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Artillery Row

Soft power has little substance

The foreign policy concept has been used as an excuse for declinist myth-making

The British Government takes soft power seriously. It is a concept peddled by Prime Ministers, the senior civil service, and was given prominent mentions in the Integrated Review 2021 written by the much-praised John Bew. Soft power, we are told, is a vital part of “global Britain”, a post-Brexit re-assertion of Britain’s role on the global stage. 

The term was coined by Joseph Nye in the late 1980s in response to what he described as “as misleading theories of American decline” which had “diverted our attention away from the real issue — how power is changing in world politics”. At a time when critics were drawing parallels between British decline in the late nineteenth and the United States, Nye argued that the US still possessed the ability to achieve its desired outcomes. For Nye, soft power was instrumental to enduring American power. 

Soft power advocates would be the first to admit that its outputs are hard to quantify, and the concept itself hard to pin down, leading to academics like Yuan Yi Zhu who shares these pages describing soft power as “the least helpful international relations concept in decades” and concurrently one of the very few to have public cut through. 

Most significantly, the doctrine does not help us conceptualise the application of power in the world today, and instead has created a blank slate for the projection of a world divorced from reality. Myth, as its advocates would admit, is at the heart of soft power, but myth making quickly runs away from itself. 

Nye’s original concept of soft power excluded foreign aid from the theory — seeing aid instead as purchasing power. Soft power was pull not push, magnetic. And yet Britain’s soft power advocates, such as Lord Ricketts or Andrew Mitchell MP, Minister of State in the FCDO, are keen to include foreign aid in the doctrine, asserting in 2021 that cuts to UK aid were a removal of an important soft power tool. It is hard to see evidence of foreign aid’s magnetic appeal in global politics, with some studies finding the exact opposite.  If anything, foreign aid is increasingly taking a hard power approach, with foreign aid to Europe’s North African partners conditioned on attempts to prevent migration to the continent.  The last few years have shown that some donors are going further, explicitly conditioning aid on support for their preferred vote at the United Nations and another Trump presidency in 2024 would no doubt further underscore this shift. 

By any metric that includes foreign aid, the United States holds vast quantities of soft power over Israel, by far the largest trading partner, with extensive cultural and diplomatic ties. But the Biden administration’s attempts to rein in Israeli military action in Gaza have come to nothing. Relying on soft power in this case is to ignore the realities of governing: domestic priorities will always come before the abstract pull of soft power. 

In response to criticisms of soft power the concept of “smart power”, which supposedly blends the ability to do things (hard power) and then the ability to promote that you have done them (soft) was introduced.  Michael Clarke, former director general of the Royal United Services Institute, described the UK’s vaccine strategy as an example of this, with “soft power messages that this could be done transparently and safely without recourse to clumsy propaganda”. Yet this seems mistaken. European minister after European minister criticised the UK’s vaccine rollout strategy as unsafe. It was not the combination of soft and hard power that achieved success with the UK vaccine strategy, it was the simple act of getting things done, a rare occurrence in modern Britain. 

In a revisiting of the concept in 2021 Joseph Nye argued that his original concept of soft power had been based on the idea that “the US was also able to get the outcomes it wanted because of attraction” or emulation. He has also recently described how his concept is “more often than not” misused. 

Right wing posters will be familiar with the hagiographic tale of Lee Kuan Yang, authoritarian founder of modern Singapore coming to London, taking inspiration from the high-trust society he saw and returning home intent on building an East Asian version. But advocates of soft power should ask and answer the question, how did this benefit the UK? Besides, it is hard to imagine a visionary politician leaving the UK inspired by the sclerotic dysfunctional display.  

In an influential 2021 book, Britain’s Persuaders: Soft Power in a Hard World, the aforementioned Michael Clarke and Helen Ramscar, set out that “soft power does not flow primarily from a government but from a wider society”. This seems incongruous however with the reality that some of the most active soft-power players in the world today are authoritarian states with high state-control, ranging from Qatar with its world cup to Azerbaijan, set to host COP29 in 2024.

