Saturday, 23 November 2013

Soft Power: what is it good for?

More than war, it seems. Hard power is increasingly obsolete and soft power is the future of global governance. That’s my conclusion after being asked to submit evidence to a House of Lords Inquiry into the UK’s use of soft power, which has just issued its' report. I did so on behalf of my former employer International Alert.

The UK is an interesting case study. It achieved great power status which it still excercises, for example on the Security Council, through the use of overwhelming military force. It remains a great power but increasingly it projects that influence through soft rather than hard means, and I think achieves much more as a result. Not only are there pressing realist reasons for doing so – despite Britain’s roaring over the Falklands it is unlikely that Albion could again defend them against a sustained assault without a single aircraft carrier – but the world has changed fundamentally, to the point where military power is increasingly obsolete; which in turn means long-accepted ideas about international relations are also increasingly in need of a rethink.

Diminishing returns of military force 
Big claims, with big implications for the future. But in this I explored the limits and opportunities of achieving fundamental changes to our world by projecting norms as opposed to boots on the ground, and looking at the evidence concluded that actually there was already an impressive record of achievement but also a record of short termism that threatened undermining it, and that greater co-ordination could achieve much more.

As the European Union wrestles with its soul over whether it continues as a civilian power (as Germany would like) or increasingly a military one (as envisaged by the French), the United States comes to terms with a decline similar to twentieth century Britain and as the resurgent economic powers in South and East Asia also determine their future use of power, the extent to which each perceive soft power as a viable means to pursue their interests will be vital in deciding whether the world is more or less peaceful.

Here is what I found:

1. This submission concentrates exclusively on the most effective ways in which the UK could or should exercise soft power in pursuit of that policy agenda. There is no single accepted definition of but these offerings by Joseph Nye and Robert Keohane (2004) would command general agreement. For them, soft power is the ability:
  • “to get desired outcomes because others want what you want”;
  • “to achieve goals through attraction rather than coercion”;
  • “convincing others to follow or getting them to agree to norms or instituitions that produce the desired behaviour.”
It tends to rest on 
  • “the appeal of one’s ideas or culture or the ability to set the agenda through standards and institutions that shape the preferences of others”;
  • “the persuasiveness of the free information that an actor seeks to transmit.”
For Nye and Keohane, scholars in the realist tradition of international relations, the fundamental argument for soft power is that it works and therefore obviates the need to resort to costly military and economic instruments to achieve policy goals.

2. This submission looks at three instruments of soft power available to the UK which draw on the legitimacy of power, free information and international institutions. They are: intergovernmental leadership, a free and independent media and credibility by example. It applies them to the Government’s policy priorities for conflict affected and fragile states and suggests a recommendation for the Committee at the end of each.

3. BSOS accepts that the poorest and most vulnerable people in the World are those living in conflict affected and fragile states (CAFS). These states have made least progress since the Millennium Declaration of 2000 and are widely predicted to continue on this path should there be no significant change in the global approach to international development (Kaplan, 2012). This is not only a failure of development with dire human consequences for those concerned but also represents a clear security concern to the UK and other countries across the world, of which the attack on the Nairobi Westgate Centre was the most recent example.

4. The World Development Report of 2011 (WDR2011) found that some 1.5 billion people live in countries affected by repeated cycles of political and criminal violence – causing human misery and disrupting development to the extent that almost no MDGs have been met in any fragile state. It argues that to break these cycles, it is crucial to strengthen legitimate national institutions and governance in order to provide citizen security, justice and jobs – as well as alleviating the international stresses that increase the risks of violent conflict.

5. To address this, the UK needs to contribute to normative change at global and local level. Specifically, it needs to address the social and political factors that drive violent conflict, perpetuate widespread abuses and prevent the poorest countries from achieving sustainable growth. These are underpinned by a range of social and normative barriers preventing citizens from engaging and participating meaningfully with the governance of their countries.

