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Hands-up for soft power. Image ©

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September 2016

As the UK prepares for life outside the EU, its soft power matters more than ever.  It can and should be a key means of support to the country’s trade and prosperity as the UK establishes a new global role outside the EU.  One study found that exports rise by 0.8% for every 1% rise in a country’s soft power.  A bold vision is now needed to make the most of the UK’s soft power assets on the world stage – backed by significant resources and a sustained effort by UK governments, in partnership with the cultural and educational sectors.

Undoubtedly the UK can continue to be a successful and major player, post-Brexit. However, it will need to demonstrate more strongly than ever its commitment to internationalism, if it is going to be able to continue to earn and grow its position as a global power. 

the UK can continue to be a successful and major player, post-Brexit

The UK enjoys significant soft power strengths which, if harnessed, can play a major part in the country’s future as it seeks to maintain and enhance its connections with Europe and the rest of the world while withdrawing from the political structures of the European Union.  

The UK remains a major force in international diplomacy, one of the world’s leading military powers, the second highest international development donor, and has a huge global cultural influence.  One in four countries currently has a leader who was educated in the UK.  The UK ranks second on Earth for higher education and for science (only the USA has more top-100 universities or Nobel Laureates, with the University of Oxford coming top of the global HE league table).  The same is true in its recent Olympic and Paralympics medal haul, and the English Premier League enjoys unrivalled international popularity. There is also the widespread and growing use of English, which remains the global language of business and the internet and is estimated will be spoken by 25% of the world’s population by 2020.  Indeed, overall the UK is ranked one of the world’s two leading ‘Soft Powers’.  

Soft Power and Prosperity

This strength is in no small part rooted in its globally significant and highly respected educational and cultural sectors, which play a major role in underpinning the UK’s extensive web of connections with influencers and decision makers overseas.  These sectors also form important sources of exports.  Higher education alone returns over £14bn per annum in export earnings and the creative industries return another £20bn. Investing in growing international exposure in these sectors will therefore not only help the UK to forge a new global role with long term influence, but indeed can help deliver sustainable economic growth today.

There is also now hard data on the long-term positive impact that soft power can have on trade.  Research suggests a clear statistically significant link between increases in soft power and trade flows.

Similarly, research undertaken on behalf of the British Council by IpsosMori and YouGov found a clear link between people’s participation in British cultural and educational programmes and their interest in doing business with the UK.  In a study of 10 strategically important countries, the average level of trust in the UK was 16% higher amongst those who had participated in British cultural or educational activities.  Higher levels of trust were in turn associated with greater interest in conducting business as well as tourism and study in the UK. This is perhaps not surprising as economists have long understood that increases in trust lower transaction costs, increasing possibilities for trade.  For example, Francis Fukayama’s authoritative study of trust published in the 1990s highlighted the social benefits that can flow from increased levels of trust within societies.  [Trust: the Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, Francis Fukuyama (1996)].

A Soft Power Manifesto

If it is to thrive outside the EU, the UK will need to maintain strong relationships with its friends in Europe.  It will also need to improve its ties with a wide range of other major players on the world stage (both old allies like the US, Canada, and Australia and rising powers like China, India, and Brazil).  It is therefore worth asking how exactly the UK’s soft power strengths can be put to good use to help support a more active global role. 

International engagement through cultural, scientific, and educational ties will be one powerful mechanism for doing so.  There is clear evidence that the benefits of these sectors increase business and trade on the other.  In addition, by showing the UK as a constructive and attractive country, these can create a sympathetic environment for discussions on the terms of Brexit with our European partners.  They will also form a positive context for the UK’s pursuit of important trade agreements with other nations further afield.

these can create a sympathetic environment for discussions on the terms of Brexit with our European partners.  They will also form a positive context for the UK’s pursuit of important trade agreements with other nations further afield

The UK also needs to understand that cultural engagement is a two-way street.  When the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited the UK in 2011, he talked warmly of his love of Shakespeare, Dickens and other important figures in British literature, but was disappointed when few people he met from the UK could cite their favourite Chinese authors.  As the UK seeks to embrace a stronger international role, it will have to be ever more open to global cultural influence. 

The UK will have to act quickly but for the long term if it is to make the most of the opportunities to leverage its soft power strengths to preserve and extend its international standing.  There are a number of ways that UK governments could consider strengthening the country’s soft power at this crucial moment, including:

1. Prioritise soft power and regard this as a key means to strengthen the UK’s global role.  This should include investing in cultural and educational ties to show that the UK is a country open to partners and interested in their agendas. To be successful will require high ambition, vision, significant investment, and a willingness to pursue opportunities where they arise.

2. Take immediate steps to reassure friends and partners in Europe by committing to continuing existing cultural and educational engagement with the Continent and investing in exchanges, educational programmes, and increased cultural cooperation. 

3. Work with the cultural and education sectors to expand similar efforts across the rest of the world, including the US, the Commonwealth, and rising powers in Asia and elsewhere that hold the key to the UK’s future influence and prosperity.  This could for example include replicating global versions of valuable schemes currently run by the EU that promote exchange and collaboration between the UK and other EU countries, especially in science and higher education. (see ‘The Science of Brexit’) 

4. Take a bold new approach to renewing and extending UK connections and soft power in general in the developed world.  Over the past few years the UK’s emphasis has been in extending ties with high growth emerging economies.  However, in future it is equally important that the UK has strong cultural and educational ties with developed countries such as the US, EU, Canada, Australia and Japan.  As such it will be vital to consider how the UK can develop increased relationships with the next generation of leaders and influencers in these places and how we can achieve a positive, open and innovative image of the UK.

5. Take steps to support more UK citizens to become internationally connected.  In a world where the UK’s future influence and prosperity will be determined more and more by our international connections, it is vital that all our young people are given the chance to gain the skills and experience to be effective in a globalised world. This could involve more opportunities to learn foreign languages and experience life, study or work overseas.  The evidence suggests  that these in turn lead to a more productive and innovative workforce, as well as being skills that employers value.  As the UK seeks to become more globally connected, language and international skills will become even more important.  Efforts should also be made by the UK education sector to encourage more language learning and more international exchanges and study overseas.  The UK’s culture and education sectors, businesses, and policymakers, should be willing to work together to overcome barriers to international engagement.

As the nation reflects on its summer of political change and charts its new foreign policy priorities, soft power should be near the top of its list.

John Dubber, Head of Policy and External Relations, British Council and Alasdair Donaldson, Insight Editor, British Council

See also