Britain's soft power is greater than Gangnam Style – so appreciate it | Dorian Lynskey

While Asian nations pour cash into promoting culture, the UK is slashing budgets. We shouldn't take our position for granted

Like good health, soft power is something you only really appreciate in its absence. Last year, the outgoing Chinese president, Hu Jintao, wrote an essay bemoaning his country's poor performance in the cultural arms race. "We must clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of westernising and dividing China, and ideological and cultural fields are the focal areas of their long-term infiltration," he wrote, somewhat dramatically, adding "the international culture of the west is strong while we are weak."

Hu's words can be found in a new report from the British Council, Influence and Attraction: Culture and the Race for Soft Power in the 21st Century, which uses Asia's obsession with extending to warn against British complacency. "The word 'soft' implies 'less effective' and 'less important'," the report suggests. "That is not the reality, and is certainly not how cultural relations are seen in the east."

Over the last few years, China has attempted to salve its soft power angst with hard cash, pouring money and manpower into the movie industry, the culture-promoting Confucius Institute and the foreign-language output of state broadcaster CCTV. At the same time, the austerity-fixated UK government has slashed funding for the British Council and World Service, abolished the UK Film Council, and generally shown little enthusiasm for the arts.

Last year, Monocle magazine's annual soft power survey placed Britain in the top spot, overtaking the US largely thanks to the Olympics and its opening ceremony, but the current government's lukewarm attitude does not bode well. As the foreign affairs committee reported last year, the "spending review 2010 may turn out to have had a very damaging effect on the [Foreign & Commonwealth Office's] ability to promote and safeguard UK interests overseas".

Soft power was defined by Harvard University's Joseph Nye in 1990 as "the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than through coercion", and culture is a key plank. The extent of its impact can be hard to measure but some benefits, at least, are indisputable. As well as being lucrative exports in their own right, thriving creative industries make a country more attractive to foreign tourists, students and investors, while oiling the wheels of trade and diplomacy.

In exceptional cases, soft power can rebrand a nation. Since the late 90s, a new wave of South Korean culture, called hallyu, has transformed the country's standing in Asia to such an extent that the foreign ministry talks of "hallyu diplomacy". Exported TV dramas such as Jumong, and K-pop hits such as Gangnam Style have done more for the country's soft power than any number of heavy-handed marketing campaigns. According to the New Yorker: "Hallyu has erased South Korea's regional reputation as a brutish emerging industrial nation where everything smelled of garlic and kimchi, and replaced it with images of prosperous, cosmopolitan life." Or consider tiny Jamaica, which, from Bob Marley to Usain Bolt, has been punching above its economic and military weight for decades.

Soft power is an unpredictable commodity that can't be bought in a hurry. China imposes a quota of 34 foreign movies a year but last year those imports outgrossed China's 893 homegrown productions, to the government's evident annoyance. Overseas consumers can't be blinded to a nation's flaws. When one of your most famous cultural exports, Ai Weiwei, is a tireless critic of the government, it's hard to pretend you're an artistic paradise, however much you spend.

Britain has long enjoyed the cultural reach that China craves, but it's taking its enviable position for granted. Perhaps when you're the land of Bond, the Bard and the Beatles, not to mention the English language, you're prone to assuming it will be ever thus, but it's not just austerity that threatens Britain's soft power. Many elements of Conservative dogma are antithetical to it: resistance to immigration and Europe; suspicion of the BBC and state funding in general; and contempt for any area of the arts on which you can't immediately slap a price tag.

The British Council report rightly argues for a "move from short-term transactional and instrumental thinking to long-term relationship building". And if we must play the price-tag game, economists point out that growing demand for popular culture from newly prosperous nations plays to Britain's strengths.

Measuring the worth of culture using purely utilitarian arithmetic is a tricky path. Art should be valued on its own merits as well as for its financial rewards. But the government need only look at the global success of the Olympics opening ceremony or The King's Speech, one of the last movies to receive UK Film Council funding, to appreciate what the right combination of long-term state investment and individual creativity can do for Britain's reputation abroad, for relatively piffling sums. That, surely, is a language that even the most fanatical budget hawks can understand.


Dorian Lynskey

The GuardianTramp

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