Neglect and poor judgement: Threats to our soft power

The Lords Select Committee on Soft Power and the UK’s influence recently declared that “the UK must tell a better story on the shifting world stage”.

Central to this conclusion is the notion that, in a world where new markets, growth, capital flows, influence, and political power are moving East, the UK must do more to capitalise on its ‘soft power’ assets to stay ahead in the global race. The failure to do so could leave us “outwitted, out-competed, and increasingly insecure” in a landscape that is no longer shaped by Atlantic hegemony.

The concept of soft power, coined by Harvard University Professor Joe Nye, involves “getting what one wants… through forces of attraction, persuasion, and co-option”. Distinct from prowess in military and economic coercion, Nye explains that a country’s soft power can be measured by “its culture (in places where it is attractive to others), its political values (when it lives up to them at home and abroad), and its foreign policies (when others see them as legitimate and having moral authority)”. The deployment of soft power goes through business, education, lobbies, science, medicine, and a range of cultural and creative links. As technological advancements revolutionise the access to information worldwide, the power to win over hearts and minds is becoming key.

The UK currently possesses an abundance of soft power assets. The sun set on the British Empire long ago, yet London remains both an economic powerhouse and a centre of fashion, culture, and history. The Union Jack is an international design icon, English is the de facto global lingua franca, and the UK’s educational institutions are renowned across the world. Additionally, according to UNESCO, the UK is the most successful exporter of cultural goods and services around the world in absolute terms, and a parliamentary report last year found that the UK’s creative industries generate £8 million an hour. British cultural exports, from James Bond to One Direction, and The Premier League to Downton Abbey, continue to be immensely consumed worldwide.

Part of the strength of the UK’s soft power lies in its cosmopolitan character. As noted by the British Council in the House of Lords report on soft power, “the UK population is widely regarded as diverse, tolerant, and accepting of difference- vital attributes in a globally connected world”. The UK’s reputation as a welcoming and open country enhances both its legitimacy as a key actor on the world stage, and its power to attract. As the editor-in-chief of the Economist emphasised, “the fact that London is so cosmopolitan is another reason why people want to come to this country”.

Despite these advantages, the UK’s soft power has been threatened in recent years by an array of misguided Government policies. As a result, the UK’s relative power to influence and attract faces an uncertain future. Two key issues have arisen: the neglect of institutions that are key to projecting the UK’s influence, and the detrimental effect of regressive policies on the UK’s reputation.

One of the most destructive examples of the former can be seen in the marginalisation of the BBC World Service. Lauded by former-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan as “perhaps Britain’s greatest gift to the world”, the World Service has been a crucial ambassador abroad for over 80 years. As the largest and most trusted of all international broadcasters, it reaches an average audience of 188 million people every week. Since 2010, however, the World Service has been beleaguered by deep budget cuts. With a 16% reduction in funding in 2010, it lost a fifth of its staff, and the number of languages that it serviced fell from 43 to 28. In April 2014, the Government withdrew the Foreign Office funding of the World Service, transferring the financial burden onto domestic licence-fee payers. Since then, it has been left in a precarious position, given the political strain of persistent BBC cuts.

The British Council is another key institution threatened by funding reductions. Operating in over 100 countries and connecting millions of people with the UK through services in languages, the arts, education, and society, the British Council is described by the House of Lords report on soft power as “among the most buy meds online pharmacy important soft power assets to the UK”. Indeed, the report found that “those who engaged in cultural activity with the UK had a higher level of trust in its people and Government than those who had not, with a particularly high level generated by Council-run cultural activities”. The British Council is also a source of public goods around the world. For example, 250,000 people in Myanmar use British Council libraries for uncensored access to the internet, enabling them to “experience UK and international culture and freedom of expression in a safe, open environment”.

Like the World Service, the British Council has been subject to neglect following a 26% reduction in Foreign Office funding since 2010, with spending cut from £180 million to £150 million. To offset this, it has increased its commercial activities at the expense of frontline cultural programmes that promote the UK’s reputation and influence. Adjusting to the smaller budget, British Council Chief Executive Martin Davidson commented: “our expectation is that for a number of our smaller operations we will become a very much smaller organisation – probably down to one or maybe only two people in some of the smaller countries”.

The marginalisation of the UK’s soft power institutions is particularly concerning considering the intensity of competition from overseas. As the BBC’s Future of News report notes, “China, Russia, and Qatar are investing in their international channels in ways we cannot match”. China Central Television received a $7 billion state subsidy for its global operations in 2009, which increased its viewership from 84 million foreign households in 2009 to over 220 million in 2015. The Chinese government has also stated its aim to have Confucius Institutes operating in over 500 cities by 2020. Russia Today recently launched a dedicated UK channel, while Al Jazeera spent $1 billion on the launch of English broadcasting services. Without the investment that they need to compete, the relative influence of the institutions that project UK’s soft power will wane.

On the issue of reputational damage, a range of Government policies have had a dampening effect on the UK’s soft power. One such issue highlighted by a Home Affairs Committee report on student visas is the increasing hostility towards international students. With one in ten global leaders educated at a UK university, the importance of the UK’s educational exports to securing influence and aiding trade cannot be understated. Yet, lengthy and prohibitive visa application processes, as well as the inclusion of international students in the Government’s net migration targets, have stopped some of the world’s brightest students from studying in the UK. With the number of international students enrolling at UK universities declining for the first time in three decades in 2013, and with little done since to address this, the UK could face what the Home Affairs Committee report describes as “significant revenue and reputational loss”.

Government attacks on human rights legislation have also had an adverse effect. Through repeated threats to scrap the Human Rights Act, and some calls to withdraw from the European Convention of Human Rights altogether, Conservative ministers have done too much to present the UK as an isolationist and backward state. As leading human rights barrister Ben Emmerson QC notes, “in Europe and the UN the UK is seen as having lost the plot. The UK’s international reputation as a leader on the rule of law and human rights is plummeting at an alarming rate and with it our ability to influence other states. I cannot recall a time since 2003 when the UK’s international reputation has fallen farther and faster”.

As political parties shape their policies in the run up to the 2015 General Election, they need to think more about how the UK will project itself in the years to come. Debate on the future of vital institutions like the BBC World Service and the British Council has been virtually non-existent, while divisions on issues like immigration and EU membership jeopardise the UK’s reputation as an open and cosmopolitan country. In a world where emerging states are investing heavily in image projection and forging global links, prioritising soft power is as important as ever.


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Tanya Newton 11 Articles
After studying English Language and Literature at King’s College London, Tanya moved to Japan where she teaches English. She loves to read and write, and loves tea almost as much. She is strongly interested in cultures and social structures.

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