The Maple Leaf Brief: Canada's Soft Power and Why It Counts

By Dylan White

Soft power is widely understood as a state's ability to get what it wants through attraction and moral authority, rather than raw military or economic coercion. Canada is one country that has made soft power a hallmark of its foreign policy. So what is soft power, and what does it have to do with the "hard" dimensions of state power? China seems to be paying attention. Read on to discover why some in Beijing are recommending that the Communist Party take a page out of Ottawa's playbook.

Harvard University's Joseph Nye Jr. first coined the term "soft power" in his 1990 book Bound to Lead. Nye defines the pillars of soft power as comprising culture, values, institutions, and policies; successful exercises of soft power make other actors "want what you want". The power of attraction is key here. Strategies like capacity-building and naming-and-shaming help to shape other state actors with an open palm, rather than a closed fist.

Elements of soft power like education, literature, art, and transparent governance can encourage emulation. Political freedoms and civil liberties enhance states' moral authority, and give them the legitimacy to urge reform and offer assistance.

Of course, measuring soft power can be a slippery, subjective task. London's Institute for Government set out to develop a measuring system in 2007. Their researchers soon realized that there can be "no set methodology" for gauging soft power other than opinion surveys. When considering whether or not a state is worthy of emulation, or a force for good rather than ill in the world, perception is indeed reality.

Much work in international relations has focused on categorizations and ranks of power. These include binaries (large/small; major/minor), as well as gradated divisions (hegemonic/great/middle/small), and systems theory ranks (system affecting/influencing/ineffectual) for states.

However, many of these divisions are completely arbitrary, constructed on subjective perceptions of relative power. This can cause much debate and controversy over where nations are seen to stand in the international system: is Italy a great power today, or has it moved to the middle rank? What about Germany, or Japan? Are nations like Israel and Sweden too influential to be called small powers?

On both measures mentioned above, Canada has been called the quintessential middle power. In 1943, an article in The Economist made the explicit assumption that the pre-World War Two world was divided into two tiers of states: great and small. The same article suggested that Canada deserved a category of its own, as a country of only eleven and a half million people which had, at that stage, managed to raise the fourth largest air force and third largest navy in the world.

Canada has not been a first-tier military power since the 1940s; however, the language of "middlepowermanship" has persisted, but now it is more firmly rooted in exerting global diplomatic rather than military influence. This is done via such methods as membership on international bodies. For example, Canada has been elected roughly once a decade to a seat on the UN Security Council. In 1957, the Canadian Prime Minister won the Nobel peace prize for assembling an international police force to handle the Suez Crisis, a force which would evolve into the UN peacekeeping troops of today. Advancing a human security agenda – the concept of Responsibility to Protect emerged from a 2001 report sponsored by the Canadian government – also helps build trust and goodwill.

Many people know - or at least have heard of - Americans who plaster a maple leaf onto their luggage for trips to far-off lands. The hope is that Canada's reputation as free, fair, and friendly will garner flyers of its flag a bit of extra respect.

Canada's reputation is indeed overwhelmingly positive. In 2011, for the second year in a row, Canada led the world in a major study of "national brand" strength. Carried out by FutureBrand – a subsidiary of US advertising giant McCann Erickson – the study asked thirty-five hundred respondents worldwide their impressions of 113 nations. Ranked on axes including "quality of life", "value system", and "good for business", Canada took the top spot, beating out other high scorers like Switzerland and New Zealand.

Elsewhere, last year's Gallup poll of 259 thousand people in 135 countries found that the US was considered the most desirable country in the world overall. However, when respondents were asked to pick the country they would most like to live in, Canada topped the list in terms of highly-educated people over the age of 24. In other words, Canada is not just attractive to the "huddled masses", but also to the cultural and economic elites who shape policies worldwide.

Successful middle powers are ones that can "punch above their weight". In 1999, the Canadian finance minister (later PM), knowing that Canada's place on the G8 would not be defensible for much longer, suggested a Group of 20 to the US Treasury Secretary, arguing that it would enhance legitimacy and bring on board a huge segment of the world's economic power. The two men literally drafted a provisional list of members on the back of an envelope. President Clinton's treasury secretary later admitted that the US was glad to hand the reins to Canada, as the US "did not want to be seen as dictating to the Europeans" and needed legitimacy on the economic file.

More recently, Canada largely withstood the global recession; this gave the country the soft power moral authority to make economic arguments on the world stage. It was not a coincidence that the G20 appointed Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney as Chairman of the Financial Stability Board in 2011. The body oversees the work of financial authorities worldwide, and serves as a watchdog for banking regulations.
In both cases, a strong reputation as a successful and fair-minded arbiter contributed to giving Canada increased pull in the international system.

So what has Canada done to deserve such a sterling reputation? The country lacks certain tools of soft power available to other states. The US, for example, produces a large proportion of the world's popular culture. The UK runs the BBC World service, which is a truly international network, unlike Canada's CBC. France operates the Alliance Française network of cultural institutes.

Canada's history of eager participation in international fora has helped bolster its reputation, as has a strong record of peacekeeping, and a largely balanced, peaceful foreign policy. Professor David Carment of Carleton University goes farther still, suggesting that Canada often stakes its reputation on the exercise of soft power. Values-based soft power has proven a success, as evidenced by global receptiveness to the "responsibility to protect" doctrine, produced by the Canadian government-sponsored International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty in 2001.

However, a recent story from China may be illustrative of a key to success in soft power. Early in 2012, Canada's ambassador to China posted photos of his car online. The silver Camry hybrid is nice enough, but provoked a reaction bordering on shock. Over four thousand Chinese posted comments on the embassy's blog, expressing their surprise that such a senior official would drive such a "modest" vehicle. Among the comments, many began to muse about the luxurious habits of their own leaders, and some began to discuss political corruption.

The move was brilliant in its simplicity; clearly calculated, and yet above reproach. The mere fact that thousands of Chinese follow - and are engaged enough comment on - Canadian ambassadorial staff on social media is a testament to a highly-successful programme of outreach.

Indeed, on 31 January, the headline of Beijing's Economic Observer read "China should learn soft power from Canada". The message of the piece was clear: if photos of an ambassadorial car can spur public debate on corruption, China too should be leveraging social media and talking directly to the citizens of countries in which it operates, as a "useful way to achieve ... foreign policy aims". Within China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Division for Public Diplomacy is barely eight years old. It promises to grow up very quickly.

Today, many politicians – including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – are talking about strategies of "smart power": combinations of both hard and soft power. It is unclear to what extent it is possible to both threaten and attract another state actor. What is clear is that states ignore soft power and public diplomacy at their peril.
Soft power "founding father" Joseph Nye Jr. points out that that the US suffered from a serious lack of "legitimacy and credibility" in its diplomatic dealings with Iraq, contributing to a fall in US soft power. While this did not prevent the US from militarily overwhelming the country, it meant that "higher costs in ... blood and treasure" had to be incurred. Even more strikingly, Nye asserts that if Yasser Arafat had adopted the soft power strategies of Gandhi or Martin Luther King, he "would have a Palestinian state by now".

In the global system, popularity matters. Leveraging the tools of soft power can increase persuasive power, lessen the likelihood of conflict, or moderate violence if it comes. Countries that understand these truths will reap the benefits of a safer world.


Dylan White holds an MSc in International Public Policy from University College London, and a BA in Political Science from the University of Toronto. This article was originally published by Defence Viewpoints


3 March 2012