward spiral dropping from first place in 2016 to third in 2017 and finally to fourth place in 2018. Without a doubt, the US is still one of the leading nations of soft power with its excellent higher education institutions, Hollywood, and technology industries. Moreover, the US is home to many household brands such as Apple, Microsoft, and Facebook. However, it is the government and foreign policy variables that damage US soft power, not its cultural resources. President Donald Trump’s America First campaign inflamed nativism, which demonstrated itself in the US abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the American withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, and America’s unilateral retrieval from the Iran nuclear
deal. Moreover, American isolationism and protectionism gave way to anti-Semitic and xenophobic responses such as the Charlottesville march and the attack at The Tree of Life Synagogue. President Trump’s anti-immigration discourse has paved the way to hate crimes and contradicts the American image of a nation of immigrants. The Trump administration’s unwavering support for brutal regimes around the world, such as Saudi Arabia, and its silence when it comes to other human rights abuses will further damage America’s image.

The Soft Power 30 Index of 2018 is a clear indication of the challenges that are faced by Western democracies and of the challenges that come with the conceptual definition of soft power in an era of rising non-Western powers. The lack of US engagement, if accelerated at this pace, will have significant effects on the widening gap between Europe and the US. Furthermore, the increasing role of hard power and the use of sharp power in the coming years will redefine the role of soft power in international relations. In the age of uncertainty, hard power will continue to gain more traction in 2019 and rising powers will continue to assert themselves in the international political arena.

[Senem B. Cevik is a lecturer in International Studies at the University of California, Irvine. She is the co-editor of Turkey's Public Diplomacy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015)]

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.


1. Portland Soft Power 30,

2. Joseph Nye. (2004). Soft Power: The means to success in world politics. New York, NY: Public Affairs.

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