Sunday, 2 December 2012

There is nothing ‘soft’ about ‘soft power’ (Part One)

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.

Diplomatic Footprint

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.

The 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…


  1. I left that none the wiser.

    So, we have diplomats?

    How many divisions does the pope have?
    It was a valid question then and its a valid one now.

    What does this "soft power" gain us?
    Dockyards in Singapore so we can better defend Singapore?

    Thats before we even consider how its measured.

    The US has educational excellence, only the truly unhinged would argue Manchester beats Massachusetts.

    I dont have any figures on how many foreign soldiers are put through Sandhurst and Westpoint, do we win that?

    We certainly dont win joint ops, The UK could deploy a full battlegroup on a month long exercise, the UK might manage a destroyer and a frigate if you booked six years in advance.

    We dont win trade, since we dont control our own trade policy anymore, never mind anyone elses.

    Does it really need to be said that we cant outspend the US either?

    1. The US doesn't have educational excellence. US schools actually rank below those of the UK (and most of Europe) in terms of educational performance. In terms of research power, the UK is second only to the US and superior to Germany, Japan and China. The only reason the UK isn't first is because this sector in the US is much larger and better funded. Not bad for a country with a population of only 60 million.

  2. TRT - If you don't understand why the ability to talk to each other regularly matters, then thats a bit worrying. The whole point of diplomacy is to win the debates / arguments instead of them turning into crises and employing military power.

    The other point to remember is that this is part one of a few parts. Its always useful to start from first principles - namely that we've got a bigger and more effective international diplomatic presence and influence than we give ourselves credit for.

    Over the next few bits, this is going to focus more on the other bits, and then try to tie it together nicely as a 'so what' trying to explain why the various bits make a difference, and what it means for us.

    You could do it in one piece, but it would take forever to write, and take ages to read! I'm extremely busy in real life right now, so short bits like this when I get an hour in front of the PC are the best way forward.

    At the end of this, I'm hoping people will understand that actually the UK military capability is less relevant to our influence on the world stage than some think, and that actually there are plenty of other things that matter on an equally important basis.

  3. TrT.

    Riddle me this.

    How many divisions does the USSR have and who runs the Vatican?

  4. Talk is cheap - we are very good at this.

    The Emperors clothes - we are an illusion.

    Iron fist in a velvet glove - we don't have.

    We can't put our money where our mouth is.

  5. Talk is cheap - we are very good at this.

    The Emperors clothes - we are an illusion.

    Iron fist in a velvet glove - we don't have.

    We can't put our money where our mouth is.

    1. Ditto Russia, France, Germany, Australia, Italy, Canada, Japan, S. Korea, Sweden, Brazil, etc. This could apply to every country bar the US and China.

  6. Very interesting post and I'm looking forward to the others in tbe series.

  7. Very interesting post and I'm looking forward to the others in tbe series.

  8. Sir Humph',

    I am not too bothered about soft-power anymore. Apart from the Atlantic why should we bother?

    I feel that the Twenty-First Century will become insular for we English. The only question is how to block that bl**dy tunnel...!

    Things we don't need:
    * UN - ineffective and wastes money on dictators,
    * EU - restrictive and full of red-tape; don't like nor want us,
    * NATO - See above (once Barry takes the Boys home), and
    * Commonwealth - If our future King George VII is not good enough then feck 'em.

    As long as we follow the Swiss model then we will still attract the [business] attentions of the usual dictators, dodgy-pols and other undesirables. So not much change there....

  9. I intend to read the remainder of your posts on this subject but provisionally, based on this first effort, I remain unconvinced.

    You mention proudly our diplomatic ties with N Korea and Iran but our influence in both countries ranges from microscopic to nil!

    You also mention our 'influence' within the EU, something which has entirely escaped my notice. Slowly, inexorably, the Berlin-Brussels axis grows stronger and our pathetic bleatings (after all, the FCO is hardly famed for its Euro-scepticism) from the sidelines merely increases the detestation in which we are held by most of the other countries who not only give the appearance of thwarting our wishes but actually hope they can do us down!

    Needless to say, I do not suggest for a minute that a few hundred more tanks and 'planes would make any difference.

  10. Well you have a 'positive' from me. Good article and I am looking forward to the rest. We tend to underestimate and in some cases (see above) positively run ourselves down. In my experience despite some of our politicians best efforts to muck it up, there is still a remarkable amount of interest in and even affection for the British around the world (anyone been to Hong Kong lately - fascinating.) This is an inherent advantage that we can use for influence, trade, commerce etc.

  11. I might add the work of the British Council in providing resource libraries in developing countries to assist with the spread of the English language, the work of countless NGO's overseas, and the excellent exchange programs run by the UK Research Councils and organizations like BUNAC to send our best and brightest to study in other countries world class facilities and bring back to the UK valuable knowledge and skillsets.

    1. Good points, and I'm hoping to look at things like the BC in due course.

  12. Humphrey - a good blog (as they usually are) but with one (very) minor quibble. The Commonwealth is not exclusively made up of ex-Empire nations. Mozambique and Rwanda are both members, but had never been ruled by Britain, being former mambers of the Portuguese and Belgium (and before that German) empires respectively.

    Pedantically yours ...

    1. Very good point - I'd forgotten to mention those nations. I know Cameroon is also in the commonwealth as well, which if I recall correctly had shared sovereignty with the French.

      I believe in both cases membership was extended as a sign of assisting with stability and international recognition - and has seemingly helped a great deal.

  13. Very good points - we do ourselves down, but rarely consider the reality that many countries have far less influence or power than we credit them with.

  14. An excellent post by someone who understands what soft power actually is (I always find it faintly amusing when someone talks about "wielding" soft power, as is if were some sort of stick).

    Being at the centre of things with capable diplomats who can maintain relationships and foster consensus may not help us kick down the door next time we go to war, but it does give us considerable more freedom of action.

    Being seen as and cultivating our role as a responsible international actor with wisdom and reach gives us that bit more ability to set the agenda - to steer outcomes - through a passive draw and attractiveness as well as active skill in knowing how to effectively engage with states and organisations.

  15. To those that fail to either understand Sir Humph's, soft power', I would recommend the following Arab proverb;
    "He who does not understand a look,
    neither will understand a long explanation."

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