What is soft power?
While strong Armed Forces remain the bedrock in safeguarding national interests, the Report argues that new kinds of power projection are now required, both to make the use of force ('hard power') more effective and in some instances to replace it with the deployment of what has been labelled 'soft power'. As the Chinese General and strategist Sun Tzu long ago reminded us, "The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting."
Soft power involves getting what a country wants by influencing other countries to want the same thing, through attraction, persuasion and co-option.
The Committee says that the information and digital revolution has transformed international relations and foreign policy, meaning that the UK must win over new and wider audiences to its point of view. The Report points out that countries worldwide have re-directed resources towards soft power methods of influence.
The UK must follow suit in changing the way it interacts with other nations and communities, and is well-equipped to do so. Among the UK’s many soft power strengths, the Report singles out:
- its successful creative industries;
- the adoption of English as a global working language;
- its membership of the two and a quarter billion strong Commonwealth network and numerous other international communities;
- its enduring institutions, including the monarchy and legal system;
- its high-grade agencies of cultural communication such as the BBC World Service and the British Council;
- its commitment to international development and the work of its non-governmental organisations;
- its pre-eminence in the scientific, artistic, sporting and research fields;
- and its universities and world-wide educational links.
The Report argues that soft power methods of exercising international influence must now be combined with older approaches in order to secure and promote the UK’s interests and purposes. To ensure it does not waste its soft power advantages the UK must also tell a better story about itself.
Too often its reputation – and its power to attract and influence – are damaged by negative messages, or by the neglect of key assets. Visa and immigration policies, as presently handled, can detract from the vital message that the UK is open for business.
The Report therefore warns that if the Government do not face the facts of the transformed international order, the UK will risk finding itself outwitted, out-competed, and increasingly insecure.
To ensure that the exercise of soft power takes its place at the core of government policy-making, the Report calls for the creation of a new strategic unit at the heart of Government. Its purpose would be to assist the Prime Minister in ensuring all Departments understand the importance of soft power and of upholding the UK’s reputation, and in swiftly counteracting any potentially damaging policies or messages.
While investing in soft power takes time to produce results, the Report urges the Government to make a number of important changes:
- The Committee welcomes the growing number of British embassies and consulates, but urges that embassies be fully resourced as they become more central to the UK’s aims.
- The Committee endorses the widespread view that international students be removed from net migration targets.
- The Report calls for stronger recognition of the potential of the Commonwealth network, which opens the door to new fast-growth world markets. It urges stronger Government support for British English. It also welcomes the re-opening of the FCO Language Centre.
- The Committee urges the Government and the BBC to ensure between them that the BBC World Service’s budget is not reduced any further in real terms. The Government must also ensure that the British Council is properly resourced, and support and encourage the UK’s creative industries.
- The Committee calls for a review of how well the MOD, the FCO and DFID have cooperated in Afghanistan.
- The Committee also calls on UKTI to encourage more follow-up work after trade missions.
- The Report suggests that the UK should act with greater confidence on the international stage, while building its relationships with both old allies and new partners.