Monarchy and Soft Power: The triumph of Britain without empire?

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'Throne and the Empire' by Raphael Panhuber / CC
'Throne and the Empire' by Raphael Panhuber / CC

  “Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role.”

Dean Acheson (United States Secretary of State, 1949 – 1953)

Of all the changes across her sixty-two-year reign, none can be starker to Queen Elizabeth II than Britain’s diminished geographical presence in the world. But does the verdict of former US Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, still stand true – is the UK still seeking a role after losing an empire?

The media’s favourite foreign policy catchphrase is perhaps a better maxim for headlines than foreign policy analysis. The quote is normally brought out when the press – at home and abroad – thinks the UK is unable to defend, in the words of former Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston: “Civis Romanus sum…a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England will protect him against injustice and wrong.”

Mourning the lost penchant for 19th Century, Flashman-esque gunboat diplomacy is an entertaining self-aggrandisement, but it’s a largely redundant hark back – power and influence in the 21st Century are no longer defined by standard notions of ‘might.’

“Power, like love”, said political scientist Joseph Nye, “is easier to experience than to define or measure.” By the early 1990′s, Nye saw that American military and economic strength was no longer as guaranteed as they had been at the close of the Second World War. The world was getting smaller and military capabilities alone were no longer accurate in determining the strength of nations. Economic powerhouses such as Japan, Germany, India and China made America far less able to unilaterally shape the international agenda.

In his book,  ‪Bound to LeadThe Changing Nature of American Power, Nye coined the distinction between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power as a way for America to adapt to a multipolar world where power was no longer concentrated in the USA.

Hard power, said Nye, is the traditional means by which a country can wage war, whereas “soft power co-opts people rather than coerces them.” It is centred around an “actor’s values, culture, policies and institutions” and the extent to which these “primary currencies” can attract others to you. Prestige and moral authority are crucial.

Nye observed that while military force remains the ultimate form of self-help, military action could be detrimental to a country’s own national interests when the world had become interdependent at every level, particularly financially. While not supplementing traditional military means, soft power could potentially be as effective as the number of missiles or soldiers a nation had without the negative impacts of war. Attracting other countries to your way of thinking by your example, or your values could be an alternative source of power and influence. As the instruments of power change, so do the strategies.

Since the Second World War, soft power has been an important foreign policy tool for British Prime Ministers to ensure that Britain courts international influence. The personal rapport between the leaders of the UK and US – expressed through the ‘Special-Relationship’ – has, for example, offered material benefit and influence to the UK.

The Nassau Agreement in 1962, agreed by Prime Minister Harold MacMillan and President John F. Kennedy, enabled the UK Polaris programme that has ensured Britain’s sea-based nuclear deterrent for 50 years. Margaret Thatcher’s close partnership with President Ronald Reagan throughout the Cold War was the foundation for engagement with President Mikhail Gorbachev of the USSR. Prime Ministers John Major and Tony Blair both relied on personal diplomacy to secure peace in Northern Ireland.

But soft power can and has created great difficulty for leaders. Tony Blair was regularly condemned for his perceived close friendship with President George W. Bush and its alleged impact on the decisions leading to the Iraq War. Inversely, Gordon Brown was criticised for not being close enough to President Barrack Obama.

The ‘personal touch’ from prime ministers has allowed the UK to stay relevant not just by the emphasis on military capabilities, but by the emphasis on the values the country represents. Prime Minister Winston Churchill began the trend with his personal appeals to President Franklin D. Roosevelt for US supplies and support, for the sake of democracy, in the Second World War.

But political success does not always equate to popularity and certainly not on the scale that the UK enjoys. The UK is a globally respected leader in every field and its contributions to sport, music, literature, film, fashion etc are second to none. Many countries enjoy the same success, but seldom so disproportionate to its geographical size.

So what has united the UK’s political need to stay at the top table with its burgeoning cultural reputation?  What has helped to ensure that the country has become a leading and popular soft power voice in the world? What is it that has helped the UK to pick up the gauntlet thrown down by Dean Acheson?

In the last several years the answer has become apparent: The Queen, and all things Royal.

The 2011 wedding of Prince William to Catherine Middleton and the 2012 Diamond Jubilee celebrations were seismic global media events that drew viewers and attendees in their millions. Indeed, this attention and affection were playfully rewarded with the Queen’s participation as a ‘Bond girl’ in a skit for the 2012 Olympics with actor Daniel Craig. The public support and media attention was repeated again in 2013 with the birth of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridges’ first child, Prince George.

The results have been tangible: The Diamond Jubilee celebrations generated £10 billion in tourist revenue for the British economy. Global viewing figures for the Olympic opening ceremony were at 900 million, peaking at the Queen’s Bond girl cameo. The wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge brought an estimated £2bn to the UK economy. Analytics from 100,000 news sites found that 12 percent of news global news consumption was related to coverage of the birth of Prince George in July 2013.

