Soft power

The House of Lords Select Committee on Soft Power and the UK’s Influence published its report this week, complete with mind map and pages and pages of evidence.

Their report urges the UK government and others with influence to continue to maximise the UK’s international influence through 'soft' channels, and recognises the wide ranging ways in which UK institutions are networked for good in the world. The report appears to recognise the end of the Western domination and recommends the UK to be part of the way the world's governance is changing. It also suggests a formal review to learn the lessons of the Afghanistan adventure, and suggests that 'smart power' is the better way forward.

I appeared before the committee for International Alert, and we also submitted written evidence as follows:

Written evidence submitted to the House of Lords Select Committee on Soft Power and the UK’s Influence

By Phil Vernon, Director of Programmes, International Alert

9 August 2013

Acting as a witness to the Committee on 29 July informed my own thinking on the topic under discussion, leading me to submit this short formal note to the inquiry on behalf of International Alert.

1. Soft power is Joseph Nye’s rather precise definition of how to achieve one’s objectives through attraction and co-option, alongside or instead of other means such as coercion and purchase. For Nye, foreign aid is purchase power, and as such not strictly a soft power tool. Was he right?

2. It’s rather hard to examine power in the abstract, as it can only really be measured in relation to a specific policy goal or objective. The UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) is mandated to reduce poverty overseas – a difficult but relatively narrow purpose. But if you look at the actual policies and work of DFID, other UK government departments, the EU of which the UK is a leading member state, other international organisations of which it is a member, and other UK-based entities, including NGOs and businesses, it is not a great stretch to argue that one of the UK’s international actual policy goals is an increasingly and sustainably prosperous, peaceful and liberal world. If such an unwritten goal does exist for the UK – and I believe it does – then it would ultimately be good for UK business, good for reduced UK defence spending, good for the achievement of globally shared public goods such as atmospheric carbon reduction, and good from a moral perspective as well.

3. So the debate about whether aid is an effective soft power instrument comes down ultimately to a debate about whether aid can legitimately be seen as soft power (rather than 'purchasing' power as Nye would have it), and whether it actually does help create a better world.

4. Several conclusions emerged from the discussion which took place during the committee’s public session on 29 July, informed by questions and comments from the committee and fellow witnesses, as follows.

5. If the currency of soft power is values, institutions, culture and policy as Nye says, then soft power is exercised through the choices the UK makes and the actions it takes, and not only by what it says. While words are important means of communicating values, institutions, culture and policy, their impact is fatally undermined when they are inconsistent with actions.

6. Churchill is said to have called the Marshall Plan “unselfish and unsordid”. No doubt some aid is motivated by selfish concerns, and some may even have a sordid side. There are always tensions and trade-offs, as well as overlaps, between different policy goals. But he was right that aid is fundamentally an unselfish act. By allocating a chunk of the government budget to overseas aid – along with substantial amounts of private giving by UK citizens – we are sending a message of international solidarity that must increase the UK’s international stock, and thus its soft power to influence the directions and nature of progress in specific places and more broadly. For example, the main reason the UK was asked to co-chair and thus help frame the outcomes of the UN High Level Panel on Post-2015 was because of our prominent role in aid and our commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI as aid.

7. As a relatively prosperous, liberal, democratic and peaceful nation, the UK has much to offer a world wishing to evolve in those directions. It offers models from which others can draw ideas for their own political and economic evolution, while avoiding some of our errors. There is every reason to believe that those seeking to take the Arab Spring in these directions will be attracted to and reach out to the UK.

8. Incremental improvements towards peace, prosperity and liberal democracy are non-linear and as such cannot be 'bought' or coerced. So if aid is an instrument of power and influence it must at least partly be a soft power instrument. But we should avoid focusing the discussion only on 'aid' as money, and rather think about how the UK’s engagement taken as a whole, helps to create a more peaceful, prosperous and democratic world, including for example:

  • Eliminating the money laundering and other nefarious financial practices which are still done in the UK;
  • Contributing to improving international frameworks and systems for supra-national governance and mutual support among nations;
  • Improve the regulation of UK-listed businesses operating in developing contexts, so their behaviours contribute to the right kind of progress there; and
  • Working in partnerships with those in developing countries – governments, businesses, civil society – as well as other outsiders who have the capacity to influence outcomes there, such as international donors and multilateral organisations.

9. Rather than limiting the discussion to the 'UK’s soft power', we should see it as an issue of 'using soft power as part of an international approach to progress', i.e. not to improve the UK’s standing, as some of the committee members put it, but rather to use the UK’s standing in collaboration with others, to contribute to progress in the wider world.

10. In other words, the UK’s co-chairmanship of the High Level Panel on post-2015 development should be seen both as an achievement, thanks to UK aid policy, and as a means to a bigger end. This is itself served not only by the UK’s aid policy, but also by other governments’ aid, and not only by aid but also by a range of other policy instruments, choices and actions.

11. Progress towards a more democratic, peaceful and sustainably prosperous world is non-linear, and is by no means assured or even probable. It benefits from a long and sustained process employing diverse and complementary approaches whose effectiveness remains an article of faith to some extent: we do not (yet) have a well-founded set of metrics. This is because the non-linear nature of progress means we cannot be certain that seemingly promising changes are sustainable, or that apparent set-backs are not in fact opportunities. To illustrate using an obvious example: an apparently democratic election may or may not be a sign that democratic values are becoming embedded in society. We won’t be able to judge success for some years yet.

12. The UK’s sustained support of Rwanda’s government and people is a case in point. To some, Rwanda’s government is a repressive, undemocratic regime bent on maintaining the dominance of a single party and a single ethnic group, and as such undeserving of the UK’s support. To others, Rwanda’s leadership is very carefully managing a process which it hopes and plans will lay the foundations of a stable and democratic country, based on a realistic assessment that it is too early to liberalise fully. There is no way of knowing for sure which of these scenarios is most accurate. The UK must carefully judge how to respond, and do so with all due care and diligence. This means inter alia that if it wishes to support progress in Rwanda it must deploy not funds merely, but also politically astute civil servants and diplomats able to engage with the government and civil society there and interpret events and processes as they evolve, tailoring the UK’s engagement all the while.

13. The risks due to this uncertainty – which is reflected in similar and different ways in all fragile contexts where the UK might wish to support development progress – seem worth taking, provided it exercises all due diligence and care in the choices it makes, and monitors and adapts its approaches along the way. This is expert, labour-intensive work. Diligence and care are not best served by understaffed government departments, which suggests that DFID’s drive to reduce transaction costs and the FCO’s drive to 'do more with less' may be counter-productive.

14. Finally, if I am right in elucidating from its various postures and actions that the UK has an unwritten goal of contributing to an increasingly and sustainable prosperous, peaceful and democratic world, then perhaps the government should make that a more explicit policy goal against which it can test its policies, and for which it can be held to account. This would have the added benefit of forcing the UK to evaluate its contribution to the global common weal – and thus its long-term interests – alongside its promotion of the UK’s narrower and shorter-term interests such as trade.