William and Kate attend the inaugural Commissioning Parade in Kingston, Jamaica. (Photo by Karwai Tang/WireImage)

Soft power superpower?

It’s easy to mock, but British influence is real — and a potent tool for good

Artillery Row

Britain faces many challenges, but one which makes all the others much more difficult is the iron determination of so much of the political and media class to see only the very worst in this country and its prospects.

True, we “are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven”. But one doesn’t have to be a nostalgist for the Empire to recognise that the United Kingdom continues to punch well above its weight in global affairs and cultural reach.

William and Kate’s tour of the Caribbean ought to have been a clear example of this. As one correspondent noted, “they got a warm reception pretty much wherever they went.” The royal couple “thanked those who so often go un-thanked and unrewarded for their efforts, drawing attention to stubbornly unfashionable causes and issues”.

You wouldn’t know this from the general tone of the coverage, which has seen the press indulge in a veritable orgy of self-flagellation.

Small protests get lots of coverage; minor gaffes are magnified and endlessly analysed; republican comments by local politicians (who often strike such poses to distract from domestic problems) put up in lights.

Of course, the Commonwealth is a fraternal organisation, and any member is free to set aside the monarchy should they so choose.

Beijing understands the power of the Commonwealth

But it is probably not a coincidence that Barbados did so shortly after signing up to China’s Belt and Road programme. The Communist regime in Beijing understands the power of such institutions to maintain cultural connections and shared values — probably much better than complacent British progressives do.

As Western democracies start to square off with the new generation of authoritarian states, it should be no surprise that the latter should wish to undermine what the British Council calls “Britain’s soft power advantage”.

The British Council’s most recent survey of young people’s opinions “found that it is the most attractive country in the G20 group of nations” — and enjoys “an especially strong position in Commonwealth countries”.

However, it also points out that this enviable position can’t be taken for granted. If Britain rests on its laurels — or worse, casts them aside as a relic of the colonial past — its place will be taken by other nations with different, even opposed, values and priorities.

We ought therefore to be straining every sinew to bolster our networks, and celebrating wins where we get them. An obvious case in point is the appointment of David Beckham as ambassador for this year’s World Cup in Qatar.

This was a major win for “global Britain”: a British cultural and sporting icon heading up one of the biggest sporting events of the year — and the first of its kind in the Middle East.

Instead, the decision has been roundly attacked, with Beckham accused of “misusing his image for cash” by associating with the Qatari government.

There is no denying that the decision to host the World Cup has brought much-needed attention to several serious issues, not least Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers and homosexuals. If the aim is to do something about it, rather than just make a pious fuss from a safe distance, Beckham’s ambassadorship is precisely how a “soft-power superpower” can go about it.

No wonder Boris Johnson is the second-most popular politician in Ukraine

Do his critics think the involvement of this global megastar, who in 2020 posed in a gay pride t-shirt, is going to put more pressure on Qatar on the issue, or less? Have they even considered that he might have been picked precisely because Qatar wants to more closely associate with the West, values and all?

China and Russia don’t care if other nations share their values. If we want to offer an attractive alternative, Western diplomacy has to add up to more than lectures. We need carrots, as well as sticks.

The truth is that we have a lot of carrots to deploy. Just look at how the Government has handled the crisis in Ukraine.

For all the hand-wringing about Brexit undermining a joined-up European response, it has been Britain leading the way in securing historic sanctions against Russia and getting state-of-the-art weapons to the Ukrainian military — who have since provided the world with an extraordinary advert for British hardware by fighting Putin’s forces to a standstill.

No wonder Boris Johnson is the second-most popular politician in Ukraine after the heroic Volodymyr Zelensky, who has singled out the UK’s contribution to his country’s defence.

Despite all that, there are still those determined to stick to their culture war script, focusing only on those issues, such as individual sanctions against oligarchs, where the British response has been slower.

This fixation on national decline on the part of so many of this country’s most fortunate citizens isn’t new. George Orwell noted over a century ago that “England is the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality”.

Such attitudes are not just self-indulgent; they’re dangerous.

When spiteful Remainers talk up the idea of Scottish independence, they’re advocating the break-up of one of NATO’s most important states. When progressives attack the Royal Family, or conservatives call to defund the BBC World Service, they put at risk our best means of transmitting overseas norms and values that we are fortunate to be able to take for granted here at home.

A twenty-first century defined by a new clash between Western values and authoritarianism will not be short of hostile actors, keen to disrupt our institutions and diminish our influence. It is past time we stopped doing so ourselves.

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