Duncan Sim is Policy and Projects Officer at ResPublica.
Brexit has thrown established thinking about Britain’s foreign policy and international diplomacy into doubt. The Government has outlined its vision of a “Global Britain”, described by the Prime Minister as “a country that goes out into the world to build relationships with old friends and new allies alike” – but there are different ways in which this can be done.
In particular, the focus on establishing new trading relationships will appear increasingly narrow and myopic as time goes on if it is not complemented with a strategy to develop Britain’s global profile in realms beyond the economic.
This is why in our recently released report, Britain’s Global Future, ResPublica argues that the Government should give focus to building the UK’s soft power capacity abroad, to guarantee for the UK leverage in discussions of not just trade but also security, climate change, human rights, and other shared international agendas and challenges.
Soft power is often understood in terms of a global competition in nation-branding and familiarity with a country’s cultural exports. But we argue that such familiarity represents only a gateway for genuine soft power, which is instead based on the establishment of credibility and long-term relationships with both the elites and – increasingly, as a result of technological advances – the ordinary citizens of countries overseas
Understood in this way, the UK’s soft power capacity is therefore a reflection of who we are, the values we believe in, and how successfully we can win respect for these values from the citizens of other nations.
Yet the soft power benefits of international attraction to British ideals – societal openness and tolerance, democracy, the transparency and accountability of our powerful or culturally significant institutions, and others – will be immediately lost if we are seen not to be upholding and defending those same values across the world wherever we have the opportunity.
Attempts to build Global Britain’s soft power must recognise that our influence ultimately derives from such consistency; this influence has been termed the “power of example”. As such. the UK must continue to take an active interest in the political and cultural prosperity of other nations, demonstrating our concern not merely for economic exchange, but also in the conditions under which society and government operate.
The question for government is therefore how the UK can best project abroad the values of transparency, accountability and trustworthiness – values for which research from the British Council suggests the UK is known and admired among foreign citizenries – and so build Britain’s influence on the global stage.
We argue that the UK’s most powerful asset in this regard is its autonomous civil society, a network of institutions many of which undertake activity in other nations or which have extensive connections abroad. Such institutions include the British Council, outposts of the BBC World Service, charities, and the UK’s cultural and higher education sectors.]
Despite their more informal presence than the various branches of British government, the actions of these institutions abroad and the principles they are seen to embody should be considered crucial to how Global Britain is perceived. Factors such as their independence from government and the credibility of their outputs make them living exemplars of the values discussed above, and their connection with Britain therefore reinforces the association of the UK itself with these values.
These institutions can therefore drive the UK’s efforts to build its soft power capacity, channelling Britain’s international efforts to promote those values it sees as important in a way which – at a time of growing mistrust in governments around the world – the state alone cannot. Our report describes specific actions these institutions can take, and specific ways in which government can support them, to deliver the maximum soft power payoff while allowing these institutions to retain their crucial operational independence from government.
However, these institutions must be properly resourced if they are to step up to this task. Our paper welcomes the Prime Minister’s commitment to the 0.7 per cent aid target, but recommends restructuring how aid funds are allocated to invest more in promoting civil society and access to education – particularly higher education – abroad.
We believe this will be of considerable benefit to the countries in receipt of this aid – a strong civil society is widely recognised as integral to a country’s security, prosperity, and protection of human rights, while access to higher education is included in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – yet will also deliver real soft power benefits for the UK as a by-product of this activity.
Our future international engagement must showcase the best of Britain’s practices and values. Government can only do so much on this front; authority and resources must also be devolved to the UK’s global institutional ambassadors to allow Global Britain to effectively broadcast its ideas and develop its influence.