The publication of the UK Government’s Integrated Review is a landmark moment. 

In just over a hundred pages it crystalises the UK Government’s ambitions for ‘Global Britain’, turning a soundbite into a comprehensive smart power strategy for strengthening the UK’s security, international influence and prosperity through the next decade and beyond.

The Government’s vision is that:

The United Kingdom will be a beacon of democratic sovereignty and one of the most influential countries in the world, tackling the issues that matter most to our citizens through our actions at home and overseas.

Much of the commentary on the Integrated Review will inevitably focus on the increased investment in defence, the careful positioning on China and the new ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’. There is likely to be far less attention paid to soft power. 

A soft power superpower

Yet it is a fact that soft power is at the heart of the Government’s new international strategy. A whole section is devoted to the UK as ‘a soft power superpower’ and warrants quoting at length. The section begins by setting out the Government’s understanding of the term:

The UK’s soft power is rooted in who we are as a country: our values and way of life, and the vibrancy and diversity of our Union. It is central to our international identity as an open, trustworthy, and innovative country. It helps to build positive perceptions of the UK, create strong people-to-people links and familiarity with our values through cultural exchange and tourism. It also enhances our ability to attract international business, research collaboration and students – and, ultimately, to effect change in the world.

The emphasis on values, trust, cultural exchange, and innovation is especially important. Crucially, Government also recognises that:

The source of much of the UK’s soft power lies beyond the ownership of government - an independence from state direction that is essential to its influence.

The section continues:

The government can use its own assets, such as the diplomatic network, aid spending and the armed forces, to help create goodwill towards the UK – for example, through support to disaster relief or through our international work to protect cultural heritage in conflict settings. Otherwise, the Government’s main role is to: create a conducive enabling environment in which independent organisations, assets and networks in every part of the UK can flourish; assist them in building mutually beneficial international relationships; and harness, where possible, their outputs for global goods – using scientific research and technology to provide solutions to global challenges, for example.

This is a very welcome statement that shows the Government understands the value of soft power and more, that it understands the role it has in nurturing and enabling the institutions, businesses, civil society organisations, and individual artists, scientists and entrepreneurs that are core to the UK’s international attractiveness. 

An age of competition

The paper also explores the increasingly competitive landscape internationally. It highlights the investment in 'global cultural power projection and information operations' by Russia and China and the increasingly sophisticated soft power strategies of other European states like France and Germany. 

The UK is seen as a highly attractive and trusted international actor, as seen in our latest soft power perceptions survey. Yet while it was ranked first for overall attractiveness in our 2020 survey the data also shows that the UK is very much first amongst equals. It is therefore to be welcomed that the Government is not complacent about the challenges to the UK’s soft power superpower status.

Throughout the paper the importance of information – and misinformation – is emphasised. 'Alternative facts', hacking and propaganda are all very real threats to the UK’s security and prosperity. 

When mistrust and distrust are commonplace, and indeed deliberately cultivated by hostile parties, being seen as a trusted global actor, a force for good in the world, is a key strength of the UK that needs to be protected. The recognition of the value of the BBC 'as the world’s most trusted broadcaster worldwide' is therefore particularly important.

The Integrated Review recognises the growing importance of the digital space where both state and non-state actors vie to shape public opinion - for good and ill. 

Alongside the emphasis on competition in the Integrated Review there is also a focus on the importance of collaboration. The UK can only realise its global objectives by working bi- and multilaterally with other state and non-state actors.

Trust is vital to any successful collaboration or partnership and for states that trust comes from human and social capital. Important new research to be published shortly by the British Council will explore in detail the ‘conditions for collaboration’ where parties do not quite share the same values.

Of course, it is one thing to say all the right things. It is quite another to follow through with action but in recognising the challenges facing the UK the Integrated Review makes this commitment:

The UK’s soft power cannot be taken for granted. As a vital part of our foreign policy, it requires thoughtful investment that enables our domestic assets and international activity to thrive in the long term. 

