The intelligent blog on defence issues, providing high quality and objective analysis on UK Defence Policy, military affairs and wider global security matters.
The author does not work for, and is not employed by the UK Ministry of Defence or the British Armed Forces.
Wednesday, 2 April 2014
Soft Power in a Hard Age
The House of Lords published
an outstanding report into the role of soft power and the UK at the end of
March, which set out the value of so-called ‘soft power’ and how the UK could
make better use of its resources and influence at a time when it is more vital
than ever to do so. Humphrey has long been a proponent of the value and
importance of ‘soft power’, the so-called intangibles of international
diplomacy, ranging from the value of a Royal Visit through to the discrete
whispering of an international development advisor to make changes which save
Sadly, in many defence fora it
is fashionable to mock soft power as something which is seen as a substitute
for what really matters, namely long ORBATS listing every imaginable piece of
military equipment going, usually accompanied by extensive wishlisting for ‘fantasy
fleets’. To the author though, this approach is less about having effect and
influence and more about feeling good about one’s own military superiority.
One of the long standing
trends on this site is the comments which continue to make out that the UK is a
nation in near terminal decline, with ever decreasing levels of influence due
primarily to its smaller armed forces. To Humphrey this argument is dangerous for
it only considers the UKs standing as a power based on possession of capability
and not actually whether that capability is of any value of use. It is all very
well saying that in 1990 the UK could field three armoured divisions in
Germany, but what difference did they make to the UKs wider international
Arguably much of what makes
the UK an influential nation on the global stage is little to do with specific
items of equipment or units in an ORBAT. When you speak to foreign military
officers about what sort of things they would look for in a defence
relationship, it is far more about the intangibles – the access to training
courses ranging from officer training through to advanced staff courses, or the
allocation of places on training courses to develop skills and training. It is
about the allocation of loan or exchange officers to provide UK expertise and
guidance – for instance the presence of UK military missions around the world
are hugely coveted by their host nations, and sorely missed when removed.
When considering the sort of
defence relationship that matters, one has to remember that the overwhelming
majority of countries in the world do not have the ability to deploy overseas
in any real depth or capability. Most armed forces are confined to their local area,
with perhaps a token ability to send a small force for UN missions or peace
keeping. When considering a defence relationship, they want to work with
nations who can offer experience, training, access to capabilities which they
may not otherwise see or afford, and who can enhance their defence capability. There
are wider considerations about provision of equipment and capability (e.g.
either new build or through disposals) and whether working with that nation
would enhance their own security position. More broadly, considerations will also
be built around whether enhancing a defence relationship would bolster the
diplomatic relationship and wider relationship (e.g. getting close to the UK
may in turn enable the country to help try and influence policy positions to
the UK which could in turn influence other partners to whom they would
otherwise have no traction).
When you consider the sort of
offer that the UK can make, it is a compelling one built around centuries of
tradition, access to high quality training, a capable military able to operate
across most military roles and a strong record of operational success. There is
huge interest across the globe in access to UK training and opportunities – one
only has to look at the constant clamour for places on UK Officer training
courses to realise how popular it is. Arguably the UK is perceived, along with
the US and possibly France, as offering the ‘gold standard’ of defence training
through the quality of its people and the quality of the training delivered.
Tradition - soft power or wasted resource?
Overseas too, the UK is able
to use relatively limited assets to enjoy significantly more influence than one
might suspect. For instance, a well-placed Defence attaché, or a defence
training visit – which can be as innocuous as sending a small training team to
improve leadership training or bolster a military band can often have a surprisingly
large effect. A ship visit can often pay dividends in access for senior
officials who come for tours or cocktail parties and end up able to meet with
Ambassadors, industry and decision makers and help push the case for UK
interests, influence and investment. The visit by the Red Arrows to the Middle
East in autumn 2013 was front page news across the region, and enabled the UK
to have a golden opportunity to push its interests on a range of matters. In
other words, the cachet of the UK defence brand is often as much about access
to the people or the occasional presence as it is about maintaining large numbers
of armoured brigades or fast jets.
This is perhaps the curious
challenge of identifying what matters in Defence when it comes to capability.
On the one hand there is a natural desire to maintain high end warfighting
capability, but most of the influence that the UK gets from its military is in
fact far more down to the judicious use of personnel, training and visits than
it is about a theoretical ORBAT. In a world where the bulk of UK deployments
overseas are rarely above Company size in terms of manpower (e.g. training in
Africa or a ship deployment to the south Atlantic or an RAF exercise in the
UAE) , the possession of large capable forces is perhaps not hugely relevant. It
may be the case that the UK only has 227 Challenger 2 tanks, but when most nations
cannot deploy their armoured forces at any distance anyway, does this really
matter when considering the impact on our influence?
