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Survey says the U.K. holds most of the world's 'soft power'

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While many of us look to indicators such as Gross Domestic Product or even Gross National Happiness to determine a country's "success," there's another squishy yet sophisticated lens to consider: what's known as soft power. First coined in the 1980s by the political scientist and Harvard faculty member Joseph Nye (made famous in his 2005 book Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics), the term is generally understood -- and I'm being very basic in this description -- as a reference to global cultural influence.

One very softly powerful publication, the glossy Monocle magazine, which covers the intersection of business, style, and politics, has recently released its third annual Soft Power Survey in its December/January issue. Appropriately, the ranking of 30 of the world's leaders in soft power was determined with a bit of subjectivity when it comes to the quality of a country's collective design abilities. The editors used some quantitative evidence, too, such as the number of foreign students in the nation (presumably, a sign of a country's attractiveness).

"The rapidly evolving nature of world politics is throwing up a host of new challenges for the practitioners of statecraft," write Monocle's editors in the introduction to the survey online (available to subscribers only). "A shifting balance of global power and the effects of instant information have made soft power a critical component of foreign policy strategies." An audio countdown of the Top 20 can be heard on Monocle's site. Keeping with Monocle's jet-set brand, it's of course read in sexy, sophisticated British accents and features elegantly simple visuals of the top-ranked nations flags and an icon indicating whether it moved up or down on the Monocle list from last year.

Some highlights of the 2012 ranking: Turkey makes the top 20 for the first time, thanks to the popularity of its soap operas across Europe and the bold new routes of Turkish Airlines, according to Monocle.

The top 20 is dominated by chic European nations, some lacking in economic power although they might still hold cultural cachet: Belgium, Austria, Spain, the Netherlands, Italy, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, to name several (or so). There are two Asian nations in the top 20: South Korea, at number 9, thanks to K-Pop's international appeal, and Japan, at number 6, because "its fashion, food…are formidable assets." China, if you're curious, ranks 22.

There's one South American country included: yes, Brazil, coming in at 17. As Monocle's editors explain, "we all like Brazilians…[and Brazil's] ability to mix people of all cultures." Not all is glorification in the Monocle analysis, however: the editors make it clear that Brazilian corruption is certainly a challenge in that nation. Other well-liked countries Canada and Australia come in at number 8 and number 7, respectively.

France, listed as number 3 in 2011 and a perennial capital of enviable style and culture, slipped to #4. The Top 3 are Germany (3rd); the United States (2nd); and the United Kingdom (1st). The U.S. and the U.K. have changed ranks from last year. To Monocle's editors, the London Olympics celebrations highlighted not only the U.K.'s innovative culture through the ages, but also symbolized its current dominance in areas such as high fashion and art. And, largely via the 2012 Olympics, the U.K. leads in pop-cultural and architectural spectacle, too.

Image: Ktrinko/Wikimedia Commons

— By on November 26, 2012, 3:47 AM PST

Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure