Hard power is the traditional power of armies and trade wars. Unlike soft power, hard power is the power of size. Soft power is the power of imagination and creativity, which can be expressed in arts, culture and branding. Soft power exists inside the heads of other people; it’s what people of other nationalities think of that nation. It’s a way of getting other countries on your side. At its extreme, it’s a way of getting other countries to do what you want without invading them.
An example of American soft power is 1980s rock’n’roll seeping into the heads of Soviet kids, whose most outward sign of small-scale rebellion was a pair of Levi’s and a Blue Oyster Cult album. Similarly, today the UK derives huge soft power from its most popular cultural export, the Premier League. While Cambridge and Oxford universities bring cultural capital, Arsenal brings something else.
Korea, so long home to the hard power of manufacturing prowess, is now residing in people’s heads via K-Pop, Korean soap operas and cinema – so much so that the regime in Beijing reserves a special place in a re-education camp for decadent Chinese kids who imitate their favourite K-Pop haircuts. Think of the impact of that recent Tarry Flynn-Quentin Tarantino hybrid, The Banshees of Inisherin. Hollywood is the place America goes to tell itself stories, and keeping the Irish pot boiling is no harm to anyone.
There is a soft power idea that has the potential to transform our nation and cement the diaspora – the global Ireland tribe – to the country in a more concrete way. Few other countries have such a global tribe. I am writing from Vancouver airport, where the bartender is telling me about his trip back to Ireland with his Irish-Canadian mother. Did you know there are 4.6 million Irish-Canadians, more that 10 per cent of the population? In western Europe, Ireland is unique.
The diaspora is our huge untapped world force – and yet what do we do for them? We know what they do for us – the list of positive contributions in the area of Irish economic, investment and politics from our American cousins is embarrassingly long – but what do we give them in return?
Joe Biden’s visit focused our minds on the nature of Irish America. Many commentators lament that the great heyday of Irish American power has passed and that the notion of Ireland held by most Irish-Americans is outdated. So what are we doing to do about it? What is the 21st-century vision of Ireland and our global tribe? Why not use Ireland as the battery to recharge the Irishness of these millions?
Here’s an idea, borrowed from Israel, a country with another enormous diaspora. Many years ago, when working there, my boss asked me what Ireland gave back to its tribe abroad. He was stunned by the amount of people in business he had met over the years who described themselves as Irish-American, Irish-Canadian, Aussies and so on and who regularly visited the homeland. He was amazed at our global networks, exclaiming, “You’re like us! You are the Jews who booze!”
He explained that a global network of people who are bonded to you emotionally, culturally, religiously and historically is an enormous resource because they can be bonded to you commercially, politically and economically too. What do you give them in return, he asked? Once you get inside their heads, you have a supporter for life.
The Israelis achieve this by doing on a huge scale what we do with the Gaeltacht. Every year thousands of Irish teenagers are sent to Irish college, where they learn how to kiss. They might forget the “cúpla focail”, but they remember the snogs – who they were with and where. Teenage memories are extremely powerful. Fun and friendships from those days can have an outsized impact on our lives. We meet lifelong friends as teenagers.
This is not so much the case for other decades. Our views of the world are formed or – at least begin to gestate – at this critical age, which is why famously those serial educators, the Jesuits, wanted to get their children early, to mould them.
Understanding this, the Israelis operate a huge Gaeltacht-type scheme for Jewish teenagers from outside Israel. Every year, thousands of diaspora teenagers descend on Israel, staying with Israeli host families, playing sport, hanging out, learning some Hebrew, drinking beer and kissing. They then go back to the US, Argentina, England, but remain bonded a bit closer to Israel. A little part of the mind is forever in Israel.
I asked the head of the Israeli finance department about the economic impact of this. She just smiled and said, “They have a good time here, they get close and they create networks, and you know that people do business with people they know”.
Imagine bringing home to Ireland thousands of Irish kids from America, Australia, Canada, the UK – where one in six people have at least one Irish grandparent. We could put them up with host families. Our schools are empty all summer, so they could be used like Gaeltacht schools. The GAA could get involved at a community level, teaching them football, hurling, camogie – they could hang out with Irish youngsters and‚ of course, have fun and head back home with their heads filled with Irishness in an ancestral country that is open and welcoming to them. Their Irishness would be charged and they would go back home with that Irish battery buzzing away.
Years later, when these people grow up in adulthood, they will be making decisions and investments. This is where the sleeper colony of Irishness awakes in their heads. In 50-50 decisions, Ireland will always win, because we have given them back a sense of belonging. We just let it happen.
In the 21st century, the country with the best network wins. We have the network of tens of millions who live outside but feel Irish. We have the recharging battery: the country itself. Think about all the brains, talent, education, contacts and experience in this global Irish tribe. Bring them home, let them have fun, let them go back out into the world and see what happens. No one loses and the upshot – the soft power potency – is enormous.
The new economy lives in people’s imaginations, people’s experiences; it is no longer what we pull out of the ground but what we make up in our heads. Identity is part of that intoxicating mix, and global Irishness has the capacity to be the greatest advantage of 21st-century Ireland.