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World Cup Watching

Soft power seduces, but not all of us fall for it

Professor Simon Chadwick

Posted: July 11, 2018

So now, following the World Cup, everyone loves Russia. At least for the time-being. At least until Russia annexes Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Then people can start hating Russia again.

In the meantime, observers across the world can marvel at the power of soft power. Slick organisation, great food and smiling people have led many observers to conclude that Russia has been, after all, a great place to host a World Cup. Amazing how four weeks of football allied to a government exerting its soft power influence can shape perceptions.

Next up, the 2022 World Cup. Qatar too would like you to love it. The problem is, many of us don’t, which is a serious issue for Qatar. The government in Doha has gone big on soft power over the last decade, in an attempt to get people to notice the country and to positively engage with it.

For example, Qatar Airways is an instrument of Qatari soft power; often labelled ‘the world’s best airline’, it offers high standards of service and hospitality. In this way, it is supposed to communicate who Qatar is, what it stands for, and what it can provide if one engages with it.

This is classic soft power – the ability of a nation to shape the preferences of others, so that they admire its values, seek to emulate its example, and follow what it is doing. Alternatively stated, soft power entails getting others to want the outcomes that you want by co-opting rather than coercing them.

For Qatar, sport is an instrument of soft power as well, particularly the country’s staging of the World Cup in 2022. Qatar wants you to believe that it is just like Germany, Japan, the United States and all of the other nations that have staged the tournament: important, influential, well-resourced.

The problem is, most people do not view Qatar in this way. In fact, instead of seeing Qatar as an important global custodian of football, many people mock, criticise or condemn the country. Whether expressing concerns about immigrant labour issues or its climate, Qatar appears to be losing the fight to secure the soft power high-ground. Some people might even say that Qatar, in the soft power stakes, is losing more than it is gaining.

Which all implies that popular notions of soft power are unhelpful.

Instead, perhaps we should be referring to a nation’s ‘soft power deficit’ (or surplus); that is, accounting for the extent to which the costs of one’s soft power strategy outweigh the benefits (or vice versa).

We could alternatively talk in terms of ‘soft inefficacy’. A simple dictionary definition of inefficacy is ‘the lack of power to produce a desired effect.’ For Qatar, this has often been the case, a problem exacerbated in recent times by its feud with regional rivals including Saudi Arabia.

Yet ‘soft inefficacy’ is not just Doha’s problem, it is Russia’s too; and, for that matter, an issue for every nation. As England has revelled in the success of its national team, something that has helped enhance the country’s soft power credentials, its government has been falling apart (riven with Brexit divisions). Is England therefore running a soft power surplus, or a deficit?

Soft power has firmly embedded itself in the vernacular of many commentators. It nicely helps to explain things that sometimes we do not really understand. Yet soft power is not always about seduction, there’s a downside to it that Qatar in particular needs to confront.



About Professor Simon Chadwick

Simon is Professor of Sports Enterprise at Salford University in Manchester (UK), where he is also a Co-Director of the Centre for Sports Business. He is also a Founding Co-Director of the China Soccer Observatory and a Senior Fellow of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham (UK). He has worked in football across the world, for various organisations including companies, federations, and governments. He tweets via @Prof_Chadwick