Powering up the soft touch: can Malta punch above its weight?

Can Malta punch above its weight and make its mark in the world? MaltaToday caught up with experts and thinkers in different fields to map out Malta’s soft power arsenal and come up with some ideas of his own

From left to right: Maltese-American politician Pete Buttigieg, Maltese political giant and firebrand Dom Mintoff, and author of the Law Of The Sea, Arvid Pardo
From left to right: Maltese-American politician Pete Buttigieg, Maltese political giant and firebrand Dom Mintoff, and author of the Law Of The Sea, Arvid Pardo

Soft power is a gentle approach to international relations, typically relying on economic, technological and cultural exports rather than military might.

But it increasingly relies on the ability to network and on the promotion of a ‘positive’ brand. Iceland is one example: an island-nation with a population smaller than Malta’s, it managed to punch above its weight not just in football where it made it to the World Cup finals, but also as a pop culture powerhouse – think artists like Björk or the late Jóhann Jóhannsson – as well as its other-worldly landscape which serves as a backdrop for TV series like Games of Thrones and a number of Hollywood blockbusters.

Other countries like Norway have excelled in conflict resolution brokering a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians in the 1990s.
Energy powerhouse Qatar is set to host the World Cup while gas-rich Azerbaijan hosts Formula One races, wielding this soft power by leveraging the influence that hosting sports events brings, and helping to camouflage their suspicious reputation.

Key moments in Maltese soft power

Godfrey Grima
Godfrey Grima

Malta itself is not new to the exercise of soft power, having crafted a major international law – the Law of the Sea – just a few years after gaining its Independence from Great Britain. Veteran journalist and news analyst Godfrey Grima identifies four instances in the past where Malta asserted its soft power.

1. The Law of The Sea In 1967, shortly after gaining independence from Britain, Malta moved a motion at the United Nations for the ocean’s seabed to be considered the common property of all mankind. “The idea was brave and risky with unknown prospects of success. The oceans then were the exclusive preserve of the two superpowers,” recalls Grima. But after hard-nosed negotiations “the world applauded and made Malta’s initiative its own”.

2. Mintoff’s standoff with the superpowers In 1980 both the USA and the USSR were attending an assembly of heads of government in Madrid discussing the setting up of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). Mintoff insisted the final declaration separately guarantees security in the Mediterranean. Since agreement rested on consensus, both the Russians and the Americans “feared postage stamp-sized Malta would wreck years of painful negotiations”.

The stand-off earned Mintoff “untold flak” not least from the international press – but in the end Malta got its way. Mintoff’s Mediterranean paragraph went into the final document, to the benefit, at least notionally, of the entire Mediterranean region. According to Grima, Mintoff’s diplomacy was anything but soft or silent “but he did manage to make Malta punch above its size”.

3. The Chinese embrace Grima gives some interesting background to “how tiny Malta came to bear-hug mighty China, to Malta’s everlasting gain”. Grima refers to diplomatic rumours that when US President Richard Nixon convinced the Chinese to abandon their hermit existence, Mao Zedong insisted China be offered a physical presence in a Nato country to balance out the Russian threat. “Mintoff was then about to sign up to a seven-year deal with Nato. The story goes that Henry Kissinger, then US Secretary of State, suggested China talks to Malta. Both grasped the enterprise with both hands. That deft piece of diplomacy still provides little Malta with unrivalled privilege in colossal China. I once asked Lawrence Eagleburger, for years Kissinger’s sidekick, whether the story was true. His answer? “No comment.”

4. Gonzi’s Libya gamble Lawrence Gonzi’s decision to allow the military use of Malta in the evacuation of Libyans at the end of Gaddafi regime again showed “the sort of substantial contribution tiny Malta can make to the international community – to the benefit of Malta’s benign reputation.”

We asked four experts for their pick for Malta's edge in soft power 

L-R: Raisa Galea, Georgina Portelli, Alex Grech, and Godfrey Baldacchino
L-R: Raisa Galea, Georgina Portelli, Alex Grech, and Godfrey Baldacchino

The island-lab

Educator and strategist Dr Alex Grech says Malta can be an island-lab for the technology sector.

1. Size is an advantage Our size, topography, demographics, language, EU membership and access to decision-makers has enabled the country to identify and target niches before much larger, wealthier nation states could act on opportunities in emerging markets.  Within my lifetime technology stimulated sustainable employment in new sectors such as telecoms, online gaming and financial services; stimulated the gradual move away from tour operators in tourism; and made the country a model of best practice for e-government.

2. Fiscal Incentives and regulation Fiscal incentives were used strategically to stimulate foreign direct investment. Moreover subsequent governments have used policy-making as a means of enacting robust, regulatory regimes within a very short timeframe – the most recent examples are three pieces of legislation to stimulate the fintech sector.

3. Good marketing Malta has developed as a world-class case study in the blockchain sector and has followed up with international conferences and road-shows.

4. Education as the next frontier The next challenge is to invest in new lifelong learning models to ensure that future generations can become truly global citizens while ensuring that alternative and more sustainable models of growth are identified. The environment, unfortunately, has also become a victim of Malta’s soft power.

MICAS (C) Ipostudio
MICAS (C) Ipostudio

Cultural soft power

Georgina Portelli, board member of the Malta International Contemporary Art Space, explains the power of art.

“Nurturing joy, emotion, human dignity and respect are the tools of soft power which Malta can effectively employ to further its influence and improve its image and relations... Culture and the arts are powerful tools to help economies and societies to prosper and to allow individuals to connect with each other and across cultures… This is where the winning of hearts and minds really happens”.

