.
T

he COVID-19 pandemic is changing how countries assess and deploy soft power—nations that do not recognize this and fail to evolve their own strategies may be left behind when the virus eventually abates.

“Soft power” broadly refers to the ability to shape the preferences of others. It involves attracting and co-opting others into doing what you want, rather than coercing them via hard power; this attractiveness can come from a country’s culture, political ideals, policies and more.

COVID-19 has wrought a couple changes upon how nations exercise soft power.

The main change is that a nation’s ability to project influence now significantly hinges on how it has responded to the crisis. Countries that have responded relatively effectively (e.g., South Korea or Taiwan) find themselves with a larger voice in issues or platforms where they might not have held as much sway before. For instance, South Korea’s capable mitigation techniques have transformed the country’s brand from tech know-how into exemplary public health and citizen cooperation.

In contrast, struggling countries have seen their influence shrink. They now serve as a stark warning of what could happen: in Italy, footage of Italian mayors chastising lockdown-dodgers went viral, and the Italian Prime Minister cautioned that the EU’s very existence was at stake.

Resource-sharing is an important component to the changes in soft power. While aid has always been one way to shape diplomacy and politics, it is usually a tiny proportion of budgets and tends to occur in the background. For instance, in 2019 the United States’ foreign aid accounted for less than 1% of the federal budget. In 2018, South Korea spent $2.8 billion on official development assistance, or 0.14% of gross national income.

Today, through what analysts call “pandemic diplomacy” or “COVID diplomacy” or “mask diplomacy,” the virus has made foreign aid a more public tool, giving it proportionally more weight than its minimal budgets would imply. Most prominently, China has sent donations of medical equipment and professional support across Europe and Africa. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has developed a campaign to provide testing kits and other resources. The UK is giving £744m in supplies to help developing nations battle coronavirus. And even tiny countries such as Cuba are responding by sending doctors abroad.

Research shows that a country’s response to the crisis is affecting how people view that country’s leadership.

A recent APCO Worldwide survey measured how 10 countries’ responses to COVID-19 are changing Americans’ perceptions of those countries. Results show that South Korea, Canada and Germany have the highest net positive change in impressions (+19, +18, and +15, respectively), while China has the most negative (net -24), followed by Iran (-13) and Italy (-4).

Government response during a time of crisis is not the only variable affecting how people perceive a country’s leadership. COVID-19 has given private citizens and companies an outsized voice in the creation of soft power, as well as an unusual opportunity to further their own brand.

For example, French billionaire Bernard Arnault quickly converted his Louis Vuitton factories to help meet France’s call for hand sanitizers. This leadership not only amplified the company’s brand but also showed the responsiveness of French industry in devising creative solutions. Chinese businessman Jack Ma is using the Ma Foundation to send medical supplies and testing kits to countries around the world, a move that one assessment notes will help Ma in China as well as “promot[e] China’s ability to recover and help others.” Such actions also strengthen Ma’s personal brand abroad.

Finally, COVID-19 has increased social media’s role in proliferating information about a country’s response. The digital age has made brand projection both easier and wider; any fresh news leaps onto screens and around the world instantly. COVID-19 has accelerated these trends, especially as stay-at-home orders force people onto their devices more frequently. The social media spotlight on good deeds—and on missteps—has never been brighter. This forces soft power strategies to become more reactive than in decades prior.

To respond to these changes, countries need to do several things. First, whenever possible emulate countries that have found effective measures for containing the virus. Recognize when the crisis has brought a new player to the table. Consider which figures or companies can assist your government in the crisis, or assist other governments in theirs. And finally, consider social media: at a time when many people are home and stress levels are high, social media wields considerable authority in transmitting impressions about what you’re doing right and wrong.

Nations that do not consider these trends could find themselves left behind once the world emerges from the pandemic. The post-COVID-19 environment will certainly look different in a variety of ways, and a changed soft power landscape will be one of them.

About
Aftan Snyder
:
Aftan Snyder is an associate director at APCO Worldwide, specializing on the Middle Eastern portfolio as well as contracts related to security, policy, and public diplomacy.
About
Michelle Sindyukov
:
Michelle Sindyukov is a consultant in APCO Worldwide’s Campaigns and Advocacy practice, specializing in assisting governments and multinational businesses across Latin America, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

How COVID-19 Is Changing the Soft Power Game

April 16, 2020

T

he COVID-19 pandemic is changing how countries assess and deploy soft power—nations that do not recognize this and fail to evolve their own strategies may be left behind when the virus eventually abates.

