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Small States in a Global Age: Soft Power, Cultural Influence, and State-Branding

Small States in a Global Age: Soft Power, Cultural Influence, and State-Branding

September 3, 2015
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen Non Resident Fellow in Global Politics and International Relations

The shifting contours of the global order and the emergence of a new generation of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states’ leaders in the late 1990s and early 2000s intersected with changes to the very concepts of power and influence. Together, these opened up new possibilities and directions for the projection of influence both unilaterally and by coalitions of emerging economies coalescing around select issues in global governance. The acceleration of globalising processes during the 1990s and 2000s led to what David Held and Anthony McGrew have labelled ‘a significant shift in the spatial reach of social relations and organisation’ as notions of ‘distance’ and ‘geographical space’ weakened and shrank.[1] Also significant was the reconfiguration of the concept of what power is and how it is utilised, in addition to an appreciation that power comes in many different forms and is itself distinct from influence and ambition. As Thomas Juneau has written in relation to the United States, power is multidimensional and relative, and is derived from the assets that a state can leverage to shape developments in international politics in pursuit of national interests, whereas influence ‘is defined by what a state achieves with those assets’ and ambition ‘consists of the intensity of a state’s interests.’[2]

Soft, Smart, and Subtle Power

Most notably, Joseph Nye pioneered the study of ‘soft power,’ which he described as the ability to appeal to and persuade others using the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies. Although Nye first introduced the concept as early as 1990,[3] he explored in detail the phenomenon of co-optation rather than coercion as a means of persuasion in international politics in his 2004 book Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. Nye described how states or other actors in world politics (such as non-governmental organisations) seeking to accrue soft power should

Set the agenda and attract others in world politics, and not only to force them to change by threatening military force or economic sanctions. This is soft power – getting others to want the outcomes that you want co-opts people rather than coerces them.[4]

Nye added that soft power resources consist of the assets that induce co-optation, and that it is a complex tool that governments must build up over time as they develop a reputation for credibility in a particular field.[5] The concept of ‘soft power’ thus was refined at the height of the George W. Bush presidency’s attempt to resolve international challenges through military interventions in the Middle East and Central Asia. The Bush administration’s failure to reorder Afghanistan and Iraq through the use of force highlighted the flaws inherent in the prioritisation of coercion over consent in contemporary world politics. The upsurge in terrorist and insurgent attacks during the ill-conceived ‘war on terror’ visibly demonstrated the limitations of traditional ‘hard power’ and also underlined the importance of actions being seen by the international community to be legitimate in and consistent with the norms of international law.[6]

Other iterations of the concept of ‘power’ include Nye’s subsequent development of the label ‘smart power’ to describe ‘the combination of the hard power of coercion and payment with the soft power of persuasion and attraction.’ Examples of states that have proven adept at ‘smart power’ are Norway and Switzerland with Norway, for example, deploying unprecedented military force in addition to diplomatic and humanitarian instruments in the NATO-led intervention in Libya in 2011 that ousted Colonel Gaddafi.[7] Moving to the specific context of the Middle East, a typology of soft power was published by the Dubai School of Government in 2010. Lawrence Rubin noted that use of the term al-quwwa al-naima (soft power) increasingly had entered local and regional discourse over the past decade.[8] Writing about Qatar and drawing on insight gleaned from his leadership position at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service branch campus in Doha, Mehran Kamrava introduced the notion of ‘subtle power’ – ‘the ability to exert influence from behind the scenes.’ Subtle power, Kamrava suggested, was a multipronged approach that involved ‘a combination of bringing resources to bear, enjoying international prestige derived from and commensurate with norm-entrepreneurship, and being positioned in such a way as to manipulate circumstances and the weaknesses of others to one’s advantage.’[9]

A New Global Politics

New forms of power projection therefore shifted the ways that regional structures of power were organised. These occurred against the backdrop of two significant developments in global politics and international relations