1. Cultural heritage Malta’s exceptional tangible and intangible cultural heritage arouses curiosity and knowledge-seeking, and that makes Malta a dynamic cultural magnet in the Mediterranean.

2. Cosmopolitanism It is Malta’s diverse communities and bilingual context which attracts people to relocate here.

3. Empathic civil liberties and equality agenda This has seen Malta acquire a pro-active leadership role in this area.

4. Innovative and creative spirit The Maltese are hard-working frontier people who have the ability and resilience to forge their own place in the world.

5. Ideal geography Malta can proactively work to build bridges for peace on the international stage as well as host significant events of international importance. This, coupled with economic stability, is what increases Malta’s soft power capital in country promotion, identity building and nation branding.

Think out of the box

Prof. Godfrey Baldacchino, sociologist and University of Malta pro-rector, says Malta’s soft power can be harnessed by thinking out of the box… such as asking why Malta has not offered to host the Trump-Kim summit.

1. Lateral thinking Malta’s best known living Maltese is Edward De Bono, who is synonymous with ‘lateral thinking’. We should therefore develop this association better and craft a stronger ‘brand’ identity for ourselves as honest brokers and intermediaries in regional and global politics. Bush and Gorbachev met in Malta in 1989: why don’t Trump and Kim meet here?

2. A prestigious university With l-Universita ta’ Malta, we have the oldest university in the Commonwealth outside the UK – celebrating 250 years as a public institution in 2019. Malta also offers opportunities for quality higher learning in most subjects in a safe, affordable and decent climate. Specific programmes of study at UM, such as its medical degree, are powerful allures to those who wish to pursue them.

3. Pardo’s legacy We have the legacy of Arvid Pardo in the crafting of the ‘law of the sea’; and the campus of the International Maritime Law Institute at Tal-Qroqq to prove it.

4. Small states studies We have considerable expertise in the area of small state studies and island studies for which we are respected internationally.

Geography and financial flows

Raisa Galea, a researcher in oceanography and editor of Isles Of The Left identifies Malta’s key soft powers, cautioning that it does not always benefit the whole population.

1. Maritime power Malta owns large ports which it can close for refuelling to other countries’ fleets. It is akey maritime player in the central Mediterranean, especially when it comes to coordinating rescue operations. So is Malta’s extensive air traffic space which it can also withhold to bigger powers.

2. Proximity to North Africa In 2011 Malta assisted in evacuating people from Libya. There have been reports of the presence of French intelligence agents in Malta to monitor the situation in Libya. Therefore, Malta is the EU’s key base and link when it comes to diplomatic missions/exchanges with North Africa.

3. Opaque financial system Malta has recently been in the international headlines not only due to its high-ranking state officials’ Panama companies, but also due to facilitating illegitimate transfers of enormous sums of money from/to influential geopolitical players (Russian oligarchs, Turkish and Azeri ruling clans, Iranian and Venezuelan governments etc). Although these instances involved private financial actors, it still shows that Malta can actively intervene in international financial flows. It also means that Malta can attract attention of international intelligence agencies seeking to monitor these flows.

4. Flexibile regulatory framework Malta takes risks within flexible regulatory frameworks enabled it to attract new industries, such as online gambling and blockchain.


Six areas where Malta can punch above its weight: The MaltaToday pick

1. Immigration leadership It may pose logistical problems for our army but our role in coordinating rescue missions to save people is a mark of honour. Immigration is also one of those issues where Malta has recently affirmed itself as a coalition builder in Europe by brokering migrant sharing agreements between EU member states.

2. Our own diaspora Pete Buttigieg – the son of Maltese academic may have a long shot at the US presidency. Imagine the sudden interest in Malta if this were to happen. But how much are we investing in cultivating links with the third and fourth generation of Maltese migrants in the US, Canada and Australia? And what about the more recent diaspora in Brussels and Luxembourg?

Mayor Pete Buttigieg (right)
Mayor Pete Buttigieg (right)

3. The rainbow island From Europe’s laggard Malta now tops ILGA’s rankings in LGBTIQ rights, having not only legalised same sex marriage and adoption but also outlawed conversion therapy and introduced one of the most progressive gender identity laws in the world. Gays, lesbians and transex people occupy positions of influence the world over. Apart from being the right thing to do, projecting Malta as a beacon of rights boosts our positive global image. But the dissonance between Malta as a leader in LGBTIQ rights and a laggard in reproductive rights is bound to strike the outside observer.

4. Peace in the Middle East With George Vella as President Malta can capitalise on his enthusiasm for a fair resolution of the Middle East conflict between Palestinians and Israel. A long shot but worth trying…

5. A car-less future Our small size makes us ideal for pilot projects in transportation. The conversion to electric cars is a good step. But cars do not just pollute but they occupy and reshape public space. While there may be a diversity of public options to be explored, the rule should be that mass transit systems should free up space for pedestrians and cyclists in our towns.

6. That epic TV series which puts Malta on the map Sure we had our moments of exposure in classics like Midnight Express and more recently with the inclusion of Dwejra in Game of Thrones. Yet we never really made a hard sell as New Zealand did with Lords of the Ring. What about turning the Great Siege into an epic TV series? One note of caution, stray away from the classic good Knights vs. evil Ottoman troops. What about focusing on the enigmatic Dragut who may well emerge as the counterpart of the equally fierce La Vallette? The only problem: can one actually film it without some high-rise popping out from behind the bastions? Surely reality can always be edited out…

More in National