Time for Some Hard Thinking About Soft Power, by Michael Clarke

Most people talk about ‘soft power’ as somehow the opposite of military or coercive ‘hard power’. But it is much more complex than that. Britain has relied on its subtle soft power capabilities for a long time. But if it does not think more carefully about it very soon, there is a danger that complacency will diminish it, as rivals are catching up fast. 

The Government’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence and Foreign Policy has been put on hold while the effects of the COVID-19 crisis are addressed, and it is now expected that, though there will undoubtedly be some important decisions involved in the Comprehensive Spending Review that must still be conducted in the autumn of 2020, the Integrated Review will not be completed until early in 2021, or possibly later.

During this enforced delay, there is a good case for the Integrated Review to pay special attention to more precise ways of understanding ‘soft power’; and of ways that Britain might leverage it more precisely where possible, and help create the environment for its organic success where direct government involvement is not possible or desirable. Many organisations and individuals that give Britain a great deal of soft power in the wider world – such as media production companies, artists, educators, or designers – are understandably reluctant to be drawn into government-led ‘campaigns’ in case it compromises their own artistic or professional reputations for independence and integrity. But governments can nevertheless give more attention to ways in which they can contribute to an environment that favours independent organisations and individuals; through tax advantages, networking opportunities, protection of intellectual property and so on.

The British Council records the belief that ‘The UK is a “soft power superpower”’, and the country scores consistently high (within the top 5) on all independent rankings of soft power status.[1] The FCO designates a senior official as Head of its Soft Power and Strategic Engagement Department, whose responsibilities cover a very wide area. Nevertheless, the popular view of the government’s role in promoting and exploiting soft power tends to focus on the role of institutions such as the British Council, the BBC, the Royal Family or the Commonwealth.

Then too, the general understanding of soft power is not very precise. It is often assumed that ‘hard power’ describes military or some sort of physical pressure, and ‘soft power’ – a term coined around 20 years ago [2] – is therefore everything else. But the spectrum of hard and soft power does not lie between violence at one end and persuasion at the other. It is better understood as the distinction between a state applying its strength – whether military, economic or political – to achieve an outcome, as opposed to having a natural magnetism and attraction for other reasons, whether or not it applies it directly. So, economic or cultural powers (threatening to cancel cultural exchanges or boycotting Olympic Games, for instance) can be used in a ‘hard’ way if they are specifically applied to pressurise another actor, just as military prowess can be a soft power asset if it showcases ability and creates a desire on the part of others to imitate it. Hard power is applied; soft power exists, and soft power is particularly effective when it stimulates that desire to imitate, elsewhere in the world. The key is to work across a spectrum that encompasses both what governments do, and what their whole societies represent – exercising political power ‘smartly’.[3]

The Integrated Review should consider applying a net assessment approach to Britain’s soft power assets, since their prominence and success in the world was generally established during an era when the cultural dominance of western societies was taken for granted. That era is changing rapidly and international ‘soft power competition’ has become far more intense in the last two decades. Countries like South Korea and Australia, as well as some of Britain’s European partners, have been looking very hard at what they can do to exploit their own soft power advantages to the maximum.  Britain has some important comparative advantages in soft power, but there is a real danger of complacency based on the easier soft power environment of the past.

As the Integrated Review progresses, in addition to looking carefully at government policy for organisations that are intrinsically linked to the state, like the British Council, the BBC, or higher education institutions, it should also think more about the behavioural patterns it would like to reinforce or promote across all organisations and groupings. This would produce a matrix or organisations and behavioural patterns that could illuminate areas of current concentration and expose others where more might be deemed worthwhile.

A forthcoming analytical study in 2021 classifies the UK’s major soft power assets according to their most evident behavioural functions, as opposed to their organisational designations, at least for soft power perspectives.[4] The analysis divides the behavioural patterns into a number of broad classifications, where governmental and non-governmental bodies, commercial interests, private organisations, personal linkages, and so on, may all engage in these categories of behaviour that are particularly relevant in British soft power: 

  • Convening; a reputation for being able to bring a wide range of interests together as in the case of the British Council, the Commonwealth, the Royal Family, the Anglican Church, trade bodies, city-twinning exercises, etc.
  • Indirect diplomacy; the ability of government officials to sustain deep knowledge of their postings, to promote ‘track 2’ diplomacy, aid diplomacy and proactive promotion of liberal free trade values and internationalism etc
  • Research and innovation; having influence to help shape the global technology stage through science and technology, high-end manufacturing, spin-outs and start-ups, and the applied research from higher education.
  • International standard-setting; through sectoral leaders and regulators, setting or contributing to international standards in fields such as architecture, finance, law, medicine, communications, engineering, publishing, and so on.
  • International entertainment; through film, theatre, mixed-media, BBC and commercial production, sport, music, performing arts, etc
  • Cultural recognition and cosmopolitanism; diasporas, cultural and cosmopolitan organisations reflecting modern multi-culturalism, communities, tourism, leisure and hospitality, and international social linkages.
  • Education and learning; promoting truthful and self-aware values across the education and higher education sectors, in private schools, galleries, museums, heritage organisations and through on-line education.
  • Frontier creativity; in exploring the boundaries of established economic and social sectors, such as through advertising, marketing, consultancy, new computing applications, applied gaming, ‘individuals as brands’, bloggers and ‘influencers’.

Not least, it is necessary to consider how such patterns of behaviour also contribute (or perhaps fail to contribute enough) to erstwhile British values that represent what the country wants to stand for in the world; among them, individual freedom, democracy, fairness under the rule of law and a genuine sense of community. Ultimately a country’s ‘soft power’ is what it is perceived to present to the rest of the world; what it is over the long-term, more than anything it does in the short term.

In the coming months this website will share some of its own net assessment research as it progresses and articulate the sort of independent matrix it has outlined here.

[1] British Council, Sources of Soft Power: How Perceptions Determine the Success of Nations, British Council, 2019, p. 3; Brand Finance, Global Soft Power Index 2020, November 2019, pp. 4-5; Jonathan McClory, The Soft Power 30: A Global Ranking of Soft Power 2017, California, Portland, 2017.

[2] Joseph Nye, Soft Power: the means to success in world politics, New York, Public Affairs, 2005; Joseph Nye, The Powers to Lead, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2008.

[3] House of Lords, Persuasion and Power in the Modern World, Select Committee on Soft Power and the UK’s Influence, HL, 150, 28 March 2014, pp. 49-51.

[4] Michael Clarke and Helen Ramscar, Britain’s Persuaders: Soft Power in a Hard World, London, I.B. Tauris/Bloomsbury, 2021.