Solidarity, public health, and the impact of soft power

Almost to the day one year ago, we were invited to Brand Finance’s inaugural Global Soft Power Summit. In late February of 2020, it was clear that the world was changing rapidly around us, but I don’t think any of us could have predicted that we would still be feeling the effects one year later. Certainly, I couldn’t have guessed it would be the last event I was able to attend physically.

Unsurprisingly, the 2021 Global Soft Power Summit was hosted virtually and questions of public health and COVID governance dominated both the discussions and the results of the 2021 Global Soft Power Index. “As the world recovers from the shock of COIVD-19,” shared David Haigh, CEO at Brand Finance, “it has never been more important for policy makers to understand the perceptions and attitudes to better plan for economic recovery.”

But what can we learn from the impact felt on nations' soft power approaches as we prepare for recovery?

Looking at the 2021 Global Soft Power Index

As well as introducing a number of new countries into the Index and expanding the scope of the investigation, a new dimension was added to survey public opinion of COVID management which has dramatically re-arranged the index. Germany rises to take the top spot, while America drops down from first to sixth place. New Zealand, on the other hand, jumped from 22nd to 16th.

The United States of America and New Zealand both saw the most dramatic changes in rankings. And notably, while New Zealand ranked top for COVID-19 governance, the United States was rated lowest in this area out of all 105 countries, with less than 25% of people thinking that they managed the crisis well. It’s clear to say that COVID-19 has dramatically impacted on soft power around the world, and likely will continue to do so for some time to come.

The soft power of public health

Public health is top of mind for most of the world right now, but as David Heyman, Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, noted, “because of this common goal of better health, health is an important tool for soft power.” In particular, it can be a powerful motivator for collaboration. “The soft power of public health often leads to solidarity, despite opposing political views and tensions,” David continued, referencing the joint efforts of the USA and Russia to cure Polio in the 1960s, despite the ongoing tensions of the Cold War.

And indeed, solidarity was an important factor for many of the panellists, with vaccine distribution top of mind for many. As Zeinab Badawi, Journalist for BBC World News, referenced, ten countries have bought up almost 75% of the global supply of vaccines. “Crises bring out the best and worst in people,” asserted George Yeo, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs in Singapore. “When COVID sped around the world, I had hoped that international solidarity would grow…. I’m not sure that it has, but it’s not over yet.”

The importance of collaboration, of aid and mutual support, was pervasive throughout the discussion, and the countries that are giving support to others during their time of need will be remembered more favourably than those who hoarded resources. While the efforts of European solidarity were acknowledged as effective, it was also noted that they came too late and there is still a great need for better global cooperation.

The world is changing rapidly, and there are new nations who are becoming major players on the world stage. Aid and collaboration will be important areas to focus on if countries want to be perceived positively and remain politically relevant.

The importance of values in soft power

While it was conceded that COVID relief isn’t always entirely altruistic, being seen to be acting on your values is a critical factor in soft power. Indeed, Joseph Nye attributed much of the USA’s soft power decline to the fact that Donald Trump didn’t connect his foreign policy to values: “Trump was the first president who didn’t place a high emphasis on values,” he explained. “The other 14 Presidents [in the study] may not always have been moral – I wouldn’t claim that – but they did place an emphasis on values. When the United States stood for values, it tended to make us more attractive in the eyes of others.”

While having a positive reputation can benefit your own citizens greatly, it also creates new avenues for you to support others. “[Nation brand managers] have to stop and down tools for a moment, and think about what comes next,” explained Rebecca Smith, Director of the New Zealand Story. “We have to change entirely and think about what we do from here, what we do with a positive reputation…. How do we use that for the betterment not just of our own countries, but for our neighbours and other around us?”

When speaking about Africa’s rising soft power influence, Professor Thuli Madonsela, Former Protector of South Africa, highlighted ubuntu  as Africa’s gift to the world – the philosophy of humaneness. “Africa hasn’t given the world more weapons. It’s gift to the world is going to be humanity, the philosophy of ubuntu,” she explained. “I am because we are. We are interconnected in humanity. I support you, in order to support myself, because together, we can do better.”

As we work towards recovery, collaboration and solidarity will be essential. Hillary Clinton noted that many of the actions that Joe Biden prioritised upon entering the White House were central to the USA becoming an active player once more in global initiatives such as the Paris Climate Change initiatives – we will have to keep watch to see if these efforts can reverse the downward trend of American soft power. But as Thuli Madonsela stated so powerfully, “I am because we are.”

Together, we can do better. And it needs to start today.

If you missed the 2021 Global Soft Power Summit, you can access the recordings for a few more days HERE or find the report and interactive dashboard HERE.

Related reading

Has the pandemic killed soft power?

COVID-19, leadership, and the impact on nation branding

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Soft power superpowers: learnings from the 2020 Global Soft Power Index

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