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The Louvre Abu Dhabi, part of a 30-year agreement between Abu Dhabi and France. Photo ©

British Council, adapted from the original.

January 2019

At a time of profound global political and economic change, the British Council convened an expert policy roundtable to discuss how the country should keep pace in an increasingly competitive 'soft power marketplace'. Isabelle Younane, British Council Policy and External Relations Officer, examines the conclusions they reached, including that the UK should keep what it says and does overseas aligned with its core values - and adopt a strategy to coordinate its soft power resources in the most intelligent way.

Expert representatives from Government, Parliament, academia, and the cultural, sports, and education sectors were invited to reflect on the British Council’s recent research, ‘Soft Power Superpowers’. The report highlights that, while the UK remains one of the world’s leading soft powers, there has been a major increase in levels of investment in cultural institutes and soft power activity amongst its partner and competitor nations over the past five years. 

In light of Brexit the UK Government is putting a new focus on soft power, with plans underway for a ‘Soft Power Strategy’ led by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Yet great minds think alike. A number of rising economies, such as China, Russia, and Brazil, are rapidly investing in soft power. According to the report, in the last five years alone China’s network of Confucius Institutes has grown from 320 to 507, making it by far the largest of the international cultural institutes. Russia has also been growing its cultural presence, with an increase of 209% in its cultural institutes, the Russkiy Mir Foundation, over the same period (an increase from 82 to 171 offices in five years).

Staying True to Who We Are

Rather than spreading itself too thinly, they suggested that the UK should adopt a ‘smart power’ approach

Considering the research, the expert participants noted that the rise in investment in soft power by Russia, China, and many other nations is taking place against the backdrop of more modest changes in the UK, with budgets for international activity constrained due to tight public funding. Rather than spreading itself too thinly, they suggested that the UK should adopt a ‘smart power’ approach, focused on harnessing existing capabilities and being more targeted with the soft power resources it already has. Germany was put forward as setting a good example in terms of demonstrating value for money. 

Some authoritarian governments have increased investment in soft power activity without seeing their rankings in soft power indices rising accordingly. This suggests that they may be seen as instrumentalising soft power resources to serve national interests. Perceived openness therefore appears to be a key contributor to soft power, which was why the election of President Trump with his commitment to ‘America First’ has arguably damaged the USA’s soft power ratings – and also why countries such as Russia and China are not always generating as much influence as they might like.

They further suggested that:

1. A state’s actions can easily undermine the image that it wishes to project overseas. This presents an important lesson to the UK that, during this period of political uncertainty, it must stand by its core values – of equality, tolerance, democracy, among others – in order to retain and grow the respect of people around the world. In this context, the way in which the UK ‘does’ soft power is as important as the output itself – it should adopt a tone of mutuality and friendship, aligned with the image it wishes to project. 

2. Some of the UK’s core values are likely to be shared by many individuals globally, regardless of the style of their governments. Recent British Council research showed that Canada and the UK are among the countries which most represent the values people care about. Further research into the nature of these shared values would help the UK to operate more effectively. Additionally, the participants suggested that the UK should seek to build more alliances with governments that do share its core values (such as those of France and Germany) rather than treat them as ‘soft power competitors’. 

3. The UK needs an ambitious soft power strategy.

Towards a Soft Power Strategy

As regards the extent to which government should try to coordinate or control the UK’s resources, from security to trade to aid to education, there was broad agreement on two over-arching points: first that any Soft Power Strategy should provide a vision for the UK’s soft power ambitions; and second that it should preserve arts, cultural, and educational organisations’ operational independence. This independence would be particularly important to working with countries where the diplomatic relationship was fragile. 

The UK needs an ambitious soft power strategy

In terms of strategy, ‘soft power’ could sit within a broader conception of influence, which may include development spending and defence capabilities. The Government’s ‘fusion doctrine’, set out in the NSCR, is an illustration of this. The UK military’s presence in fragile states could in some circumstances provide for much-need assurance to citizens, projecting a positive image of the UK. 

As for the extent to which trade should play into soft power strategy, some argued that ‘trade’ should not be directly associated with cultural relationships, as it would undermine impact as many countries would not welcome this transactional narrative. 

Turning to UK overseas aid, some noted that it should be spent in a way that is ‘mutually reinforcing’, such that it benefits the recipients, but also opens up new markets for UK businesses and has a positive impact on how the UK is seen. 

Another challenge was how to demonstrate this impact to the UK public, many of whom are still not convinced that the UK should be spending 0.7% of its national income on overseas development. 

Finally, in the sphere of education, the higher education sector could have more recognition in the influence space, particularly in light of the economic return it brings to the UK. Some argued that current visa requirements were detrimental to student mobility, failing to recognise sufficiently the financial contribution that international students bring to the UK, and the positive connections that are maintained long after they return home. 

Taken together, it was clear that there is a growing consensus on the vital importance of an expanded soft power strategy for the UK, that brings together the UK’s broad range of soft power organisations in a way that stays true to the UK’s core values.

Isabelle Younane, Policy and External Relations Officer, British Council

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