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The Post-Pandemic State of Soft Power in Asia

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The Post-Pandemic State of Soft Power in Asia

Western nations still dominate, but the upper ranks of the index have grown increasingly more diverse in recent years.

The Post-Pandemic State of Soft Power in Asia
Credit: Depositphotos

On March 2, the Global Soft Power Index was released at a live event in London. Now in its fourth iteration, the index, which is produced by the consultancy Brand Finance, encompasses the standing of 121 nation brands and offers valuable pre- and post-pandemic comparisons. The index’s central question is: how attractive are countries to international audiences? And which Asian powers stand out?

The index combines three subjective elements – familiarity, influence, and reputation, as judged by more than 100,000 respondents across the world – with a more objective evaluation of performance according to eight “soft power pillars.” These are Business & Trade, Governance, International Relations, Culture & Heritage, Media & Communication, Education & Science, People & Values, and Sustainable Future. In total, 40 different metrics are used to rank each country’s international appeal.

The podium is occupied by three Western powers: the United States, followed by the United Kingdom and Germany. This is unchanged from last year. Japan occupies the fourth spot, narrowly surpassing China, which now comes in fifth. The top ten is then rounded out by France, Canada, Switzerland, Italy, and a notable new entry at the top, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which climbed five spots compared with last year. This was due to its capable handling of the pandemic paired with robust and attractive opportunities for investment and a proven capability to innovate.

Russia has experienced a notable drop instead, falling from ninth to 13th place, while being the only country to record a drop in soft power in absolute terms. Conversely, the largest gain was seen by Ukraine, both in relative and absolute terms, which climbed thirteen spots to 37th. Russia’s reputation fell considerably while familiarity (and sympathy) with Ukraine grew exponentially across the world due to the extensive coverage of the country’s travails since Russia’s invasion in February 2022.

Perhaps surprisingly, South Korea dropped three spots to 15th place on the index, despite its relentless success in exporting popular culture. This is because while soft power is generally understood as cultural power, and although the growing familiarity with the country is boosting its international reputation, South Korea’s influence remains limited. However, Seoul may be content to preserve its unthreatening image as a cultural exporter for the time being. As China’s media offensive shows, influence can be easily politicized.

Within Asia, Singapore dropped one spot, to 21st. Considering that a giant like India is 28th, this is still a remarkable feat for such a small country. Malaysia is stable at 39, Thailand dropped six spots to 41st place, and Indonesia climbed two places to sit at 45 on the index. These encompass the entries from the continent in the top 50.

What does this year’s index tell us about soft power dynamics of attraction in Asia and the world? Western powers are still highly regarded across the board as they still dominate the top 20 and beyond. Russia’s conspicuous reputational drop shows that the vast majority of countries recognize stability and peace as a pillar of modern international relations. Conflicts do not benefit anyone, let alone when they cause food shortages and affect trade flows on a global scale.

That said, Asia is still rising, but this should be understood as an incremental process in which major and middle powers from the region would be as highly regarded as some of its Western counterparts, but will not replace them. In other words, we should expect more variety at the top in the coming years, along the lines of the UAE’s success.

More generally, in spite of turbulent times marked by hard power, soft power is as relevant as ever. The more international actors develop charm strategies, the sooner the competition could shift to softer methods of attraction and persuasion based on appealing national features. Following concerns about deglobalization, a country’s ability to connect people and ideas will ultimately define its success.