In March 2018, the Welsh national football team recorded a 6-0 win over China PR in the China Cup tournament. What was most remarkable wasn’t the emphatic result, but the fact that every Gareth Bale touch of the ball was greeted with a roar of appreciation from the 35,000-plus Nanjing crowd like he was a local hero. The Welshman’s fans were rewarded for their enthusiasm with a hat-trick of goals from the one they affectionately call The Monkey King. What does this cross-cultural hero worship say about the world we live in?
As a concept, soft power can do plenty of heavy lifting or none at all depending on your perspective. Critics will point to softness as being synonymous with weakness whilst advocates point to the word power as a sign of strength. The man who coined the term, American political scientist Joseph Nye, identified three categories of soft power: culture, political values and policies, all of which overlap in ways that are by definition hard to measure.
The cultural aspect of soft power is largely situated in mediated texts which seamlessly flow across the digital world, sometimes unfiltered, other times with appropriation. And media, like the proverbial Heraclitean river, is always in flux. With the advent of Web 2.0, old media models have either had to rapidly adapt, find a retro niche or die painful deaths. Connectivity, interactivity and community are the watchwords of today’s media gatekeepers.
What are the implications for soft power? In the West, the contemporary mediascape is rife with challenges. We live in a post-truth society where the American President is a former reality TV star whose modus operandi involves the regular delegitimisation of mainstream media (FAKE NEWS) and trolling foreign leaders on Twitter. Accusations of meddling in foreign electoral processes through media manipulation sprout with worrying regularity. In the UK, Justice Minister Michael Gove told Sky News that the public “have had enough of experts” in the build up to the Brexit referendum, the result of which the pollsters could not predict.
The firmness of the democratic process looks shaky when opinion carries more weight than fact, everyone has an opinion, nobody can be trusted and nobody knows what will happen next.
The interconnectedness of everything comes with consequences. If we are indeed moving inexorably towards what Marshall McLuhan prophetically dubbed the global village way back in the 1960s, what will that mean for foreign policy?
Before we arrive at a true global village, certain wrinkles will have to be ironed out. Currently, no one media platform straddles the entire globe. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Google hold sway in the West but lack any significant foothold in China where equivalent social media channels Sina Weibo, Tencent’s WeChat and YouTube equivalent YouKu absorb the vast majority of online interactions. The landscape is fragmented and unpredictable.
So much for the channels, what about the content? Certain players keen to exploit the markets will endeavor to find a cultural currency that travels. At present it seems, though perhaps anecdotally, that this movement goes mostly in one direction. The god-like welcome of Gareth Bale is inconceivable in the other direction.
This is not to say that there won’t be similar stars with cultural cachet arriving in the West from the East. All countries have their own texts which export values abroad. The French have cool electropop, the US produces high-end TV shows, India has Bollywood and even in Finland, there are mobile games.China need only to look to their eastern neighbours for one of today’s best examples of global cultural soft power exports as the Japanese and South Koreans continue to bestow manga comics and anime animation on a global youth.
The question of demographics ramps up the significance of the issue. Young people today are less likely to fall back on models of identity based on location, nationality or history. For them, distinctions of East and West are eroding. They possess increasingly convergent tastes where communities form and evolve in the online sphere. Old media models of spoon-feeding content to a passive audience become more and more redundant. Young people get what content they want, from where they want, when they want it.
In 2011, the Arab Spring sparked a region-wide sea change in power structures, facilitated by social media. If any lessons are to be taken from this, it is that new media shapes the conversation in ways which can have severe implications for the values and agendas of an increasingly powerful demographic.
There’s a saying that it takes a village to raise a child. Whilst soft power may be hard to measure and manage, as we move towards McLuhan’s global village, those who have the interests of a nation state in mind will do well to avoid underestimating the importance of what values are embedded within that global digital community.
Christopher Smith is a lecturer in film &media theory based in Tampere, Finland.