Dame Edna Everage and the Future of Soft Power

Dame Edna - soft power at work?
Dame Edna – soft power at work?

I can’t be sure whether Janan Ganesh has lapsed unintentionally into pompous portentousness in the opening paragraph of his column in today’s Financial Times or whether he is reaching out to fans of the late Housewife Global Megastar by writing in her style: “The omni-talented presenter Barry Humphries died over the weekend.  On Monday, his native Australia announced a new and enhanced defence posture.  One way of engaging with the world as a middle power is fading.  Another has just started”.

Either way, the different ways in which a nation engages with the rest of the world are important.  Further, from the perspective of the Escondido Framework, the article illustrates the different ways in which power can be exercised, fleshing out the “three currencies” (cash, influence and force).  However, his core argument, as captured in the last two of the italicized sentences above, feels overstated.  Soft power – an important contributor to influence – hasn’t gone away and remains important.  The role and presence of force in the business of nations hasn’t change, but it’s a lot more visible at present and creating a greater challenge and threat.

Ganesh refers to the increasing salience of South Korean culture in the West as an example of soft power.  Sharing a home with a “K Drama” addict and having visited the Victoria and Albert Museum “The Korean Wave” last weekend, I am in no doubt about the role of Korean cultural exports in changing my perception of the country and helping me identify with its citizens as “people like us”, much in the way that Ukrainians have evoked sympathy with fellow following Russia’s invasion.  It doesn’t mean that Koreans do not reasonably have raised anxieties about Chinese naval exercises or the efforts of their north neighbour to develop nuclear missile capability.  It does, however, decrease the proportion of the populations of the West who think of South Korea as “a faraway country of which we know little”.

Far from discounting the value of soft power, the rising tensions that have led governments to consider whether they should increase their levels of military investment (some of this forced on them by the need to replenish stocks having supplied materiel to Ukraine) only increase the need for countries to invest in soft power to underpin potential military alliances and reduce the risk of losing influence in political non-aligned nations.