Importantly, it commits to the restoration of the foreign aid budget to '0.7 per cent of gross national income [GNI]… when the fiscal situation allows.' This commitment is to be welcomed, not least because ‘government contributes its fair share to aiding development’ is the single strongest driver of trust in the UK Government.

However, much will have to wait on the forthcoming spending review. It is only when we have the full picture on future funding that we will know for sure that the UK will continue to enjoy the multiple benefits of being a soft power superpower.

There is perhaps a further gap in the Integrated Review. To successfully engage with the governments and peoples of the Indo-Pacific and other parts of the world requires specialist knowledge and experience yet there is limited discussion of this crucial aspect in the paper. 

It is worth considering the lessons of the response of the Eisenhower administration to the USSR’s early lead in space science. Following the launch of Sputnik, the US Government created NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the models for the UK Space Agency and the new Advanced Research & Invention Agency (ARIA), but it also passed the National Defence Education Act (NDEA). 

Mobilising the UK’s greatest soft power asset – its brilliant, creative, diverse population – will be essential to the UK’s success in the 21st century. 

The NDEA brought forward significant funding for what today are referred to as the STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects but also, crucially, for modern foreign languages and ‘area studies’. The administration understood that it was as vital to the USA’s interests to be able to understand and connect with the peoples of the world as it was to win the race for the Moon. 

To make real the Prime Minister’s vision for Global Britain it is time for a British version of the NDEA to ensure the people of the UK have the skills and international experience to ensure the country can retain its global influence and take a leading role in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The Government’s new Turing scheme that will support UK outward student mobility should be seen in this context. 

Shaping the open international order of the future

One of the most interesting and important aspects of the Integrated Review is the recognition that the world has moved on and that old Cold War –  and post-Cold War – certainties are a thing of the past. We have reached an inflection point, the much heralded ‘Asian Century’ has arrived. The centre of geopolitical and economic gravity is shifting decisively away from the Atlantic to the East and South. Hence the Indo-Pacific tilt.

The international order is more fragmented, characterised by intensifying competition between states over interests, norms, and values. A defence of the status quo is no longer sufficient for the decade ahead. 

The Integrated Review therefore recognises the need for a sharper and more dynamic focus in order to:

  • adapt to a more competitive and fluid international environment
  • do more to reinforce parts of the international architecture that are under threat
  • shape the international order of the future by working with others.

In particular, we will increase our efforts to protect open societies and democratic values where they are being undermined; and to seek good governance and create shared rules in frontiers such as cyberspace and space.

The Rules Based International System – always in reality a complex series of overlapping, ever-evolving systems – is increasingly contested. Much of the focus of commentators is on the challenges posed by the rise of China and a revanchist Russia with some commentators hailing the start of a new Cold War. 

This is counterproductive, the new era facing the UK today is much more complicated with multiple state and non-state actors vying for influence in a world that is now ‘hyperconnected’. While there are certainly lessons to be learned from the past – the plans for ARIA and the UK Space Agency owe a clear debt to the Eisenhower administration – the 21st century requires fresh thinking and new solutions.

Through the smart power approach set out in the Integrated Review the UK can help shape a new order.

As a trusted international actor with an array of both hard and soft power assets, the UK is well positioned to broker new coalitions of liberal democratic states. The high levels of trust that come from the UK’s soft power also makes it possible to work constructively with other states that do not share the exact same values to address shared global challenges like COVID-19 and climate change. 

The UK’s commitment to COVAX (COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access) and role as host of COP26 add substance to the warm words of diplomats, increasing trust and respect in the country. For similar reasons it will be important to the UK’s international credibility and influence to restore funding for foreign aid to meet the 0.7 per cent of GNI target as soon as circumstances allow.

The Integrated Review brings long awaited clarity to the Government’s vision for Global Britain. Soft power is rightly at the heart of the Government’s new strategy, a strategy that brings together the different levers of international engagement into one holistic whole. It presents a potentially formidable, smart power approach to international affairs that, if followed through with the necessary investment in the forthcoming spending review, will set the UK on an exciting new course to a secure and prosperous future.