Saturday, 15 December 2012

There is nothing soft about 'Soft Power' - Part Two

In the previous part we considered why the UK is seemingly able to exert continued influence on the global stage. Continuing on this theme, this article will now look at some other  less quantifiable factors which means that the UK continues to be seen as a nation able to exert influence on the global stage.

 A global legacy, and a global presence
One of the more intangible aspects of the UKs ability to exert influence is its historical legacy. Whether you love, or loathe, the Empire, the fact remains that part of its legacy is of a series of institutions, law courts, and fondly imagined memories.

Although the vast majority of the British imperial population has now passed on, there is still a legacy footprint of both those who settled in nations when they were still imperial possessions, and also those who were born imperial subjects, but who became independent leaders. Although very difficult to quantify, the UK is still in a position where in many nations around the world, diplomatic relations are held with people who remember the UK as a former colonial power, and who may have benefited from access to education or training in the UK.

In practical terms this means little, but in terms of opening doors, or enabling a newly arrived High Commissioner to talk to senior statesmen and officials who perhaps benefited from the UKs former presence, this can be most helpful. We as a nation perhaps overplay the ‘imperial guilt’ card, while forgetting that the Imperial legacy is perhaps seen in a more positive way in these nations. These individuals occupy places of power, send their children to British schools and are able to exert influence in their own nations. The ability of the UK to build relationships with people who have a positive memory of our shared past is tremendously helpful at times – it enables doors to be opened, and quiet words to be had. It does not shape policy, but it does help secure an audience with some who may be able to help us.

There are still many UK nationals working overseas, both from imperial days and more recently as advisers. This also helps us deliver influence in some nations. One only has to look at the Middle East to see that many of the nations there discretely rely on well placed UK individuals to provide advice on a range of matters, from military to security to political issues. Similarly, there are many well place businessmen, helping bring about success in national industries and developing an indigenous ability. This matters because although these advisers do not work for the UK government, there is doubtless back channels and conversations which go on, that can help shape policy. One of our national advantages when it comes to trying to get support for a particular action, or lobby in favour of a contract or other matter is that we have people already well placed within these national systems to offer advice. Again, this is not something which by itself enables the UK to stride the world stage, but it does mean that we as a nation can sometimes have the ability to open doors where other nations fail – allowing us the opportunity to lobby, cajole or quietly whisper in the ear of someone who may otherwise be unavailable.

 A global location
One major advantage that the UK has is that its physical location works to its benefit. Many major international flights use London as a hub for onward transit. On any given day there are often plenty of significant international statesmen, businessmen, royalty and other influential figures transiting the UK, or stopping for a night. This means it is incredibly easy to get UK government or industry to meet with these figures when they are en route elsewhere, and help discuss a matter, or lobby in favour of something.

This may sound daft, but more good often comes from a discrete meeting over coffee or a meal than days of international negotiations. It allows UK principals to build up genuine relationships of trust with people as they are able to see them often enough to really get to know them. One only has to look at the way that many senior Arabs decant to London each summer to realise that the UK has a uniquely placed ability to influence people. It is a location people want (or need) to visit, an international crossroads that allows us to deal with people in a manner many nations cannot. There are many countries – say France or Italy, which have relatively few connecting flights, meaning there is less need for foreign figures to transit – this in turn makes visits more business related, less likely to occur regularly and reduces the ability to build up an international relationship. Never underestimate the importance of personal relationships when it comes to conducting international diplomacy.

Similarly, the UK is very well placed to act as a hub nation for diplomatic networks. London is home to one of the largest diplomatic communities in the world, with many nations basing their diplomatic staff here, and using a so-called ‘hub and spoke’ network to send them elsewhere in Europe. This means that the FCO is able to easily call on almost every nation on earths representative within hours. By contrast, many nations have very small diplomatic communities, and the ability to actually get hold of someone, or talk to them and do business is far more difficult.

This works both ways – a strong diplomatic presence here means we can lobby for business, make nations aware of our views on matters of concern, and send messages directly to foreign capitals. The UK is able to bring together nations in London – in an international crisis, where London is seeking to build consensus, it is easy to bring in the diplomatic community to work together in a manner simply not possible in other nations. We find it easy to make our views known on the world stage.