  • First, the emergence of the multiple poles of geo-economic gravity and centres of influence in the international system has opened up new possibilities for new coalitions of states and intra- and inter-regional realignments. In such a context, the future of ‘global governance’ is likely to be characterised by moves toward the creation of a new and more responsive institutional architecture that balances the rapidly-changing global framework with the competing objectives of a larger array of major stakeholders.[10]
  • Second, geographical territory has become less important to the projection of power as the latter became more variegated in the 2000s, while the evolution of information and communications technologies (ICT) created opportunities for new actors to stake an international role disproportionate to their geographical or population size. This was a significant new development that eroded many of the constraints hitherto imposed on ‘small states’ in the international system and made it possible to evade the ‘international cliency’ that hitherto formed the dominant framework structuring the relationships between strong states and weak states.[11]

A wide array of new opportunities hence opened up for small states seeking to leverage their limited political, economic, and strategic assets and overcome some of their spatial or geographical constraints. Moreover, in the Arab world, the decline of ‘traditional’ regional powers such as Egypt, Syria, and Iraq in the 1990s created a vacuum in which smaller states could exercise unprecedented leadership. This took very different forms in each of the Gulf States

  • Saudi Arabia and Kuwait built up networks of soft power throughout the Arab and Islamic world through the funding of international Islamic institutions and generous aid and development programmes respectively. Yet, by the 1990s, aging leaderships in both states were resulting in ossified power structures and a deepening resistance to change or innovation.
  • The UAE provided a stark contrast as the dynamic new generation of rulers moved rapidly to take advantage of the systemic fluidity that opened up. Significantly, neither the relatively small territorial extent nor size of population held back the projection of influence at levels that far outmatched many much larger, and conventionally more ‘powerful’ states.
  • Officials in Abu Dhabi and Dubai forged instead what J.E. Peterson has labelled ‘strategies of survival’ for small states based on enlisting a powerful external protector (the United States) as a security guarantor while developing strategic niches that facilitated and underpinned the rise to global prominence.[12]

Cultural Influence and State-Branding

The projection of cultural influence also developed as an object of study as emerging economies and non-state processes became more proactive and visible participants in globalising flows in the 2000s. In a foreword to a British Council report on culture and soft power in the twenty-first century published in 2013, then UK Foreign Secretary William Hague described how ‘Foreign policy today is no longer the preserve of governments.’ Instead,

There is now a mass of connections between individuals, civil society, businesses, pressure groups, and charitable organisations which are also part of the relations between nations. It is more important than ever before to tap into these new human networks around the world…[13]

In a separate report on ‘the global race for influence and attraction,’ the British Council observed that the role of the state ‘does not have primacy in the development of a country’s soft power’ as such influence ‘stems largely from factors outside the direct control of governments.’[14]

While organisations such as the British Council, the Alliance Française (AF), Germany’s Goethe-Institut, and Spain’s Instituto Cervantes all originated as state-backed entities committed to promoting national culture and language, over time their focus gradually become less state-centric and more internationalist. By contrast, in the Gulf States, the projection of cultural influence is still predominantly top-down – either directly from state institutions or filtered through the state-owned enterprises that populate the political and economic landscape.

An important element of the enabling environment for soft power and cultural influence has been the concept of ‘state-branding’. Peter van Ham has examined the growth of branding as a political phenomenon in world politics that operates at the intersection of media, marketing, and brand management with the international political arena. Van Ham describes branding as part of ‘an effort to use strategies developed in the commercial sector to manage, if not necessarily wield, the soft power of a geographical location.’[15] Moreover, branding forms one of the components of ‘a wider spectrum of postmodern power’ alongside ‘soft power’ and also public diplomacy.[16] Van Ham concludes with the observation –highly relevant to the study of the global emergence of the Gulf States – that

For both place branding and public diplomacy, a key element is to build personal and institutional relationships and dialogue with foreign audiences by focusing on values, setting them apart from classical diplomacy, which primarily deals with issues.[17]

Opportunities for the UAE

The projection of new forms of power and influence in four sectors, in particular, has become synonymous with the large-scale Gulf ‘branding’ efforts. These are

  • the high-profile prestige investments in the health, education, and cultural sectors;
  • the targeting and hosting of major international sporting events and global sports stars;
  • the growth of luxury-level international travel and tourism;
  • pioneering research and development into cleaner energy fuels.