6. By definition, addressing these issues requires the exercise of soft, rather than hard, power.

7. As the Committee recognises in its framing questions to this Inquiry, the UK cannot project norms independently, or exclusively with its traditional allies, without being vulnerable to charges of neo-colonialism from governments and others whose current policies and practices are challenged. It must thus work in partnership, in many cases new partnerships, with actors from a range of governments, civil society coalitions and multilateral institutions

Instruments of soft power

8. The UK can draw on at least three sources of influence in pursuit of the need for change outlined above. They are inter-governmental leadership; culture and media; and long term demonstrative leadership.

Inter-governmental leadership

9. The UK has demonstrably engaged in inter-governmental leadership to significant effect in the past. Examples include the Gleneagles Summit of 2005 in which UK leadership resulted in substantial agreements on climate change (associating leaders from Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa) and reducing poverty in Africa (with seven African presidents taking part). Without sustained British perseverance and exercise of soft power these outcomes would have been highly unlikely (Bayne, 2005).

10. The current Foreign Secretary is himself currently pursuing an amendment to the Geneva Convention with the addition of a protocol explicitly classifying sexual violence as a “grave violation” of the convention, with 134 UN states currently confirmed to be attending a conference to adopt a declaration to this end[1]. That is two thirds of all UN States and as such illustrates the significance and capacity of UK intergovernmental leadership.

11. More quietly, in the G8 context, the UK has joined with Germany in leading a shift of emphasis into recognising the linkages between the pressures of climate change, security risk and poverty and beginning to develop the first elements of an internationally coordinated response to these dangerous connections (Harris 2012).

12. There are other inter-governmental partnerships in which the UK is a leading player, such as the Open Government Partnership (OGP), which consists of 60 States and which met recently in London. The OGP agenda outlined by the Prime Minister, if enacted fully on the ground, would radically transform the barriers detailed above. They are[2]:
  • Open Data: Radically opening up government data for greater accountability, public service improvement and economic growth;
  • Government Integrity: fighting corruption and strengthening democracy through transparent government;
  • Fiscal Transparency: helping citizens to follow the money;
  • Empowering Citizens: transforming the relationship between citizens and governments, and;
  • Natural Resource Transparency: ensuring natural resources and extractive revenues are used for public benefit
13. HMG should continue on this path by scaling up its investment in exercising soft power in support of redefining international normative and legal frameworks in support of building stability overseas.

Culture and media

14. The UK is a consolidated and well established democracy which enjoys widespread respect for its democratic institutions. It also benefits from the English language and mass appeal of the British media, particularly the BBC World Service in the context of developing nations. The BBC World Service and BBC more generally, is therefore a key basis of soft power.

15. Critically, however, this effect does not arise because the Service is a mouthpiece for British policy; in fact, it arises precisely because it is not. It is a critical and independent source of credible information accessed by populations who do not have alternative sources of independent information. It is thus an asymmetrical source of soft power. Returning to Nye & Keohane, on the importance of free information in building credibility through free information as a basis for soft power:

“…credibility is the crucial resource, and asymmetrical credibility is a key source of power. Establishing credibility means developing a reputation for providing correct information, even when it may reflect badly on the information provider’s own country. The BBC, for example, has earned a reputation for credibility, while state-controlled radio stations in Baghdad, Beijing and Havana have not.” (Nye, Keohane, 2004)
16. British soft power, paradoxically, is therefore gained by a unique source of news from a British perspective that is frequently critical of the UK.

17. It is thus disturbing that the Government has significantly cut the BBC World Service since 2010, already resulting in a loss of audience of around 14 million and the cancellation of five language services. There have been four funding cuts in four years, with each presented as a “one off” cut by Government, with the latest involving a reduction of £2.22 million in 2013[3].

18. Applying Nye & Keohane’s analysis of the centrality of free and credible information to generating soft power, therefore, International Alert believes these cuts to be misguided and recommends that the Committee challenges the Government to justify its recent and future strategy towards the BBC World Service.

Credibility by example

19. The UK has gained significant credibility by being among the first to reach internationally defined targets for international development, such as the commitment to spend 0.7% GDP on Overseas Development Assistance (ODA). It has hosted initiatives such as the Open Government Partnership. It is supporting new and equitable partnerships with governments in conflict affected situations, such as the New Deal for Engagement with Fragile States (New Deal), and is one of the leading financial and practical supporters of the UN Peacebuilding Fund. As a result the UK is able to utilise its soft power in pursuit of the foreign policy agenda represented by BSOS. One consequence of this and a way of judging its success can be seen in the choice of UK Prime Minister to co-chair the recent High Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post 2015 Development Agenda, alongside the leaders of Indonesia and Liberia.