Finally we are the beneficiary of a very helpful time zone – do not underestimate how valuable it is for London to be at the centre of the worlds timezones. The UK is geographically placed in a perfect position to do business all day long across the globe. When our officials and businessmen go to work in the morning, they are able to talk to Australia and the Pacific on the same day. They can then work in near parity with Europe, enabling decisions to be made during the working day, and after lunch, they can then attend conference calls with their partners across the Atlantic who are coming into work.

The fact is that the GMT time zone means that the UK is able to do business during the same working day with all the nations of the world that matter to us, in a way that others can’t. Unlike Australia, where having a conference call with the US means one coming in very early, the other going home very late, we are able to usually work at a mutually agreeable time.

This may sound a silly thing, but as the author knows from all to personal experience, if you are deployed in an operational theatre and need to sort out matters of state, knowing London is working, and can get an answer to you, makes a big difference compared to US colleagues, who know they are 5-6 hours away from guidance.

A global brand
 Finally, it is worth remembering that the Royal Family themselves allows the UK to exert a level of influence and access that most nations can only dream of. The news that the Duchess of Cambridge is pregnant was front page or very prominent news across much of the globe. It is exceptionally unlikely that similar news from any other nations ‘first family’ would achieve the same effect.

The Royal Family are a truly international brand, and a globally known. The hosting of a State visit by HM The Queen is a highlight in many nations, and has often seen enormous publicity. The Royal Family get access and opportunity to meet and discuss matters with some of the most influential people in the world, and as such are uniquely well placed to make discrete points on behalf of the Government.

Never underestimate how much value the UK gets from its Royal Family – they provide a level of interest and genuine affection which no politician could hope to achieve. As a symbol of British values and views, the hosting (or cancelling) of a Royal Visit can have major diplomatic implications. It is fair to say that when HM The Queen has conducted state visits, then there is often a significant improvement in national relationships. Just look at Ireland, where her visit helped tangibly demonstrate how much progress has been made in the relationship between the two countries.

This is a point worth remembering – any nation can send a diplomatic visitor, but few of these visits attract much interest or value. The Royal Family can conduct visits which occupy a much higher profile, and allow the UK significant influence on a range of matters. As a symbol they embody much of what people think the UK is about. Finally they are a link to the past, and much as noted above about advisers in former colonial possessions, they are able to be a bridge between the past and the future, and remind people of where they have gone, while stimulating relationships for the future.

This article has focused on many things which one cannot quantify, but which do add incalculable value to the ability of the UK to exert influence on the world stage. The key point that should be remembered is that this needs to be seen as being part of a wider piece, linking to the diplomatic efforts cited in part one.

 The next part of the article will try and focus in more depth about what we think we mean by ‘influence’ and try to consider what soft power, and influence in general does for the UK as a whole.


  1. Internationalisation in Universities. Prevalent here, and wonderful for sending students back to their home countries with some familiar and western concepts in their minds. Not to be underestimated. Nor should the work of the UKBA who are expanding in China at the moment allowing Chinese visitors and students to come here and take a little something back. It's s very, very subtle game indeed.

  2. Spot on Anonymous. That is exactly what I was going to say! The internationalisation of the higher education sector, particularly at postgraduate/research level, is one of the most potent forms of soft power. I work in HE and witness this first-hand on a daily basis.

  3. Anons
    But we dont get the cream of chinas crop.
    They go to the US.
    We get the thickies with wealthy parents

    Not "bad" per se, but its a long time since half the worlds kings and generals were oxbridge / sandhurst graduates.

    None of this is bad.
    But soft power is not a substitute for hard power.

    How many divisions does the pope have may have been asked by Stalin, but the irrelevance of the popes soft power was far more completely demonstrated by Victor Emanuel II, who conquered all but a tiny portion the papal states.

    Would Germany have called off its invasion of Poland if the Queen offered a royal visit?
    Would Hitler have been toppled if, following the invasion of France, a royal visit had been cancelled?

    Soft power is nice to have, but even its extreme forms, such as Saudi Arabia's religious sanction (by denying pilgrimage) can hardly be said to have changed much.

    1. Blimey, we hit Godwin's Law pretty quickly here! :-)

      The thing with soft power is that we don't really know of all the times persuasion, or influence by the UK made a foreign leader change his/her mind. Hard and Soft Power are, however, not mutually exclusive.

    2. We have to rely increasingly on soft power as:

      1) We do not have the resources to maintain a significant global military presence. Neither does anyone else apart from the US (at the moment) and China and maybe India (in the future).
      2) In the age of the global economy, soft power is actually one of the most effective tools at our disposal. Those who think that only tanks, planes and ships count need to wake up to the 21st century.