“Soft power” broadly refers to the ability to shape the preferences of others. It involves attracting and co-opting others into doing what you want, rather than coercing them via hard power; this attractiveness can come from a country’s culture, political ideals, policies and more.

COVID-19 has wrought a couple changes upon how nations exercise soft power.

The main change is that a nation’s ability to project influence now significantly hinges on how it has responded to the crisis. Countries that have responded relatively effectively (e.g., South Korea or Taiwan) find themselves with a larger voice in issues or platforms where they might not have held as much sway before. For instance, South Korea’s capable mitigation techniques have transformed the country’s brand from tech know-how into exemplary public health and citizen cooperation.

In contrast, struggling countries have seen their influence shrink. They now serve as a stark warning of what could happen: in Italy, footage of Italian mayors chastising lockdown-dodgers went viral, and the Italian Prime Minister cautioned that the EU’s very existence was at stake.

Resource-sharing is an important component to the changes in soft power. While aid has always been one way to shape diplomacy and politics, it is usually a tiny proportion of budgets and tends to occur in the background. For instance, in 2019 the United States’ foreign aid accounted for less than 1% of the federal budget. In 2018, South Korea spent $2.8 billion on official development assistance, or 0.14% of gross national income.

Today, through what analysts call “pandemic diplomacy” or “COVID diplomacy” or “mask diplomacy,” the virus has made foreign aid a more public tool, giving it proportionally more weight than its minimal budgets would imply. Most prominently, China has sent donations of medical equipment and professional support across Europe and Africa. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has developed a campaign to provide testing kits and other resources. The UK is giving £744m in supplies to help developing nations battle coronavirus. And even tiny countries such as Cuba are responding by sending doctors abroad.

Research shows that a country’s response to the crisis is affecting how people view that country’s leadership.

A recent APCO Worldwide survey measured how 10 countries’ responses to COVID-19 are changing Americans’ perceptions of those countries. Results show that South Korea, Canada and Germany have the highest net positive change in impressions (+19, +18, and +15, respectively), while China has the most negative (net -24), followed by Iran (-13) and Italy (-4).

Government response during a time of crisis is not the only variable affecting how people perceive a country’s leadership. COVID-19 has given private citizens and companies an outsized voice in the creation of soft power, as well as an unusual opportunity to further their own brand.

For example, French billionaire Bernard Arnault quickly converted his Louis Vuitton factories to help meet France’s call for hand sanitizers. This leadership not only amplified the company’s brand but also showed the responsiveness of French industry in devising creative solutions. Chinese businessman Jack Ma is using the Ma Foundation to send medical supplies and testing kits to countries around the world, a move that one assessment notes will help Ma in China as well as “promot[e] China’s ability to recover and help others.” Such actions also strengthen Ma’s personal brand abroad.

Finally, COVID-19 has increased social media’s role in proliferating information about a country’s response. The digital age has made brand projection both easier and wider; any fresh news leaps onto screens and around the world instantly. COVID-19 has accelerated these trends, especially as stay-at-home orders force people onto their devices more frequently. The social media spotlight on good deeds—and on missteps—has never been brighter. This forces soft power strategies to become more reactive than in decades prior.

To respond to these changes, countries need to do several things. First, whenever possible emulate countries that have found effective measures for containing the virus. Recognize when the crisis has brought a new player to the table. Consider which figures or companies can assist your government in the crisis, or assist other governments in theirs. And finally, consider social media: at a time when many people are home and stress levels are high, social media wields considerable authority in transmitting impressions about what you’re doing right and wrong.

Nations that do not consider these trends could find themselves left behind once the world emerges from the pandemic. The post-COVID-19 environment will certainly look different in a variety of ways, and a changed soft power landscape will be one of them.

About
Aftan Snyder
:
Aftan Snyder is an associate director at APCO Worldwide, specializing on the Middle Eastern portfolio as well as contracts related to security, policy, and public diplomacy.
About
Michelle Sindyukov
:
Michelle Sindyukov is a consultant in APCO Worldwide’s Campaigns and Advocacy practice, specializing in assisting governments and multinational businesses across Latin America, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.