It is not surprising that Britain’s soft power has been highlighted at a time when its real power projections are weak

Clarke and Ramscar also fall into a predictable trap in their description of the London Olympics as the apogee of British soft power. Yet the authors’ description of the games is an indicative example of how analytically weak soft power can be when it seems to sum up little more than a warm fuzzy feeling. Despite their general success, the Olympics were also a moment for Britain’s ruptures to be made clear — Government ministers booed in front of a world audience and an opening ceremony that incited the ire of the right-wing media. One could just as easily point to the night of chaos at the 2020 Euro final in Wembley which led to international sanction by the footballing authorities. The reality is that both events are broadly irrelevant for the perception of Britain in the world today. 

In their myth making, soft power events like the Olympics, might briefly project positive images abroad, but they primarily act to con their domestic participants into believing their myths, acting as a laundering project for a reality that may not exist. 

It is not surprising that Britain’s soft power has been highlighted at a time when its real power projections are weak, a stripped back armed forces, a country deeply dependent on external and potentially compromised supply chains, unable to turn to face the threats it faces in an increasingly hostile world. 

But instead, its advocates continue to demand that the UK pivot further to embrace the doctrine. The former Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office Simon McDonald is one of the most recent figures to make the argument that the UK’s future global standing is rooted in soft power. In Beyond Britannia: Reshaping UK Foreign Policy he argues that “attachment to the vestiges of hard power prevents the UK from fully developing its soft power” and that Britain should abandon both its nuclear deterrent and its Permanent UN security council seat in pursuit of soft power goals. McDonald is unashamed to admit that he sees soft power as an instrument best removed from the hands of politicians. He tells us that “soft power often works best when the government gets out of the way”.  

It is hard to escape the conclusion that for those like McDonald, or for politicians more generally, the realm of soft power is another route to fight domestic political battles, either an additional tool in the civil servant establishment arsenal for obstructing policies that they’d rather not implement, or an attempt by self-aggrandising politicians to convince the British public that “global Britain” perseveres despite declining hard power. 

As with the rest of the UK’s political discourse, the UK’s soft power establishment is extremely averse to contextualising the UK with its comparable neighbours. Whilst the UK’s soft power will allegedly be damaged should it contravene or ignore the European Convention on Human Rights, France is able to do so without consequence. Tightening conditions on international students would damage the UK’s soft power, despite similar moves taking place in Australia, France, and Canada to name a few. A traditional view of state power would understand it as granting the state freedom of action, yet in this view of the world, the UK’s freedom to act is constrained, not liberated, begging the question, why should politicians be in thrall to the doctrine?

This is not, to be clear, an argument for cutting the vestiges of Britain’s global presence. It is inherently good that we continue to broadcast globally, to have cultural institutions abroad, and so on. But Britain’s politicians should be focused on securing power that can be instrumentalised for Britain’s benefit. Rather than representing a real comparative advantage over its competitors, Britain’s soft power wellspring stems from a hard power tap that has long been turned off, the drips of a long-dead empire.

Between 1990, when Nye coined the soft power concept, and today the world has continued to be dominated by the unipolar United States. Nye was right that American power had not yet declined. But beneath Britain’s illusion of soft power dominance is the foundation of American security guarantees that led Europe more generally to divest away from military spending. Despite the canary in the coal mine that was Trump’s first presidency, as Britain and its continental allies stare down the barrel of a second, they still fail to react appropriately, perhaps blinded by a soft-power smokescreen that has deluded us about our real power in the world. 

Clarke and Ramscar tell us that “when political systems collapse quickly, it always emerges that the status quo governments had failed to account for important shifts in the balance of forces around them, and their untested power simply collapsed, often with a single push”. A status quo that has bargained far too heavily on the significance of unquantified British soft power may just find that 2024 and the years that follow provide that push.

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