Hard facts about soft power

editor's insight

Nevil Gibson

Though the term “soft power” has been around for more than two decades, it only became fashionable when it was used to bash American foreign policy.

Joseph Nye coined the phrase in his 1990 book Bound to Lead: The changing nature of American power, further developing the concept in an eponymous book in 2004.

Essentially, it means adopting policies whose main currencies are

...values, culture, policies and institutions – and the extent to which these "primary currencies," as Nye calls them, are able to attract or repel other actors to "want what you want."

In contrast, “hard power” is use of outright force, such as President George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq, a move that Nye says destroyed American soft power.

So imagine the surprise when a survey of the world’s leading soft powers comes up with, you guessed it, America in top slot.

The survey was not done by some adjunct of the American policy establishment, either. It was published by Monocle, a book-sized, chunky magazine published in London and styling itself as a “briefing on global affairs, business, culture and design.”

The US pushed the UK and France out of first place despite, as Monocle puts it

Washington has always seemed more focused on demonstrating heavy-handed military power or confrontational commercial tactics than investing in soft power symbols such as an official US tourist board.

However, American private sector still creates the music, movies and ideas that shape how the rest of the world thinks.

Helen we know but John who?
A pleasant outcome from the survey is New Zealand’s emergence for the first time in 17th place, just one under Italy, which is a classic soft power for more reasons than you want to know.

Monocle sums up New Zealand’s soft power ranking in two words: hobbits and rugby.

It says the successful hosting of the Rugby World Cup showed our best side – fiercely competitive on the pitch, friendly and welcoming off it.

As for the hobbits, Monocle noted the impact of The Lord of the Rings on tourism and says the country

...has a natural beauty that is famous around the world.

Monocle may be one-eyed when it comes to politics. It says New Zealand’s influence has waned since the days of Helen Clark (about whom the magazine has raved in the past, devoting a whole page to her fashion sense), further observing that John Key is “little known internationally.”

If the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade can get itself back up off the floor after the latest ministerial haircut, it could do worse than replace some of those soon-to-be empty 63 embassies and consulates Monocle says we have with free copies of issue 49, volume 05.

Monocle, which is the trendy type of magazine that suits frequent fliers, adds this advice:

New Zealand could play a stronger role within the Asia/Australasia region – from aid to East Timor to trade across southeast Asia.

Picking the Oscars (UPDATED)
My local video storeowner, who runs an annual Oscars competition, says it will be one of the harder years.

I beg to differ, and not just because I have seen all but a few of the nominations. I will enter, of course, having won it previously, but won’t be giving away all my secrets here.

But based on widespread research and some hunches, I have come up with the following What Will and What Should list:

UPDATED with actual result in bold (all but one correctly chosen).

Picture: Winner – The Artist
Misses out – Hugo, The Descendants

Director Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist)
Misses out – Woody Allen, Terrence Mallick, Alexander Payne and Martin Scorcese (my pick)

Actor – George Clooney
Misses out – Gary Oldman, Jean Dujardin, Brad Pitt

ActressMeryl Streep
Misses out – Glenn Close, Viola Davis, Michelle Williams

Supporting actorChristopher Plummer (Beginners)
Misses out – Jonah Hill (Moneyball)

Supporting actressOctavia Spencer (The Help)
Misses out – Bérénice Bejo (The Artist)

Foreign language filmA Separation (Iran)
Misses out – In Darkness (Poland)

Original screenplayWoody Allen for Midnight in Paris
Misses out – Margin Call (my pick)

Adapted screenplayThe Descendants
Misses out – Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy, The Ides of March

In general, I was cool on the year’s hot flicks – The Artist, The Tree of Life and Midnight in Paris. But I was impressed by The Descendants, Hugo and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Margin Call is the best business film in years (due for release in March). George Clooney’s best acting isn’t in The Descendants but he deserves his award for bringing The Ides of March to the screen – one of the best political films ever. Don’t miss these two or Moneyball about the business of baseball.

For some other Oscar picks, see NextMovieTime (US); TimeOut (London)Vanity Fair; and the one that should know best – the Los Angeles TimesBuzzmeter.

For a local effort, see Sarah Watt in the Sunday Star-Times’ Culture magazine (Feb 13).

Big and small
While on the subject of films. I couldn’t noticing a small news item in the Dominion Post on Tuesday, headlined “Quake documentary better than Twilight at the box office.”

The report didn’t quite say that, though. A cinema manager in Christchurch said it was outselling films such as the latest Twilight Saga “in the first couple of weeks.”

Well, yes, it may have. But Gerard Smyth says he expects his film, When a City Falls, which screened on TV3 last night, to gross around $400,000 at the box office.

But that’s nowhere near the Hollywood blockbuster league. Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part I, to give its official title, made more than 10 times that amount – $4.5 million, in fact.

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