Ukraine, sustainability, and the impact of soft power

Last week, we were invited to join the Global Soft Power Summit by Brand Finance, one of our expert partners, and the creators of the Global Soft Power Index. Since the launch of their 2022 Index, the world has seen Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, growing concerns of economic recession, protests in Iran, and the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Against a backdrop of such uncertainty and instability, it seemed particularly relevant to pause and take stock of how soft power was impacting – and being impacted by – world events.

Professor Joseph Nye, who coined the term ‘soft power’ in 1990, defines soft power as “the ability to obtain preferred outcomes by attraction rather than coercion or payment.” Soft power is the swaying of perceptions, the culmination of opinions of your place and how that goes on to shape your influence of others. And it can be a powerful indicator of how your place will perform in investment, tourism, and talent attraction.

“Our analysis proves that despite the existence of many and various factors that affect the performance of nations, perceptions and soft power that comes with them command strong predicative power,” explained Konrad Jagodzinski, Place Branding Director at Brand Finance. “Soft power generates positive impact across the pillars of economic performance and a greater understanding of a nation’s perceptions can pave the way to amplifying its impact globally.”

Highlights from the 2023 Global Soft Power Index

The top ten of the nations in the Index remains largely unchanged from 2022, with six countries holding on to their positions in the rankings.

The top 10 rankings for the Global Soft Power Index 2023, showing the top countries as USA, UK, Germany, Japan, China, France, Canada, Switzerland, Italy, and United Arab Emirates respectively.

Source: Brand Finance’s Global Soft Power Index 2023

United Arab Emirates becomes the only new country to break into the top ten, predicated largely on the success of Expo 2020 Dubai and the Formula 1 series. And notably, Russia drops from 9th to 13th place as their ‘Reputation’ ranking falls from 23rd to 103rd following their invasion of Ukraine. On the flip side, Ukraine gains +10.1 points and jumps 14 ranks from 51st in 2022 to 31st this year. This perception increase is a greater jump than any other nation this year, and largely driven by increases in ‘Familiarity’ and ‘Influence’.

Ukraine and the importance of soft power

Ukraine has crystalised the importance of having a strong soft power strategy. As Andrew Neil [a publisher, editor, broadcaster, and columnist] said, “of course, soft power is always vulnerable if you do not have the hard power to protect it. But soft power can be a valuable ally of hard power. Just look at Ukraine.”

Through consistent communication, clear and empathetic storytelling, and a commitment to presenting the true reality of the situation, Ukraine has been winning hearts and minds around the world and this is reflected in the 2023 Index. The address from the First Lady of Ukraine, Olena Zelenska, at the Global Soft Power Summit spoke to the impact of Ukraine’s soft power very powerfully, stating that “unexpectedly for the aggressor, soft power fought back. Perhaps for the first time in history, it withstood the attack of an entire army and only strengthened. Millions of people in Ukraine and worldwide responded to the armed invasion with cooperation, solidarity, support, help, and humanity.”

Culture is a key driver of soft power, and the world has seen itself rediscovering the impact of Ukraine’s artists, musicians, and authors, whilst the Ukrainian refugees and expatriates around the world are spreading Ukraine’s story even further. As the First Lady shared, they have become the ambassadors for Ukraine’s soft power; they embody the country’s history, culture, and struggles.

However, Ukraine’s experience has also highlighted another critical aspect of soft power – global cooperation. The world is getting smaller, and we are becoming increasingly reliant on other countries to develop global solutions for the challenges we face. “We want to bring back to the world, and to ourselves, this feeling disturbed by the war,” the First Lady, Olena Zelenska, shared, “that dialogue and humanity is more effective than the economic and financial coercion used by our enemy. That is why we call the anniversary of the Russian attack in Ukraine differently – the anniversary of resistance, solidarity, and fortitude. The anniversary of not only armed self-defence, but also of soft power.”

Sustainability and the global imperative to co-operate

The climate crisis similarly demands that governments around the world come together to develop more sustainable solutions. However, as sustainability becomes increasingly important to consumers, it’s also becoming an important driver of soft power. “An interesting example is Costa Rica,” outlined Robert Haigh, Strategy & Sustainability Director at Brand Finance. “Costa Rica has become almost synonymous with sustainable tourism but is increasingly transferring the reputation developed there to inward investment, as they say: ‘Nature may be Costa Rica’s best-known asset, but sustainable productivity has made it a thriving destination for foreign direct investment.’”

This strategy is delivering back in spades as well. Andrea Centeno, Head of Marketing & Communications for CINDE [Costa Rica’s Investment Promotion Agency], spoke at the City Nation Place Global conference about how this platform is opening the doors for investment from companies looking to demonstrate their own ESG credentials. And according to Brand Finance, the value of Costa Rica’s non-tourism exports have increased more than fivefold in the last two decades.

Events can also be a good platform to demonstrate your soft power in a particular area, and Robert notes the impact that the Paris COP meeting – and the respective Paris agreement – has had in associating the capital with progressive climate action.

Soft power and smaller countries

The so-called ‘soft power superpowers’ are generally not unexpected – all seven of the G7 countries are represented in the top ten of the Soft Power Index. However, there is a growing opportunity for smaller nations to solidify their soft power by contributing to global challenges. “Small island states stand to be hit first by the worst effects of climate change and indigenous people have long been sustainable custodians of their land,” Robert Haigh suggested. “Major environmental conferences provide a rare opportunity for their voices to be heard on the world stage.”

Fredrik Reinfeldt, Former Prime Minister of Sweden, spoke at the Summit about the challenges of making yourself known as a smaller or mid-sized country – and without being known, you cannot influence the actions of others. “We learnt very early on that we could combine economic growth, but also actually lower our impact on the environment,” the former Prime Minister continued. “We have more than doubled out economy at the same times as we have lowered our greenhouse gas emissions by more than 30%.”

This decoupling of the economy is pivotal in responding to the climate crisis, and also provides Sweden a platform from which to demonstrate their engineering prowess and to become a sustainable leader in international relations.

Increasingly, smaller countries are finding ways to use their clear values to make an impact on the wider world. The Nordic Council of Ministers, an intergovernmental co-operation between eight Nordic countries, is designed to create a unified place branding concept that will allow the smaller countries to generate much greater awareness and impact. More than that, it is also instrumental to realising the Nordic region’s vision of guiding the world to a more sustainable future. Or take Finland, who want to be known for their dedication to equality. The country launched the Hän Honours as a way for their embassies to recognise people around the world making a commitment to global equality.

As it stands today, the Soft Power Index is predictably dominated by the largest and more traditionally influential nations. However, as more countries begin to use their smaller size as an advantage to respond more agilely to the global challenges we face, it will be interesting to see how the soft power superpowers of the world begins to shift in response.

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