There was news recently that the UK has somehow managed to usurp the USA as the worlds most influential nation for so-called ‘Soft Power’. While this may have generated some quick headlines, and will probably be seen as little more than a column filler for a quick story, there is actually something quite interesting here.
The author has long held the view that the UKs military power is actually a fairly minor part of understanding why the UK still has a significant global reach and influence. It is perhaps easy to decry cuts to defence or force structures as this produces a tangible ‘loss’. One can map out the number of tanks, planes or ships and see a reduction over the years and make the assumption that somehow the UK is a less powerful or influential nation. Humphrey would argue though that actually this is just a tiny part of determining the sum of the UKs influence. There are many other things that perhaps matter more than whether we have 250 Challenger 2 tanks, not 400, or whether there are only 19 escorts not 25.
The purpose of this short series of articles is to consider the wider values and assets that the UK possess in an effort to understand why, despite regular calls to the contrary, the UK is still a significant power on the world stage. This was brought about by the realisation that despite prophets of doom spending nearly 70 years shouting that the UK no longer matters, somehow the UK remains a far more global and significant nation than is perhaps to be expected.
This article isnt about covering oneself with a Union Flag, belting out Land of Hope and Glory and feeling jolly smug. Its about trying to consider in a little more depth why it is that the UK still matters to many nations around the world. Its not about one thing above all others, but seemingly a combination of factors. Over the next couple of articles the author wants to try and consider what it is that means that the UK is still on the 'friends and family' list, if not necessarily speeddial, of so many nations.
One of the key jewels in the crown of the UK ability to exert influence is the wide ranging diplomatic network, spread across all seven continents. There are very few nations in the world which maintain a truly global Embassy / High Commission footprint, and these organisations are perhaps more influential than some may think.
It is very easy to write off the FCO as some kind of dusty old organisation, more concerned with eating chocolates and drinking gin than doing anything which actually involves defending the national interest, but in reality the FCO is a world class asset. It brings many talented and skilled individuals to bear, deploys them across the globe and lets them represent the UK. In practical terms this means there is a wide network of individuals able to build relations with foreign governments and represent the UKs interests.
Its not just a case of talking to a nation once in a blue moon, but instead building a relationship over time, understanding their needs and goals, and trying to bring together both countries on a path of mutual interest. This can take a long time to become truly trusted and valued, and cannot be built up overnight. One of the strengths of the UKs extensive diplomatic network is that it is able to build these relationships in normal times, providing additional abilities to exert influence at more challenging times.
Similarly, the UK is able to put embassies into some nations where it can be seen to exert influence in a manner that other nations cannot. If one were to look at both North Korea and Iran, the UK has been able to maintain some form of diplomatic presence in these countries, meaning a conduit is open for dialogue, discussion and the discrete passing of messages – perhaps seeing the UK as a proxy to other nations. It is perhaps interesting to note that the UK remains hugely involved in the DPRK and wider nuclear issue, in no small part due to the presence of its embassy in Pyongyang.
So, although people are often somewhat unkind about the FCO, it would be fair to view it as a far more valuable organisation than we perhaps give it credit for. It means that a Union Flag is flown daily in many nations that perhaps do not see a British military visit from one year to the next.
More broadly, the UK occupies a truly unique place at the heart of a range of international institutions – from the P5 seat on the UN Security Council, the EU, NATO, the Commonwealth and the G7/G20. There is wider membership to literally dozens of other international organisations across the globe. No other nation has the same combination of membership of all these organisations. This means that the UK is seen as a nation worth talking to and engaging with – not just for its own sake, but also for the realisation that working productively in one forum can see the UK help support goals in other locations. The level of access enjoyed by the UK is perhaps a historical legacy, but it is a very potent one.
It is fair to say that in an international situation, the UK is not only seen as a valuable nation to engage, but also has access to a wide range of diplomatic fora to push its case. This is crucial in helping swing international opinion and build support for an outcome that meets UK interests.
NATO is a good example where the UK is able to wield influence on a political side. Membership of the alliance gives the UK access to a range of senior posts, including the 4* Deputy SACEUR post. Why does this matter? For starters it means that senior UK officials, both civilian and military can work in positions of real influence in this organisation. This means that when policies are drafted, courses of action proposed or commitments considered, the UK is often able to have a suitably qualified person to consider, advise or decide. This is crucial as it can prevent the UK from being committed to a course of action it does not support, and also to ensure that its own people can help shape the course of discussion.
Additionally the UK is perhaps seen as a leading NATO power, so is able to exert influence by having other nations use it as a conduit to test ideas, or build support for their own proposals. Much of NATO policy work is about horse trading and building consensus for the least worst option. Because the UK has wider diplomatic relationships with many NATO members, the UK can bring value by acting as a sounding board, rallying point or trusted friend to approach other nations to get support for a plan. The challenge though for the UK is to continue to provide enough military assets to the Alliance to be a credible contributor, without overcommitting resources here at the expense of national assets elsewhere.
Love it or loathe it, but the UK is a member of the European Union, and exercises a perhaps surprising level of influence. Partly this is due to nations again seeing the UK as a rallying point – within the EU there are clearly differing visions for how to go forward in the future. It is perhaps fair to say that some of the more powerful nations like France and Germany favour a different approach to other smaller nations. The advantage the UK has is that it can be the rallying point for nations afraid of a proposed policy, but feeling unable to do anything to halt it.
The Commonwealth is a particularly potent organisation, not for what it does on a day to day basis, but for how it enables the UK Government to engage with a truly diverse range of countries. These nations all once formed part of the British Empire, and since the end of empire, have instead chosen to remain in a loosely affiliated international organisation. The Commonwealth has no real political power, nor does it speak in a particularly unified manner- what it does do though is provide a global talking shop for heads of state to meet and build consensus around a variety of issues.
So, the first thing to take away from the concept of ‘soft power’ is that the UK is an active participant in a very broad range of organisations, and is seen as a party worth talking to by many other nations. We as a nation often do not credit ourselves with the simple fact that other countries value our access, value our presence and value our ability to talk across a range of organisations. We too often forget that our membership of some forums makes us of value to third parties who themselves are not members but who may have a view on something. People want to talk to the UK, not just for what we have to say, but also for what others may wish to say.
SummaryThe UK is still a world leader when it comes to presence on the diplomatic stage, and its ability to exert influence is greater than some may believe possible. The next part of this series will move on from the traditional diplomatic posts, to a wider look at the more intangible reasons why the UK still exerts soft power influence – this includes geographical location, the interesting legacy of real estate and timezones…