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 lives.

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 standing?

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 attach̩, or a defence training visit Рwhich 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 nations.
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 foreign partners.

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!


  1. Where is "soft power" working now ?
    What has "soft power" done?
    Which other countries use "soft power"?
    If "soft power" is so good why is there so much trouble in the world?

    1. Don't ask awkward questions, Sir H hates it.

      "Soft Power" is one of those inexpensive and largely ineffectual distractions that gets wheeled out every time it is pointed out that the UK military has lost 30-40% of its capability since 2010 and the pre-2010 force was already so weak it had to be rescued by the Americans in both Basra and Helmand. It is best seen as MoD propaganda rather than a major policy tenet.

    2. So many questions....

      No one said soft power is the cure to any global issue. Neither is sending armies to battle a solution. Looked what happened in any conflict from World War I to Afghanistan.

    3. Ianeon,
      To my mond soft power is the art of acheiving results - much of this is about drawing on the wider skills, resources and assets of a nation in order to try and push for ones interests. I strongly recommend you read the House of Lords report, which while long (150 pages), is a great account of why it matters so.

  2. Just stumbled on this site. How much does the MoD pay to run this propaganda? Or does SirH do it for free? Or maybe looking for a job as a MoD spokesman? Pathetic but amusing to watch this guy parrot the company line. Anyone know where I can fine serious analysis on UK defense?

    1. Do you actually have anything useful to contribute to the blog or are you as I suspect just here to troll. I am guessing you are the same anonymous as on Sir H's last post. Nothing but written dribble. I for one very rarely comment on here simply because I don't pretend to be as informed on defence as most on here. After various conversations with well informed people it is clear that soft power is very important in todays world. You also completely disregard the hard power the UK does still have. We are not on par with the US in anyway but we are an effective ally and still compare favourably when compared with our level of country. We are not a country that is in any threat of invasion so why would we hold a large army. I challenge you to find another country outside the US that can deploy as effectively overseas, has 6 Destoyers to match T45, SSN's to match Astute, 2 A/C under contruction, the ability to deploy fast jets over the distance we can with our tankers in tow, the Istar capabilities, transport Capabilities (The french are using ours now), has the amphibious capabilities of the UK, has the intelligence community of the UK (GCHQ,MI5,MI6), Special forces to match and then the all important ABILITY to build more if we really have to. What more would you like? Explain......?

    2. Thanks anoymous troll. I always think a sign that a site is doing well is when bile filled haters try to compensate for their own inadequacies by trying to stir up abuse on the web in an effort to feel good. Please do keep posting your views, its a sign that the site is doing something right, and i love the fact that you are wasting your life reading this when you purport to hate it!

    3. Anon,

      Spot on. Personally I doubt he does it for free, his line seems far too close to the MoD branded PR for that. It seems more likely that this stuff is MoD funded.

      Sir H,

      Come now, pointing out that your particular agenda is suggestive of ulterior motives is hardly "bile filled hate" or "stirring up abuse" but rather an entirely logical analysis in a autocratic state with a history of media manipulation.

    4. The challenge we have here is that I can explain as much as I wish that this is a private blog setting out my view of the world and has nothing to do with the MOD at all. The problem is that some commentators who are totally and utterly incorrect in their views will not believe me. By all means continue in your odd and wrong assumptions - but I still fail to understand why people who do not like or agree with what is said here are hanging around on the site?

    5. Are you an American first Anon--"defense"?

    6. What difference does that make whether he/she is an American?

  3. I find myself largely in agreement with SirH. My own experience of working with oversea's Armed Forces seeems mirror his. However, I wonder how the declining ORBAT affects our ability to project 'soft power'. There is (was?) an extent to which British training is seen as the Gold Standard because of the position the HM Forces in the Global ORBAT. I well remember a Aussie exchange officer remarking on the value of coming to see how a 'Big' Navy operated as he could see more ships from the balcony on Whale Island than were in the RAN.

