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Tim Cole

Former British Ambassador to Cuba

Part of Digital Diplomacy

29th October 2015 Havana, Cuba

Soft Power Superpower

One phrase stood out from the Italian Prime Minister’s speech at the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana yesterday. Prime Minister Renzi said that even though Italy might not be a superpower in some areas, it should be considered ‘a cultural superpower’ given the strength of its architecture, music and art. Having spent a few days this summer in the beautiful Italian cities of Venice and Treviso, I can assure you that Mr Renzi has a point. Italian culture is impressive, powerful and beautiful. It’s also global. Pizzas and spaghetti reach parts of the world even Coca Cola can’t.

But that phrase got me thinking. Which other countries in the world are cultural superpowers? Is the UK? The US? India? China? France? Russia? Spain? Cuba? All of them? Others?

I like to think the UK certainly is. Our cinema, theatre, art, TV and literature are loved worldwide. Our architecture is admired and respected. Our skyscrapers looked up to. London is considered one of the world’s great global cities. We’ve invented loads of sports everyone else now beats us at. Songs by the Beatles and Adele are hummed on buses from Pinar del Rio to Pyongyang. The Harry Potter books have been translated into 73 languages including Afrikaans and Azerbaijani. James Bond and Downton Abbey are shown on screens big and small worldwide. And in most countries if you don’t speak the native language you can always order a coffee in English. British culture is a heady fusion of the innovative, diverse, modern and traditional.

Cuba’s appreciation for British culture was clear for all to see three weeks ago when we celebrated BritWeek in Havana. We had a series of events ranging from a rugby match to Pimms-tasting. Freddie Mercury was remembered in the Trianon Theatre. Dominic Miller was brilliant in the Fabrica de Arte. Homage was paid to Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web. And the Magna Carta was celebrated in the Castillo de la Fuerza Real. The response from the Cuban public was enthusiastic, even more so after a few glasses of Pimms. Check out our Facebook page for more pictures.

Of course, rapturous applause in the Fabrica de Arte doesn’t make the UK a cultural superpower. What does, according to the experts at Portland Communications who produce a soft power index, is the number and spending of tourists to the UK, our language, films, museums, music, sport and our world heritage sites. Overall, according to Portland, the UK ranks second in the world in terms of cultural influence.

But soft power, the ability of a country to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction rather than coercion, is more than just culture. It is a combination of:

  • a country’s public institutions, political values and major public policy outcomes (Government)
  • its diplomatic resources, global footprint and contribution to the international community (Engagement)
  • its ability to attract foreign students or facilitate exchanges, its contribution to global scholarship and the quality of its universities (Education)
  • the quality and international penetration of its cultural production (Culture)
  • the relative attractiveness of its economic model in terms of competitiveness, capacity for innovation and ability to foster enterprise and commerce (Enterprise) and,
  • the extent to which it has embraced technology, how well connected it is to the digital world and its use of digital diplomacy (Digital).

When you take all that account, according to Portland, the UK comes out on top. A soft power superpower? That’s got a ring to it. Could have been a Beatles song.

1 comment on “Soft Power Superpower

  1. One thing I like of the British culture is that it is very inclusive. And there is an expression in this blog which comes to confirm that fact; “from Pinar del Rio to Pyongyang”

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About Tim Cole

Hi! I’m Tim Cole, the British Ambassador to Cuba. I arrived in Havana in August 2012 and presented my credentials as British Ambassador the following month. I’ve been a diplomat…

Hi! I’m Tim Cole, the British Ambassador to Cuba. I arrived in Havana in August 2012 and presented my credentials as British Ambassador the following month. I’ve been a diplomat since 2001; before Cuba, I spent 5 years in London where I worked on Pan-African policy and global economic issues and 6 years in southern Africa as Deputy Head of Mission in Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Most of my career has been in Africa as before joining the FCO I ran humanitarian aid programmes in Central Africa for the British NGOs Christian Aid and Save the Children. I’m married to Clare and we have 2 children – Jonathan and Zea.

The idea of this blog is to tell you what the British government is doing in Cuba and why. If you enjoy the blog and want to read more, please follow me on Twitter.