'Britain must do a better job of telling its story to the world' - Lords Soft Power Committee

28 March 2014

The House of Lords Committee on Soft Power and the UK’s Influence has today said that British influence and effectiveness in a changed world now requires changed methods of exercising power, if national security is to be safeguarded and prosperity maintained.

To achieve its foreign policy objectives, effectively defend its interests and security, influence events and stay ahead in the so-called ‘global race’, the UK needs to use new methods and adopt new priorities to make the most of its soft power strengths.

While strong Armed Forces remain the bedrock in safeguarding national interests, the Report argues that new modes 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’. This has been defined as getting what one wants by influencing other countries to want the same thing through the forces of attraction, persuasion and co-option. A further concept of ‘smart power’ describes the combined use of both hard and soft power to pursue policy aims.

The UK has a wealth of ‘soft power’ means, instruments and assets but they are not currently reaching their full potential, the Report claims. In order to ensure that these advantages are not wasted, and that the exercise of soft power takes an appropriate place at the core of government policy-making, the Committee calls for the creation of a new strategic unit at the heart of Government. Its purpose would be to assist the Prime Minister in guiding all Departments in their international dealings to tell a more compelling story, uphold and enhance the UK’s reputation and swiftly counter any potentially damaging policies or messages.

The Committee says that the information and digital revolution has now transformed, and continues to transform, the entire international scene, and the Report states that vastly wider new audiences now have to be won over to the UK’s point of view and aims if the nation is to succeed in a dangerous and very fast-changing world. On the basis of extensive evidence the Report points out that countries all round the world are now re-directing resources and emphases to softer methods of persuasion and influence in order to make their mark and prosper in ever-more competitive and challenging global conditions. The UK must follow suit, and is well-equipped to do so.

Among the UK’s many soft power assets, the Report singles out its immensely successful creative industries; its natural advantage stemming from the adoption of English as a global working language; its position in the two and a quarter billion strong Commonwealth network, as well as numerous other international communities; its values and 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, medical, sporting and research fields; its universities and world-wide educational links; and a host of other qualities that make British people and outputs trusted around the globe.

But, the Report warns, this impressive range of soft power assets is not being supported or capitalised upon in the way world conditions now demand. By no means all the solutions to this problem rest with the Government. On the contrary, too much and too heavy a level of central involvement by Government Ministers and officials in the exercise of soft power risks turning it into propaganda and destroying its value. What is required in greater measure from Ministers and Departments, including not just the FCO but many other government agencies, is focus, guidance and clarification of national aims, not control and direction about what to do.

The UK must tell a better story on the shifting world stage. Too often its reputation and its power to attract and influence are damaged by negative measures or stances, or by neglect of key assets. Visa and immigration policies, as at present handled, detract from the vital message that the UK is open for business. The Committee 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. 

While investing in soft power takes time to produce results, the Report urges the Government to make a number of important changes at both strategic and administrative levels. These include:

  • The Committee welcomes the growing number of British embassies and consulates in the changing world network, but urges that embassies be fully resourced as they become more, not less, central to the UK’s aims and connections.
  • The Committee endorses the widespread view that international students should be removed from net migration targets.
  • The Report calls for stronger recognition of the potential of the Commonwealth network, opening, as it does, the doorway to new fast-growth world markets. It urges stronger Government support for the invaluable asset of British English. It also welcomes the re-opening of the FCO Language Centre.
  • The Government and the BBC must ensure that the 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 that the UK’s creative industries are supported and encouraged.
  • The Committee calls for a review of, and for lessons to be learnt from, the ways in which the MOD, the FCO and DFID have cooperated in Afghanistan.
  • The Committee also wants to see more vigorous follow-up of trade missions.
  • The Report suggests that the UK should show more confidence in expounding its own distinctive qualities and international role in the global network, while communicating openly and actively both with old allies and new partners.

Commenting, Lord Howell of Guildford (Chairman of the Committee) said:

“The UK depends now for its security and its prosperity not just on our superb Armed Forces, but on the imaginative use of soft power on many fronts to back them up and achieve the results we want and need.

“Our diplomacy and indeed the conduct of all our international relations now have to adjust to entirely new world conditions. Power has shifted away from the 20th-century pattern of Western dominance, and away – to some degree – from government and central authorities altogether, as the internet and digital connectivity have built up new networks, alliances, lobbies and relationships around the planet. 

“Achieving influence through soft power is often a long-term investment and won’t always deliver quick returns. But in an increasingly competitive and interconnected world it is an essential component in the successful fulfilment of the UK’s international role.

“We have a good story to tell about Britain’s role, its purposes, its strengths and its successes, but we must tell it very much better.”

A video of Lord Howell discussing the report is available online here. The video can be embedded on third party websites.

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