Government announces new soft power strategy. What does it mean?

A key but easy to overlook section of the new government National Security Capability Review calls for a ‘soft power strategy’ for the UK. This could be significant and positive innovation in how the UK engages internationally, but also carries some risks.  Over the past year the British Foreign Policy Group has been tracking the emerging national discussion on soft power; how it is being defined, and how a strategy might succeed or fail in promoting UK interests internationally. The new strategy, as part of a wider process bringing together defence, economics and diplomacy to address new threats, could impact many aspects of the UK’s business, cultural and other non-governmental international activities. This article provides some background and explains some of the risks and opportunities that might arise.

What is soft power? There is a lot of academic and other literature out there on different aspects of it. The term was coined by American Political Scientist Joseph Nye, who defined it as a nation’s ‘power of attraction’ via foreign policy, culture and values. But other reports and authors use variations on this to include for instance in the case of the UK our creative industries, sporting institutions and even things like the City of London. This is not just an academic argument for a country such as the UK, because so much of our global influence stems from the incredible diversity of our international links, whether through culture, business, sports, regional or social links. A report on soft power published by Edinburgh University (and mentioned again below) lists some of the activities government ministers have recently referred to as soft power ‘assets’.

“… Ministers…listed what they saw as the UK’s soft power assets: its values, democracy, economic and political freedom, freedom of speech, education, innovation, the English language, culture (particularly the BBC), the arts (particularly literature, no doubt reflecting the then focus on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death), heritage, and sport.” (Page 8).

The National Security Capability Review (NSCR) is the first half of a strategic defence review process that is likely to be completed over the summer and could see significant changes to the way the UK engages internationally. Importantly, by including soft power, this review is likely to have impacts beyond the traditional defence and intelligence space and touch many aspects of how the UK’s foreign policy interests and activities are defined, prioritised and coordinated. Given that soft power potentially embraces so many cultural, business, sporting and other non-governmental activities in the UK, such a strategy could have profound implications. The UK derives much of its current international profile and reach from its soft power assets – those aspects of our culture, business and education which are attractive to people around the world. Undertaken in the right way, with strong leadership and engagement from the non-governmental interests affected, a soft power strategy could be an innovative source of strength for the UK’s wider international interactions and ambitions. It could help ensure a proper division between our non-governmental and governmental interests, but also identify how areas of mutually agreed alignment maximise returns for UK and for global benefit. The risk is that if it is designed and led from within government, and without strong buy-in from the communities and industries that will be impacted, such a strategy might not only undermine trust within the UK, but also amongst audiences globally who value UK soft power precisely because it is divorced from overt state involvement.

A steady stream of reports from different organisations have discussed soft power in recent years. Perhaps the highest profile is Portland PRs Soft Power 30, an annual ranking of the most influential soft power actors in the world. Another is Monocle Magazine’s annual Soft Power Survey . The commercial and media angle of these point to how soft power has become an increasingly fashionable subject amongst business people and opinion formers.  Tellingly over the past year there has been uptick in the numbers of reports addressing UK policy aspects of soft power. Some of the most prominent have been funded by the British Council, for which soft power is a core interest. These include Respublica’s ‘Britain’s Global Future: Harnessing the soft power capital of UK Institutions’, Demos Quarterly Issue 11 ‘Renewal Britannia’, and a more academic October Report by Edinburgh University for the British Council on measuring the effects of soft power. The Respublica report in particular was notable in calling for a soft power strategy for the UK, and it was after this that consideration of what such a strategy might mean in practice received further interest both in and outside government.

From all of these some key attributes of soft power emerge very clearly. Firstly; whilst some commentators dislike the term, and others such as Professor Niall Ferguson deny its impact, soft power is increasingly treated seriously by policy makers around the world. Countries such as China are investing significant sums in promoting their soft power. Despite their efforts, the UK appears again and again as near or at the top of soft power comparison exercises such as the Soft Power 30 mentioned above. This is due to the complex ecosystem of creative, sporting and business organisations with significant international reach that the UK benefits from.

The second thing is that soft power is highly dependent for it’s impact on its credibility and perceived distance from official government policy. This is why authoritarian countries such as China often struggle in their efforts to build soft power. The UK has an enviable record in this, which is a key reason for its high global soft power profile. Crucially this does not mean there can be no areas of alignment at all between official policy and soft power. The UK government, through the British Council and others, funds the promotion of cultural activities with a particular focus on parts of the world that are important for UK interests, including in China. What it does mean is that any such alignment needs to be sensitively and transparently managed to protect the substance and appearance of independence.

The final point is that the limits of soft power are hard to define. Potentially it touches on the international interactions of individual citizens, organisations, cities and regions. At all these levels there are significant shifts underway in how the UK is engaging internationally, with impacts on our cultural, political and economic interests.  Much of this is potentially positive for the UK, but there are also risks of incoherence, replication and fragmentation. This new strategy offers an important opportunity to understand and engage with those changes if carried out sensitively. However, it could also exacerbate some of the risks if it ostracises key stakeholders.

These key attributes need to guide the further development of any soft power strategy.  A process that involves organisations likely to be affected as core constituents in its development will gain more positive buy-in and traction than a process emanating purely from within Whitehall.  It will also likely deliver more tangible benefits for the UK internationally. The next few months could be key for the future of the UK’s international position, with much riding on the success of the review process. This is another reason for an inclusive approach – the interests of everyone in the UK is likely to be impacted one way or another by the proposed soft power strategy and its outcomes.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the BFPG. The BFPG is an independent not for profit organisation that encourages constructive, informed and considered opinions without taking an institutional position on any issue.
Tom Cargill
tom.cargill@bfpg.org.uk

Tom Cargill is Executive Director of the British Foreign Policy Group. He has worked in various roles in the public, private and NGO sectors, including at the charity for children in care Believe, as well as 10 years at Chatham House (The Royal Institute of International Affairs) followed by 4 years at the engineering, procurement and construction multinational Bechtel. He is the author of numerous reports, chapters and articles on international and foreign policy issues.