  4. I suppose lovers of "Hard Power" don't care about the effects of their call to arms--troop suffering, lives lost, infrastructure damaged, pollution, destabilising countries, damaging foreign relations....

    All they want is to be big.

  5. I must admit to having a dislike for the words 'soft power' because it should more accurately be called 'influence' for that is what it is.

    It is often unseen, unglamorous and not as sexy as the instruments of proper hard power but can be effective in the longer term goal of getting others to think the same as we do and realise that our interests are often not as dissimilar as they might seem.

    There are many instruments of soft power or influence, I actually think British culture has enormous capital and whilst the idea of Simon Cowell on the National Security Council might seem ridiculous I wager that he has just as much influence as other established instruments!

    There are two uncomfortable points for those that trumpet soft power though.

    The first is that will and the wallet tend to trump soft power, i.e. Mr Putin decided to that the soft power and influence of the EU, NATO and G8 could be trounced by the application of old fashioned hard power.

    The second is that soft power relies on a solid foundation of old fashioned hard power to be effective because sooner or later someone will realise that the those wielding the soft power are talking loudly and carrying a small stick.

    Real power comes from engagement at every level but backed up with an ability, will and proven track record and getting punchy when needed.

    My point, soft power relies on hard power for establishing credibility.

    Perceptions rely on credibility

    Credibility relies on reality

    No amount of nations queuing up for a FOST course can change that basic equation

    1. well look what hard power has done. Wars, extended deployments, deaths, PTSD, instability,

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  7. What troubles me is that I would like to see our influence translate into more sales so that the cost of making equipment in the UK can be reduced and jobs and skills are maintained. We are currently in the unfortunate position that our navy, for example, is too small to permit the indigenous development of main gun armament. Yes, the 4.5 is obsolescent but, like many other capabilities, we are not seeking to replace indigenously but off the shelf and appear to have lost the national will to do so. Consequently, it seems to me, that displays of UK armed forces abroad might actually further the commercial aims of others (missile makers, gun makers, etc) who are not UK companies. We seem to have come a long way from the days when UK designed equipment, used by UK forces, was the armament of choice for many nations. Reduced armed forces seems to imply reduced indigenous defence footprint (one surface shipyard for example) which, because of their small size will then never again be able to compete commercially. To follow this train of argument further, why try to seek influence when the UK does not seem to benefit beyond achieving the influence? I'd like to see more governmental vision, more investment and a real view of what the country will be in the future rather than simply papering over the cracks. But maybe our time has gone?

    1. I agree. Rather than 'manage the reduction' in complex shipbuilding requirements for example, far more effort should have been directed at selling the worldclass capabilities of our shipyards and indeed building our own RFA's! Like many other areas of manufacturing the economics are once again moving in our favour. The modular construction and vast outlay on equipment for the aircraft carriers could be equally well employed building high value commercial ships. Ocean liners are built in Finland and Germany, hardly low cost economies! Equally we should be bidding for all manner of warship contruction and defense equipment. It is a mindset, we have the capabilities and we can and should compete.

    2. Building the MARS tankers in Korea was the correct decision. No UK concern wanted the work and we would have had to pay more and wait longer for them. As a result, the order would probably have been reduced from 4 ships to 3. A significant chunk of the money is being spent in the UK anyway, but it makes sense to leave the main build to the Koreans who are the experts at building ships like this.

    3. I am sorry I cannot agree with that in the light of the decision to stop shipbuilding in Portsmouth. Even if the ships had cost more up front, how much time and money do you think is now being spent by HMG trying to find a buyer for the shipbuilding facilities, and if they do not we loose highly skilled engineering jobs, exactly when the overall economy needs them most. Anyone looking at this from abroad must think we are bonkers. There is a huge demand for shipbuilding and we can and should compete at least at the higher end of the market, like we do in the automotive and aerospace sectors.