From soft power to social power: an alternative to Jeremy Clarkson? - RSA

From soft power to social power: an alternative to Jeremy Clarkson?

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'And up the creeks and inlets of every continent on earth there go the gentle, kindly gunboats of British soft power’. Amidst the torturous noises of hard-soft Brexit debate, and the weird pronouncement from Theresa May that it is impossible to be a ‘citizen of the world’, Boris Johnson’s typically fragrant speech to the Conservative party conference was largely overlooked. Johnson described Britain as a ‘soft power superpower’, and claimed that our EU departure was an opportunity to ‘speak up more powerfully with our own distinctive voice’.

Others would disagree - from Kosovo to Sierra Leone to Iraq - EU membership has rarely prevented the UK from asserting a distinctive voice, for good or ill. And according to the Portland soft power index (which ranks Britain second of thirty countries) ‘a post-Brexit Britain would certainly see a decline in its soft power stores.’

The truth is that Britain’s future global influence is just one of many ‘known unknowns’ about our post-Brexit future. In many ways, Britain’s early dominance of imperialism was the first industrial age articulation of ‘hard power’ – an enlightenment (if not enlightened) approach to global dominance through various forms of resource extraction. Whilst soft power has always followed the hard power of any invasion in history, its 20th century version was felt most powerfully through the global growth of Anglo-American culture, through everything from Hollywood to higher education, and the subsequent dominance of the English language. The creation of Institutions such as the BBC, British Council and even the Commonwealth gave the UK a pathfinder role in new institutional vehicles for soft power.

As geo-politics continues to swirl around the minor skirmish of Brexit, might the UK have an opportunity not just to re-assert but to redefine soft power? Since Joseph Nye conceived the notion of soft power to explain ‘the use of attraction and persuasion to achieve goals’, it has received two decades of critique. Is soft power really hard power in disguise? Can the ‘pull’ of soft power ever achieve anything without the looming ‘push’ threat of the hard? Does soft power lack an ethical foundation? Nye himself writes that ‘soft power is too often misappropriated to cover all courses of action outside military force and, as such, is often embraced as the ethical alternative. Yet soft power can be wielded for bad purposes.’

In an early speech as US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton argued for a ‘smart’ approach to soft power that blends developmental and diplomatic goals and ‘leverages civilian power by connecting businesses, philanthropists, and citizens’ groups with partner governments to perform tasks that governments alone cannot.’ She was beginning to recognise the limits of soft power – not in comparison to hard power, but in a formulation still largely based on a one-way transmission process – of resources, knowledge, and culture, from the powerful to the malleable, or from governments to citizens. In a more complex, networked world, where problems and solutions tend to span national borders, power is already far more diffused across many more countries and non-state actors, and mass urbanisation can rapidly mobilise ideas and political movements, might both soft and hard power be necessary but insufficient tools to achieve global impact?

In the spirit of blog kite-flying, I’m playing with an emergent concept of social power as a possible third point on a power triangle, one that resonates with the RSA’s mission for a 21st Century Enlightenment. My starting definition is this:

Social power is the positive influence that one part of the world can wield over the amount of individual and collective agency in another part of the world.

It rests on a theory of change that the long term well-being of any citizen and society is best served by unleashing ‘the power to create’ in as many other citizens and societies across the world, giving all freedom and power to live full, creative lives.

There is clear overlap between social power and many of the activities that come under a soft power remit, in particular those which persuade fragile democracies to embrace fully and permanently basic freedoms of expression and association and fundamental human rights, as well as actions related to economic development. All are vital foundations for human agency. However, I can identify five possible differences between soft and social power. All probably require explanation, but to keep this blog short I’ll only expand on the fifth.

  1. Social power is built upon principles of a universal 21st century enlightenment, and an ideal that global citizenship can form a core (but not sole) element of every human’s identity
  2. Social power is relational power, informed by an optimistic understanding of what really motivates humans and changes our behaviour.
  3. Social power is created through the mobilisation of various forms of knowledge, rather than a one-way transfer of knowledge and culture.
  4. Social power can be stored and invested by local institutions as effectively as national governments, and by all countries, regardless of GDP.
  5. Social power takes a hard-edged approach to civil society building – supporting inclusive civic institutions and challenging extractive civic institutions.

Acemoglu and Robinson’s book Why Nations Fail introduced the theory of inclusive and extractive institutions, both political and economic. Extractive economic institutions, for instance, ‘are designed to extract incomes and wealth from one subset of society to benefit a different subset.’ Nations which have succeeded in becoming and remaining wealthy have through a mixture of culture, circumstance and accident, tended to foster inclusive institutions at the expense of extractive institutions. Failing nations have done the opposite.