In fact it could be argued
that what really matters for UK influence are two very separate drivers.
Firstly a need to maintain the soft power enablers like international defence
training, access to courses, provision of exchange officers and so on. This
sort of investment is more than ample to help support the bulk of defence
relationships and makes a strong impact on UK influence overseas. For instance
the presence of an exercising company group could send a positive message on
the UK relationship with that nation, bolstering the local security capability
and reducing need for western deployments in the region and in turn improving
the bilateral relationship which sees further investment from that nation in the
UK. There is often a range of second and third order benefits from a small deployment
which typify the importance of soft power – you don’t need to deploy very much,
but what you do deploy will be of value beyond its size.
Additionally there is arguably
a need to maintain a cutting edge ‘high capability’ military force capable of
working at the very high end of military operations. In other words investing
in expensive capabilities like aircraft carriers, cyber defence, and modern
fighter aircraft and so on. This is to ensure that the UK is able to send a
message to potential coalition partners that it is serious about providing
support to operations, and that it can work at the most intense level of
operations. This is as much about reassurance (e.g. deployments, exercises and
the occasional operation) to partner nations to show that despite the reports,
the UK remains an exceptionally capable military power.
Hard Power or irrelevant for influence purposes?
But the challenge is in the
middle – what Humphrey would perhaps call ‘muddy power’. It is one thing to
invest in training, and high quality exercises where military skills are tested
(e.g. JOINT WARRIOR or FOST), and it is equally important to support the very
high end niche skills and capabilities that matter too (arguably Special
Forces, Amphibious Forces, certain intelligence capabilities and Fast Jets), but
what to do with the remainder? Does it really matter if the UK only has a small
number of tanks and 82,000 soldiers? The majority of them will not be deployed,
and the cost of conducting large scale overseas exercises is so vast that its
unlikely that you would ever see many large scale exercises occurring in
future. If as noted that there is no direct military existential threat to the
UK, and if most nations themselves cannot deploy their military capability at
any real distance, the question must surely be, what value is there in
sustaining a large force which is held at readiness, but which does not provide
unique capabilities to our allies, and which is unlikely to work regularly in
large numbers with overseas partners.
This is the curious issue –
the UK derives immense influence from its armed forces, but it is rarely
derived through calculations based on the size of the forces or the units which
comprise them. In a world where presence is everything, is it better to focus
on sending smaller units overseas who can work with other nations through
defence engagement and build relationships and real capability, or is it better
to have a larger military held at home but which cannot easily work with other
In a similar vein, is it
better to have a small number of very capable destroyers able to work at the
high end of the influence scale, or is it better to invest in a much larger
number of very simple platforms which do not have any real military value in a
shooting war, but do allow a sustained UK presence in areas which may otherwise
never see a White Ensign?
There is no easy answer to
this dilemma. Arguably at present the decision to focus on the high end and
expensive assets is the right one. Allied nations want to improve their own
capability and come to the UK to learn from our experiences, and understand how
to use equipment to its full potential. A gentle move down the capability
spectrum in order to improve numbers may help UK presence, but may reduce the
desire of others to work with the UK – for instance, is it better to have two
or three OPVs permanently in the Far East where they can work at a routine but
low level with foreign navies, or is it better to do a biennial deployment of a
T45 destroyer which other navies will be immensely keen to work with and see?
Both help secure UK influence, and both help in their own way, but each comes
at cost .
So, in an age where the UK is
constantly told it is a power in decline, it is curious that the demand for
access to UK courses and capability remains as great as ever. The Armed Forces
remain a hugely influential tool for the UK Government, but is arguably far
less about their overall numbers than the discrete presence or access to training.
Meeting the ever more challenging balance between affording sufficient military
force to defend UK interests at home, secure UK influence overseas and
justifying maintenance of a large military which may not deploy in large numbers
is going to prove ever more problematic. The sort of large military that many
wish to see would probably not able to deploy to secure the influence that is
currently achieved by a smaller military which may have less units and
platforms, but where working with them is seen as hugely desirable by many
Striking the balance, getting
value from the ever more expensive and ever smaller hard power in order to
achieve ever greater soft power effects with defence engagement is likely to be
the future balancing act facing HMG. It won’t be easy, and the only certainty
is that to achieve the balance required to get it right the outcome will please
no one and cause many more headlines about how the UK no longer matters as a military
power at a time when nations are queuing up to work with, and learn from the
UK. A very British outcome indeed!