After Brexit, Wales will need soft power more than ever

Ahead of an international conference in Cardiff tomorrow, Chris Lewis explores what is meant by Wales’ soft power

On a bright but chilly April afternoon, somewhere in Cardiff Bay, a group of seventeen Thai politicians and government officials – led by the Commerce Minister, Sontirat Sontijurawong – filed into the artfully austere interior of a former munitions factory.

The group was visiting The Sustainable Studio, a buzzing collaborative work space for Cardiff creatives, on a whistle-stop tour of ‘creative hubs’ across the city. Chapter Arts and Tramshed Tech also featured on a programme of visits, arranged by Creative Cardiff and British Council Wales, to stimulating, shared spaces where creative people and ideas can thrive.

The Thai delegation was looking to Wales to help them understand how creative eco-systems emerge and operate at the city level – and they are not alone. The burgeoning international reputation of Cardiff as a creative centre has generated considerable interest as cities, regions and countries across the world seek to innovate in their approaches to developing their creative economies.

Two weeks later, the delegation was back in Thailand and the Commerce Minister was telling the Bangkok Post about exciting plans to develop Chiang Mai, in the north of the country, into a ‘Creative City’. He cited Cardiff as the model to follow – the international inspiration for an innovative policy initiative at home. ‘Cardiff offers Creative Vision for Commerce’ was the paper’s headline.  

In many ways this is a small story – a curious tale of an unlikely cultural connection between two countries with few traditional ties. But the emerging relationship between the creative sectors in Wales and Thailand is part of a much bigger story of how Wales uses its cultural assets to build connections and influence around the world: a story of Welsh soft power.

The concept of soft power has achieved increasing currency since the term was coined by Professor Joseph Nye in 1990. It focuses on attraction and persuasion in international affairs, rather than on coercion. It comprises the ‘power of attraction’ – the appeal of a place’s creative, educational, sporting, business and other cultures, and the ‘power of example’ – how a place approaches public policy challenges and engages with global issues.

Small nations, regions and cities lack hard power levers, such as economic sanctions or military might, and their international affairs therefore take place exclusively in the context of soft power.

In its vision for the future of culture in Wales, Light Springs Through the Dark, the Welsh Government argues that ‘[the] culture of Wales should be an important calling card’ at the heart of Wales’ soft power which, if ‘deployed effectively [can bring] huge potential benefits in terms of developing trade, helping to attract inward investment, and encouraging more tourism from overseas’.

Tomorrow, First Minister Carwyn Jones will give the keynote address at an international conference on soft power at Cardiff’s Principality Stadium.

‘Building a global Wales after Brexit: international perspectives on small nations and soft power’, which has been arranged jointly by British Council Wales and the IWA, will explore how Wales can bolster global engagement and challenge all of us with an interest in creating a genuinely global Wales to seize the soft power moment.

Wales’ soft power has many sources: our educational, creative and sporting cultures; our progressive public policy initiatives; our bilingualism; our diaspora. Whatever its source, the relevance of soft power to Wales’ global future has only been increased by Brexit.

Whether Wales has a strategic framework for developing and deploying our soft power assets effectively – whether it’s our world class universities, the Wales of Euro 2016 or, indeed, the creative hubs of Cardiff – is less clear.

The Welsh Government has published an international ‘agenda’, in the form of 2015’s Wales and the World, but this falls short of being the basis of a strategic approach to international affairs.

One reason for the absence of this kind of output may be the highly fragmented nature of international functions within the Welsh Government. A single international directorate structure, with a ministerial portfolio to match, would provide the structure, profile, and sense of urgency required to develop a clear strategic approach to developing and marshalling Wales’ soft power assets.


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Chris Lewis is Head of Education for British Council Wales

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