20. The UK has also demonstrably led the world in the provision of Open Government Data (OGD), increasing transparency and by so doing enabling active citizens and civil society to hold decision makers to account. OGD aims, by the provision of usable data, to achieve impact on government efficiency, transparency, accountability, environmental sustainability, inclusion of marginalised groups, economic growth and supporting entrepreneurs. This is a practical agenda which builds on the insight of WDR11. The UK came top of 77 nations currently committed to pursuing OGD programmes in the latest Open Data Barometer index[4].

21. This arguably results in the UK gaining more influence through soft power means than any deployment or the threat of deployment of hard power. Soft power is entirely separate and not dependent on hard power, as some political scientists have claimed. Nye & Keohane make the same observation in relation to other states who have engaged in similar leadership and thus gained credibility and soft power which bears little relation to their capacity to project hard power:
“Canada, Sweden and the Netherlands have more influence than some other states with equivalent economic or military capabilities.” (Nye, Keohane, 2004)
22. The Government should utilise the political capital it has generated to challenge other governments to follow suit. For example while the US comes second after the UK in the Open Data Barometer overall, it scores poorly in the provision of company and land registration. Encouraging governments of wealthy countries towards greater transparency could be an important step towards reducing global tax evasion, another important HMG priority. To the same end, the Government should also prioritise supporting local civil society in being able to effectively use such data to hold those in power to account.


23. The UK Government is well placed to exercise significant soft power, relative to its peers. It has already demonstrated this, notably on changing norms and practices on good governance, sexual violence and open data. It benefits both from its active leadership on such agendas, in addition to the wider influence of the BBC World Service and historic links across the globe.

24. It has not yet, however, realised the full potential of this power and does not appear to take a systematic approach to doing so, as can be seen by short termism in cutting the reach of the BBC World Service.

25. The Government must therefore marshal its influence through the use of its intergovernmental leadership, the BBC World Service and credibility by example, and in so doing realise the combined potential of the soft power the government enjoys but whose value it is not yet fully utilising.


  • BAYNE, N - Overcoming Evil with Good: Impressions of the Gleneagles Summit, G8 Information Centre, University of Toronto, 18 July 2005 (accessed at
  • CLARK, H – (Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme: UNDP) Speech delivered to the UNDP Regional Bureau for Africa Conference, Dakar, Senegal, 23 July 2012.: 
“… more politically aware populations have also led to improvements in the accountability and responsiveness of a number of African governments. That, in turn, helps make government policies more effective and inclusive”
  • CLARK, J – Getting There: Women in Political Office Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science Vol. 515, American Feminism: New Issues for a Mature Movement (May, 1991), pp. 63-76
  • GOETZ, AM; HASSIM, S - No Shortcuts to Power: African Women in Politics and Policy Making, Zed Books, 2003 
  • KAPLAN, S - Inequality, Fragile States, and the New MDGs, Fragile States Resource Centre, April 16 2012
  • HARRIS, K - Climate change in UK security policy -implications for development assistance? Working Paper 342, Overseas Development Institute, 2012 
  • NYE, J; KEOHANE,R – The Nature of Power, Foreign Affairs. Vol. 77, No. 5 (Sep. - Oct., 1998), pp. 81-94
  • WORLD BANK – World Development Report 2011 
  • WORLD BANK – Global Monitoring Report 2013
[1] Speech by Foreign Secretary William Hague at the War Child 20th Anniversary Policy Forum in London on 23 October 2013 (accessed at
[2] Speech by the Prime Minister David Cameron at the OGP London Summit, 31 October 2013


  1. Thanks Chris for this informative briefing. I enjoyed reading soft power and what is it good for mentioned various views. A great demonstration of meaningful points!! Keep it up.

  2. Good stuff. Says a lot and calls a turnip a turnip. Well done my old cocker.