  4. Anon1
    Long term, or for little things, yeah, maybe.
    But we struggle to define our long term interests, and even if we could, as I already pointed out, the T1s go to US Colleges, not UK universities.

    "Hard and Soft Power are, however, not mutually exclusive."
    In this case, they kinda are, because our supposed soft power is being trotted out to justify losses of hard power

    Define Global presence.
    I believe we should have the capability to sail to china and give them a bloody nose, but I dont want troops in Germany.

    The economy has always been global.
    English Flint was exported to Persia long before Sargons day.
    Roman philosopher/economists used to try and have pepper, imported from india, outlawed.

    Not saying it doesnt exist, but the UK is no longer a world leader in the soft power fields that matter
    We dont control our own trade policy, our educational sector is second rate, our military reputation (from a training PoV) is in tatters and our capability (from a mutual defence PoV) is little better.

    That the police dont look into accusations made against arab sheiks when they kill a "Girl Friend Experience" is very handy for arab sheiks, but that doesnt really transplant into exports.

    1. " but the UK is no longer a world leader in the soft power fields that matter" - not according to some...

    2. RE: sailing to china...
      Seems like an absurd thing to do to me. I can't see any plausible situation where the PRC would be affecting our interests without affecting the interests of a dozen (at least) other countries, which is the kind of thing the PRC have no motivation to do. Last but not least, we couldn't sail to Russia in the cold war and give them a bloody nose either because two nuclear armed countries just can't do that sort of thing without incurring unacceptable risks (nuclear armageddon and such)

    3. TrT

      In general we get excellent overseas students in the UK. I work with PG students at a leading Russell Group university so I should know. The US has a bigger, better funded HE sector, but in terms of research we are second in the world and even ahead of the US in some respects. It depends on what the students are studying and at what level - in some areas the UK is preferred over the US.

      The idea that a middle-ranking power like the UK should be able to give an emerging superpower like China a bloody nose is ridiculous. The UK is in a broadly similar league to countries like France and Germany. We aren't ever going to fight China unilaterally. Period. In fact we aren't going to fight China at all.

      If you think that today's interconnected global economy can be compared to previous centuries you are wrong. The changes which have occurred over the last 20 years have been unprecedented and altered the balance of power in a way which could not have been predicted just 30 years ago. It is winning the economic war that counts.

    4. "The US has a bigger, better funded HE sector,"

      Which is what I said.

      "but in terms of research we are second in the world and even ahead of the US in some respects."

      Ok, so a few small fields, we are first, but the americans are first in almost everything else.

      "The idea that a middle-ranking power like the UK should be able to give an emerging superpower like China a bloody nose is ridiculous"
      But OK.
      How about Angola?
      Should we be able to give them a good shoeing?
      Because we cant....

      "If you think that today's interconnected global economy can be compared to previous centuries you are wrong."
      Its different this time......

    5. Why would we want to give angola a bloody nose?

      This is why I find internet posturing so ridiculous. The UK, nor any other country has the military power to realistically invade and occupy a foreign power outside its borders. Lets be honest, other than the late 19th century, have we, or any other country, honestly had that ability to invade a nation state and occupy it in isolation?

      Any operation of that nature needs to be coalition, and indeed our military strategy for most of history has been coalition - we just like to pretend that it hasnt been!

      Saying "we can't invade Angola" is as relevant as saying "Paraguay can't invade the Solomon Islands".

    6. TrT

      You are seriously deluded. As Sir Humphrey says, your posts are a good example of vacuous internet posturing.

    7. "The UK, nor any other country has the military power to realistically invade and occupy a foreign power outside its borders."

      Off the top of my head I can think of half a dozen areas that currently claim to be under occupation, the US had two under official occupation in the last decade alone.

      "Any operation of that nature needs to be coalition, and indeed our military strategy for most of history has been coalition - we just like to pretend that it hasnt been!"

      Quite the contrary, I frequently argue the UK has always operated in a coalition, what it has never done is provided large numbers of ground troops to a coalition.
      Its provided navy and logistics, exactly the forces we have cut the most.