There is a prestige that accompanies the British Monarchy and it serves as a key soft power tool for attracting others to the values and culture of Britain. No other British institution is wrapped in as ‘magical’ a veil or is such a source of interest both at home and abroad, even with perennial media scrutiny.

Whatever one’s view of the institution, the allure of the monarchy is rivalled only by the power of the American presidency. But even with overwhelming individual popularity, a US president will always suffer the dichotomy of citizens wanting to love the head of state as a symbol of all that’s best about their country versus the demands of politics. The huge personal popularity and symbolism of President Barrack Obama has done nothing to abate his modest reviews as president.

The Monarch is likewise emblematic of Britain and serves the practical purpose of representing the nation to the world. Crucially, the Queen is transcendental of the day-to-day grind of political demands and lacks the political baggage that detracts from the grandeur of a head of state. All political functions executed are constitutional and yet the prerogative of the Monarch is strictly impartial. The balance between the necessary rigmarole of politics and a love for country is neatly solved by a constitutional monarchy.

The symbolism and impartiality of Elizabeth II has been projected with great success internationally.  To look at the Queen’s 2011 state visit to Ireland and the 2014 state visit of Irish President Michael D Higgins to the UK is to see the effectiveness and value to others of her role. The 2011 visit could only have been conducted by the Queen to imbue a spirit of friendship and reconciliation that could in no way be accused of being political. The gesture has done much to promise a more constructive Anglo-Irish relationship in the future. Indeed, as Nye said: “Proof of power lies not in resources, but the ability to change the behaviour of states.”

Yet is the role of the monarchy, as a promoter of ‘brand UK’, an evolution in its function or something older?

At the beginning of the 20th Century, Britain’s foreign policy was already shifting to bringing parity among the nations of the British Empire with the monarchy as the epicentre.

Issues of colonial governance had long been discussed between territories and realms such as Canada and Australia and the UK Government. The Colonial Conference of 1907 agreed to cease calling self-governing British territories ‘colonies’ and conferred upon them dominion status. It was agreed that they would be consulted regularly on the running of the Empire and foreign affairs.

By the advent of the First World War, the assertiveness and national distinctiveness of the dominions was reflected in the establishment of the 1917 Imperial War Cabinet that gave them influence over the execution of the war effort. The change in approach to imperial management culminated in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles that ended hostilities in World War One when Prime Minister Lloyd George allowed dominions to sign the treaty individually.

By 1926, the year the Queen was born, relations between dominion countries like South Africa and Canada were already an equal and multilateral relationship with Britain. This was confirmed at the seventh Imperial Conference (renamed from Colonial Conferences) that acknowledged the growing self-determination and independence of the dominions. The Balfour Declaration confirmed the dominions as:

“Autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.”

The term ‘commonwealth’ was officially adopted to describe the community and is still used to this day.

This precedent was ratified in 1931 with the Statute of Westminster that gave legislative autonomy to all dominion nations. The only bonds that remained were cultural and emotional, through a united commitment to the British Monarchy. It is often overlooked that this arrangement was in effect at the onset of the Second World War: no dominion had a legal obligation to support Britain’s war effort, as was the decision of the Irish Free State (a dominion until 1949).

Nye’s assessment that: “In a relationship or a marriage, power does not necessarily reside with the larger partner, but in the mysterious chemistry of attraction” is particularly apt when considering the reorganisation of the British Empire. At the turn of the 20th Century, it was already shifting to create parity among those nations who held the monarchy as their head of state.

These facts necessitate a reappraisal of the labels ‘decline’ and ‘collapse’ when considering the UK’s foreign policy in the twentieth century. It is more accurate to call instances of Britain fighting to retain territory – such as Churchill and the Mau Mau Uprising (1952) and Eden with the Suez Crisis (1956) – as exceptions to a new multilateralism that began long before Britain’s alleged deterioration.

The monarchy has continued to this day in the role of being the centre and symbol of cooperation among nations. It is a responsibility that has proliferated in the sixty years the Queen has reigned, with 261 foreign visits undertaken and 106 state visits received. The great accomplishment of the Queen’s reign is maintaining the monarchy as a byword for duty and peace, respected the world over.

The successor to the British Empire, the Commonwealth of Nations came into being with the 1949 London Declaration and has the Queen as its head. Membership is not restricted to former imperial territories, and it has become an important intergovernmental organisation in the world today in the promotion of democracy and human rights.

The Commonwealth Charter was adopted on 19 December 2012 and officially signed by the Queen in March 2013. Its key commitments to the promotion of democracy, human rights and the rule of law are also core British values. They are emblematically served through the Queen who ably demonstrates that the monarchy can play a rallying role in affecting change for the better, albeit with much work still to accomplish.

Indeed, as Nye said: “A country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries – admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness – want to follow it.”

What better example is there than the British Monarchy giving Britain a soft power role in the world today?

About Alastair Stewart 208 Articles
Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and journalist. He was previously a press officer in the Scottish Parliament and worked in public affairs. He graduated from Edinburgh University with an MA in International Relations and writes regularly on politics and the arts in the Spanish and British press.

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