Just over two decades ago, soft power was born. Well, the word at least. Joseph Nye published Bound to Lead in 1990, describing how America exercises hegemonic control over other nations by means of a power that is not directly violent (military, threatening, etc.). This bizarre means of control needs monitoring. Monocle magazine has been at the forefront of spreading the word on soft power, publishing the first survey on the subject in December 2010. Twelve months later, in the present issue, they’ve rehashed the study. And how do they assess such an abstract idea? They consider the number of cultural missions, income inequality, membership to international organizations, the number of academic journals published, and 46 other categories. More studies need to go into considering the positioning of soft power. For good or for evil, it is unavoidable. Knowingly or unknowingly, it will continue to dominate.
Always useful for having soft power (as all the world’s famous propagandists have known) is easily recognizable images: clogs, tulips and Van Gogh in the case of the Dutch. The Netherlands has got this going for it, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. The far right politics on the other hand, which continue to surprise observant tourists, is unexpected for a place-holder in the top ten. Although perhaps it’s not all that shocking given their country’s motto, Je maintiendrai (the French for “I will maintain”, the dream of conservatism). As word spreads that their government in considering banning the Koran — and, as we know, banning books has never ended well — chances are, the Netherlands won’t be making an appearance on next years’ lists.
Canada is a little like the less ugly duckling in the nest. Beside the US, it shines like a treat for being less invasive, less domineering, less serious. Really, one might say it’s simply less important and loved for the fact. Identified by their funny turns of phrase or their funny French, Canada is identified with little else but the cold, igloos, its musical output (of which Leonard and Celine are on top). It’s really rather unfortunate. The country always makes it in the selection of the world’s most livable cities no matter who is doing the compiling, and I think this is where it’s soft power lies: in the appeal.
“There’s something to be said of being, well, boring” writes Steve Bloomfield for Monocle with regard to this entry. The stability of the Swiss franc, the Swiss government, the high level of Swiss education, and the sole Swiss icon (Federer, of course) account for its being boring. Maybe I should say reliable. After all, everyone seems to rely on the Swiss, a recalling of the good old days during the second world war when that was the safe haven. Stable as always, they’re still riding that wave.
This is an interesting case. Japan has a power that might well be likened to that of a little brother: the power of popularity. With its unique cuisine, artistic output, cinematic contribution and thriving pop culture, Japan shows that being popular — on whatever level you can — is beneficial to your soft power. The willingness to aid Japan during its singular crisis this year, as well as the consequential ones, proves this point. Over a hundred million was raised (an amount so absurd it sounds invented). Influence from the country will only grow as more and more westerners take up the peculiarly Japanese fashion aesthetic.
Sweden was always going to be in the running for number one. It is the home of some of the most well-loved brands — Ikea, H&M, Saab — that travel well (not to mention far, with stores quite literally all over the world). This has been an amazing year for the Swedes, also, culturally speaking; the Millennium series has kicked off from its heights of last year, and Robyn is still considered to be rocking it. And then there are the old favorites, meatballs and technological innovations, which could never get tiring. Most importantly, however, is their very generous aid contributions which amount to 1.12% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).