  5. Good Morning, Humphrey

    I don't really doubt that all the points you make here are very valid. It does puzzle, though, that we are not therfore far more successful at winning commercial contracts against competitor nations than we seem to be. Perhaps our 'faults' on this front, and what we are doing to rectify, will form part of your future study on this subject?

    gavin Gordon

    1. Gavin

      My instinct is that we do win quite a lot of commercial work around the world, and also that we have a business presence larger than we realise. One problem is perhaps that companies that are 'British' often flag themselves as the host nations in order to win business - go to trade fairs in the Middle East and you'll often see UK companies masquerading as Middle Eastern ones, primarily for political reasons.

      The major challenge in economic terms is providing value for money - our workforce is expensive to employ, and people want to save money. Thats why nations paying far cheaper rates often seem to land shipyard contracts or the like - the more interesting question becomes, what happens when those nations develop a burgeoning middle class - where does the work go then?

  6. "Soft Power" is all bluff.

    "Long term interests" don't exist - we change priorities as quickly as I change my socks, which is nearly as quick as government priorities change.

    We aren't going to fight anyone again........ ever.

  7. Dear Sir Humphrey,
    You should be ashamed of yourself for spoiling an OAP's Xmas by putting him into an exceedingly bad temper.

    "Soft Power" is an oxymoron fit only for morons! Sorry to be rude but the whole thrust of your argument reads to me like a justification for the continued existence of innumerable major-generals, admirals, air commodores and, of course, a plethora of so-called 'mandarins' in our 'Office for Foreigners'. What have any of these people, or any of the chimerical advantages(?) of 'soft power', done for us in the last 30-odd years?

    Our influence, even in the days when we possessed some 'tough power' was minimal. Bismarck summed it up when there was a 'threat' of a British landing in Pomerania - "If the British army lands there I shall send the local constabulary to arrest it!', he said.

    Looking back, events have constantly taken us by surprise (so much for vaunted intelligence services - another oxymoron!) and under their dim-witted leadership we have stumble-bummed our way into one disaster and embarrassment after another. You might, I suppose, dodge my bullets by pointing at the politicians but, with one very rare exception*, none of you, not a single one, had the guts to stand up to the idiots in Westminster and tell them that what they proposed (in Iraq, in Afghanistan) was almost certainly going to end in disaster and that therefore you were prepared to resign rather than be a party to it. As we drag our sorry arses out of Afghanistan the likes of our current CDS and his predecessors of at least the last 15 years should have their ennoblements rescinded and their pensions halved. 'Just crack on', they all chorused like their predecessors at the western front circa 1914-18 but the only things that cracked were men's bones - but never theirs!

    As a nation we should simply concentrate on defending our island against missile and/or terrorist attack, and defending our computer networks against interference - incidentally, cyber warfare will be the key weapon system in the next few decades and I don't see HMG or the MoD paying the sort of massive salaries and budgets needed for us to build a defence against it. Instead, all you Whitehall warriors are bleating about is more ships, more helicopters and so on,

    David Duff (Cpl. - ret'd.)

    *Lord Peter Carrington over the invasion of the Falklands because he was the Foreign Minister at the time. How many have followed his example since?

    1. |David,

      Thanks for your post, and my apologies for ruining your mood!

      The problem is that trying to quantify what ‘soft power’ buys us is inherently very difficult. How does one put a value on a stern diplomatic bollocking, or the value of a discrete relationship between senior diplomats? Often we can only assume that the fact that there is no evidence of something occurring is evidence in itself of success (or to quote Rumsfeld, ‘known knowns’ etc).

      I’m going to try and quantify to a degree what we’ve got from Soft Power in the next part of the series – its not going to be easy. But I would say this – I’ve seen plenty of occasions where discrete use of diplomatic facilities, or UK assets has enabled the UK to see a situation deftly resolved to our liking, rather than having to resort to the use of the big stick of military force.

      I would also argue that plenty of advice has been offered over the years, and that it is the duty of the Civil Service and the senior military officers to offer this advice, even when it is something that politicians do not want to hear. It is rare to see the idea of so-called ‘sycophants’ cringe worthily trying to say ‘but of course Minister the only thing that makes sense is your genius idea to nationalise crime to ensure that it really doesn’t pay’…

      The challenge is to decide whether to then leave on principle if the advice is ignored, or stay the course and try and change it from the inside. Resignations have little effect in reality – just look at the resignations in 1966 over the CVA01 cancellation, which were done on principle but denied the RN some good senior figures, and who were immediately replaced.

      If you read the article on CDS speech, you’ve inadvertently proven my final point – people accuse the MOD of focusing on the past wars, when in fact it is quietly and successfully gearing up to fight the wars of the future!