Soft power brings concrete benefits, say Scots academics

A street performer entertains crowds during the Edinburgh festival season. Culture is a key part of projecting soft power overseas. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
A street performer entertains crowds during the Edinburgh festival season. Culture is a key part of projecting soft power overseas. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
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Projecting so-called soft power - from pop music to literature - can bring concrete benefits to nations, a report by the University of Edinburgh has suggested.

Academics found that promoting cultural and political ideals on the global stage brings significant economic advantages, including attracting tourists and international students.

Billed as the first statistical study of soft power, it was carried out by the university’s Institute for International Cultural Relations.

A country’s soft power was described by the British Council as an ‘ability to make friends and influence people not through military might, but through its most attractive assets – notably culture, education, language and values’.

Experts assessed how various forms of soft power – including cultural institutions, foreign aid, internet connectivity, democracy and prosperity – influenced a country’s international pull.

This global drawing power was calculated by measuring numbers of international students and foreign tourists, levels of foreign direct investment (FDI) and political influence on the world stage.

Researchers found that national cultural institutions, such as the UK’s British Council or Germany’s Goethe Institute, had a positive impact. The more countries that host a cultural institute the better the return for the parent state.

A one per cent increase in the number of host countries brings on average a 0.66 per cent increase in FDI for its country of origin. In 2016, for example, such a rise would have been worth £1.3bn for the UK, which recorded £197bn of foreign investment.

It also prompts on average a 0.73 per cent increase in international students for its country of origin. Using the latest UK figures from 2015/16, this would equate to almost 3200 additional international students.

Researchers found that a prosperous population is attractive to prospective students from overseas.

For every one per cent increase in per capita income, international student numbers increased by between 0.35 to 0.98 per cent.

Students are also drawn to countries with high internet connectivity. A one per cent increase in a country’s internet-users results in a 0.5 per cent rise in international students, the study found.

Political pluralism, high levels of democracy and few restrictions on political rights attracts international students, tourists and FDI. As political rights become restricted, student numbers decline, researchers say.

Foreign aid has a positive influence on the influx of students, tourists, FDI and increases a country’s political influence, which is measured by a country’s ability to affect voting patterns at the United Nations.

The study was commissioned by the British Council and used available data for countries between 2000 and 2012.

Report author and Institute director Professor JP Singh said: “Soft power demonstrably matters. The United Kingdom’s soft power assets bring revenues from international students, tourists and foreign investment, and they enhance the UK’s international political influence. Soft power should be seen as a mainstream part of public policy.”

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