Leaving aside the robust critiques of this analysis, might it be possible to use the same distinction for civic institutions? Some civic institutions – for instance, many private schools, traditional guilds, or faith-based organisations – either exist to or tend to promote the further concentration of power and agency amongst a sub-section of a population. Sometime, it’s not just governments and businesses that are responsible for closing civil society spaces, but civic institutions themselves. Others – and of course I would put the RSA in this bracket – exist for the opposite purpose – to close creativity gaps between different sections of society. If we can differentiate between inclusive and extractive civic institutions, learning in particular from new institutional forms such as Impact Hubs and innovation agencies, then we might also be able to understand where and how to use soft power most effectively in institution-building.

Is the RSA itself a potential global resource for social power? We are curiousabout whether our organisational form, and ‘emergent impact’ model of change (combining fellowship engagement, research and innovation, events and on-line content) have the potential to contribute to the building of civil society, strengthening of democracy, and nurturing of creativity in more fragile democracies. At this stage, it’s less of a theory of change and more of a theory of inquiry (more on this in a future blog).

Our belief is that a healthy civil society expands the realm of human connection to meet essential needs: well-being, social connections, civic participation, freedom of expression and belonging. In order to develop a civil society capable of meeting the emerging challenges and opportunities across the globe, the cultivation of individual and collective creativity is crucial, empowering individuals to lead full and creative lives that contribute to social change. Whilst single-issue organisations and campaigns, for instance around human rights and freedom of expression, will continue to be crucial drivers of change, new institutional forms will also be needed – more flexible in terms of goals, areas of focus and mix of methods to achieve change. This builds on Gnarik’s notion of new ‘intermediation models’ and ‘transitions alliances’ to prevent the closing of civil society spaces. An institution adept in a variety of approaches, with the capacity to work across a wide range of issues is best placed to navigate the increasing complexity and interconnectedness of the ‘wicked problems’ that exist in all 21st century societies.

If social power has potential efficacy as a concept (and I am aware that I may be naively going where lots of people already are), what else might help bring it to life? Although it needs more theoretical underpinning – and possibly a dose of cultural theory - the last thing I would advocate is another index – (‘What do we want? An index! When do we want it? That depends on the quality of the data’). There are already at least seven civil society indices out there, and the Social Progress Index might provide a useful starting point for defining social power. In my next attempt to build on this idea, I’ll be looking for examples of social power – strategies, sustained interventions or one-off responses from one part of the world that have been deliberately designed to foster human agency in another, and that have evidence of success. As well as relishing any critical scrutiny on social power, I’d welcome examples of what you think it might mean in practice. Boris Johnson named his super-soft power superhero as… Jeremy Clarkson. I’m sure that for social power, we can do better than that.

Joe is interim Director of RSA Global. He is responsible for growing the RSA’s presence and impact around the world through a range of exciting partnerships.

Prior to this role, Joe lead the RSA’s Creative Learning and Development team focussing on policy research and practical innovations to the close the creativity gap in learning.  


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  • This is an approach taken to heart by China. In the literature of think tanks in China these are described as "windows" -into the other societies (and into China). Investing them became a smart way of reaching out and accessing spaces that would have been closed to policymakers and Party officials. 

    In more recent years China has hosted  (in China and abroad) meetings of think tanks from China and Africa (and Asia and Latin America). This month, a group of Chinese think tanks came to Peru to meet a group of Latin American think tanks. 

    In December I'll be in Casa Africa in Canarias for a meeting between Spanish and African think tanks (following a meeting, last year, of European and African think tanks). These exchanges are mostly driven by academic or thematic interests but constitute a rather effective soft power tool.

    Establishing these connections, however, is hard. Strong links between members of a network cannot be forged during a single event or over the course of a single research project. This is why the friendships made during undergraduate or postgraduate education often guide the development of partnerships between academic institutions and think tanks from different countries and regions. 

    Yet little is done, after the huge investments made through scholarships to foreign students for instance, to nurture and maintain the green shoots that emerge in the early years after graduation. One possible approach that we are exploring in Peru is to establish an Alumni Network based around knowledge. Current students would be supported (not just financial but also with training and advice) while they are enrolled in the UK. They would be expected to and also encouraged to write about their work (published through a portal but most likely actively promoted through established media) and present to experts back home. Upon return they would be paired up with policymakers and business leaders interested in their research. And they would join the trainers and mentors of future generations of Peruvian students in Britain. 

  • Great topic. There is indeed a lot of work in the field of International Relations on this already out there which you'll find interesting. Peter van Ham wrote an great book entitled Social Power in International Politics in 2010. A House of Lords committee also published an interesting report 2014 analysing many of the issues you pose, which is also worth having a look at. What's also interesting is how political, economic and societal actors like the RSA seek to use the internet and the new media ecology to influence others. Communication is central to soft power and social power.

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