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Germany`s untapped soft power potential and unorganised nation branding

by on February 8, 2014

According to Joseph Nye power is “the ability to influence others to get the outcome one wants”.[i] He then discerns coercion, and payments to convince others as hard power, and co-option and attraction as soft power. Soft power makes other players desire the same outcome you want by their own free will.

Furthermore, Nye writes that soft power is more permanent then hard power and it is more powerful because it can accomplish goals that hard power can’t. Nye states that “soft power rests on a country`s culture, values and politics.”[ii]

Soft power can be created by state and by non-state actors. Culture and values are transported by music, films, TV-series, sights, food, brands, and so on. The more attractive a culture is to foreign audiences the more influence it has on their civil society and government.

As one can see, soft power is not dependent on a government`s public diplomacy, but vice versa the power of a government`s public diplomacy is very much based on the general soft power of its country. Based on this argument, William A. Rugh concludes that “American public diplomacy programs depend heavily on the existence of American soft power. American soft power exists, whether anyone makes us of it or not in public diplomacy.”[iii]

Rugh goes as far as to argue that American public diplomacy is underfunded when one takes the country`s ginormous soft power potential into account.

Many people will argue that the same applies to Germany`s public diplomacy. One can add that the German government`s public diplomacy doesn`t seem to be aware of the mining potential of its country`s soft power.

Anthony Pratkanis defines public diplomacy as “promotion of the national interest by informing and influencing the citizens of other nations”.[iv] According to this definition Germany`s public diplomacy is non-existent. Germany is one of the biggest economic players in the world but is politically weak. This is due to WWII and the subsequent decades of diplomatic tiptoeing. Oliver Zöllner writes that Germany has to up the ante in public diplomacy, because of its leading role in the EU, and due to its self-assigned task to mediate between the countries of the MENA and the West.[v]

According to Zöllner German public diplomacy is composed of the foreign office, the radio Deutsche Welle, cultural institutes such as the Goethe Institute, the German Academic Exchange Service, and the development agencies GIZ, BMZ, and THW. He critiques that these actors` communication on a common public diplomacy strategy is weak. He also adds that they have different objectives.[vi] Zöllner also observes that Germany`s government is especially interested to sell itself as an attractive economic partner and location. There is little emphasis on exercising attraction on foreign civil society.

All of this is understandable when considering Germany`s delicate history. The country struggles to avoid connotations that link it to its Nazi-past. However, one could also argue that better than abstain from exercising any political power because of this history, is to make use of soft power to make up for past crimes. It seems selfish that the German government`s public diplomacy is only promoting its own economy, while ignoring the country`s newly acquired soft power.

An issue is that German nation branding is done mostly by non-state actors. Audi and VW were two of the few foreign brands that ran ads during the American Super Bowl 2014.

These brands coin the German image abroad, and while Audi`s spot was one of the most popular, VW`s spot has been described as awkward. The German government can`t do much about these companies` commercials, but German public diplomacy doesn`t communicate any popular nation branding in this form. The YouTube channel “GermanyDiplo”[vii] is a poor attempt to communicate a positive image of Germany and its people. The videos are informative, but don`t communicate feelings or passion, nor do they emphasise Germany`s foreign policy goals.

The 2006 Football World Championship had the motto “time to make friends” and was probably the most successful campaign to represent Germany as open and friendly nation to foreign societies and also to Germany`s own citizens. However, nearly eight years have passed and the German government has not managed to transform this positive image into a tool in politics. German politics during the European financial crisis has damaged German soft power and basically annihilated it in Greece. Additionally, it seems that the German government is not just afraid of mining its soft power, it is also absolutely swamped by the attempt to execute public policy. In May 2013 Otto Rehhagel was sent to Athens to ease anti-German sentiment in Greece. Otto Rehhagel was called “King Otto” after he led the Greece`s football team to win the European Championship in 2004. To send Rehhagel to Greece was perceived as paternalistic and misplaced by the Greek public. Furthermore, it was criticized that the German government, which otherwise abstains from populist politics, shows how little it thinks of the Greek public by using overly simplistic populist tactics.[viii]

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany`s new Foreign Minister, is set to improve the country`s image in Europe.[ix] He has already been Foreign Minister four years ago and seems to be better prepared for this role than Guido Westerwelle. However, he will most likely solely focus on traditional diplomacy.


It is time that Germany takes on more responsibility in international politics. However, it certainly has some challenges to tackle on its way. After all, Germany has “farmed out foreign policy to America, France and Britain, its key allies, while refraining from playing a serious part in military missions in the name of pacifism.”[x] Only for the last 15 years has Germany started to flex some muscle politically.

Economist Cartoon 08 Feb 2014

If Germany wants to step up its role in European and World politics, then it must streamline a public diplomacy strategy for all its above mentioned state-actors. Furthermore, the government must invest in positive and proactive media presentation of German values, culture, politics, and goals for the future.




[i] Rugh, William A.; ed. Seib, Philip; „Toward a new Public Diplomacy“; Palgrave Macmillan; 2009; p. 4

[ii]Rugh, 2009, p. 4

[iii]Rugh, 2009, p. 17

[iv] Pratkanis, Anthony; ed. Snow, N.; Taylor, Philip M.; “Routledge Handbook of Public Diplomacy”; 2009; p. 112

[v] Zöllner, Oliver; ed. Snow, N.; Taylor, Philip M.; “Routledge Handbook of Public Diplomacy”; 2009; p. 262

[vi]Zöllner, 2009, p. 267

[viii] Kyriakidou, Maria;  „Football diplomacy or populism going German-style“; LSE; 31/03/2013;; 01/02/2014

[ix] EUbusiness; “New German FM aims to ‘correct’ country’s poor image in Europe; 07/01/2014;; 01/02/2014

[x] The Economist; “Is Germany ready to have a foreign policy proportionate to its weight?”; 08/02/2014;; 08/02/2014


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  1. pms0049 permalink

    I agree that Germany has some work to do on its ‘image management’ and how it is perceived by the populations of other countries. It is interesting that you noted the examples of Audi and Volkswagen advertising at the Super Bowl. Arguably, Germany’s car companies (and also engineering companies in general) are one their most positive ‘images’ of national identity. The world sees Germany as the ‘go to’ country for high quality vehicles, machine tools and other components for engineering and technology products. However it is also fair to say (as it was in this post) that perhaps Germany needs to portray a ‘softer’ side to its national image. As you said in your post, Germany has attempted to do this in varying ways. Hosting the world cup probably did have a positive impact on Germany’s soft power projection. Goethe institutes also teach other countries about German culture and language, which helps foster understanding.

    The Audi advert that you have shown in this post tells us that this company is not willing to ‘compromise’. Although it has already been noted that German car companies are generally seen in a positive light, perhaps this ‘no compromise’ message is too ‘hard-edged’, and this makes people feel this is a more general characteristic of the German people. Perhaps the message of German public diplomacy should be ‘we are willing to compromise in some circumstances in order to foster a spirit of international cooperation and friendliness’. However, this does not necessarily mean that a Doberman has to be bred with a Chihuahua.

  2. karo1990 permalink

    Thanks Paul. This insight of the Audi advert is a very interesting interpretation. I haven`t thought about that! It definitely plays into the prejudice that Germans are cold and mechanical and can`t compromise. Even though this has no political implications per se, it is definitely molding unconscious perceptions and might influence behavior when negotiating with German politicians or companies.

  3. Very good very in depth essay but my major issue is with the skimmed coverage of the Nazi history affecting German soft power. It’s surprising that they have managed to reach such a good level of influence because of the scar’s on its image even beyond the two wars.

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