Together, these seek to transform regional and international perceptions of the Gulf States and foster the perception of a dynamic ‘can do’ mentality among their leadership. To the extent that there is an overarching ‘message,’ it is that the Gulf is nurturing a reputation as a safe place to do business and live and work in an otherwise insecure region. Sponsorship of major sporting events and some of the highest profile and successful sports teams also projects a highly benign form of messaging to a truly global audience. References to ‘the Emirates’ and ‘the Etihad’ have entered the British sporting lexicon in much the same way as iconic venues like Old Trafford and Wembley. In addition to offering powerful name recognition, such moves additionally tap into the nearly universal passion and loyalty generated by global cultural and sporting events. Moreover, initiatives such as the Sheikh Zayed Campus for Advanced Pediatric Medicine at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, DC not only provide a platform to showcase the UAE as a hub for healthcare innovation but also constitute a powerful example of institutional partnership-building and soft diplomacy at work.

Global perceptions of the UAE have shifted greatly over the past decade and much of this is attributable to the new forms of power and influence described above. One only has to recall the political firestorm in 2006 at the prospect of a Gulf-based operator – DP World – acquiring a port management contract in the United States to see how far such views have evolved. By contrast, barely a murmur was raised in June 2014 when another UAE port operator – Gulftainer – secured a 35-year concession to manage the container and cargo terminal at Port Canaveral in Florida. To an extent, the different response reflects deeper awareness of global interdependencies and greater openness to foreign investment in the United States in the wake of the 2008-9 financial crisis. It highlights also the opportunities available to Gulf policymakers as they become more assertive in regional and international politics and build on the global imprint developed over the past decade.

[1] David Held and Anthony McGrew, ‘The Great Globalization Debate,’ in David Held and Anthony McGrew (eds.), The Global Transformations Reader (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003), pp.3-4.

[2] Thomas Juneau, ‘U.S. Power in the Middle East: Not Declining,’ Middle East Policy, 21(2), 2014, p.40.

[3] Joseph Nye, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power (New York: Basic Books, 1990).

[4] cf. Joseph Nye, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (New York: PublicAffairs, 2004).

[5] Ibid.

[6] David Held and Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, The End of the American Century: From 9/11 to the Arab Spring (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016), forthcoming.

[7] Joseph Nye, The Future of Power (New York: Public Affairs, 2011), p.xiii.

[8] Lawrence Rubin, ‘A Typology of Soft Powers in Middle East Politics,’ The Dubai Initiative, Working Paper No.5, December 2010, pp.7-20.

[9] Mehran Kamrava, Qatar: Small State, Big Politics (New York: Cornell University Press, 2013), pp.60-61.

[10] Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, ‘The GCC States and the Shifting Balance of Global Power,’ Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar: Center for International and Regional Studies Occasional Paper No. 6, Doha, 2010, p.17.

[11] Mary Ann Tetrealt, ‘Autonomy, Necessity, and the Small State: Ruling Kuwait in the Twentieth Century,’ International Organization, 45(4), 1991, p.567.

[12] J.E. Peterson, “Qatar and the World: Branding for a Micro-State,” Middle East Journal, 60(4), 2006, p.741.

[13] William Hague, ‘Foreword,’ in John Holden, ‘Influence and Attraction: Culture and the Race for Soft Power in the 21st Century’ (London: British Council & Demos, 2013), p.2.

[14] ‘The Global Race for Influence and Attraction: the Role of the State,’ University of Cambridge/YouGov Cambridge Programme’ online commentary, September 25, 2013.

[15] Peter van Ham, ‘Place Branding: The State of the Art,’ The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science,’ p.127.

[16] Ibid. p.126.

[17] Ibid.

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