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Published on August 19th, 2013 | by Robin White
Image © Chatham House 2013


A New Place In The World: Britain and Soft Power

No longer can it be said that the British are the policemen of the world. The classic Punch cartoons depicting the English bobby grappling with some foreign injustice have now been consigned into the history books to be studied by GCSE and A-Level history students. However, it is not time for Britain to gracefully retire into the background of international politics. According to the third annual soft power report, as released by Monocle, Britain has now overtaken the United States as the country with the greatest level of soft power. This position of supremacy is one that Britain has to take very seriously and responds to with a clear sense of responsibility to the world.

Soft power was a term coined by Joseph Nye in his 1990 book Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power and then expanded on in his 2004 book Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. The fundamental idea behind soft power is that nations can use persuasion to co-opt other nations, influencing their policy and behaviour to help direct their actions at both a domestic and international level.  This is in contrast to the ideas behind hard power wherein nations use coercion, such as military or financial pressure to influence. Hard power, although still important in some capacities, is quickly being caught up in terms of international importance by soft power.

Part of the reason behind the rise in Britain’s soft power is the increased popularity of the ‘new monarchy’ since the international spectacle of the Royal Wedding, and now compounded by the birth of Prince George. Whilst seemingly unrelated to the world of international politics in the 21st century the Royal Family actually have a very important role to play. Their presence as representatives of Britain can help to demonstrate the tradition, history, and heritage that the nation possess, something which is an important element of soft power. Joseph Nye himself wrote recently in the Financial Times that “the infant Prince George is a source of real-world power.” This tangible power of the monarchy is not simply restricted to Britain and the Commonwealth either, one only has to look at the worldwide level of interest in the Royal Wedding and the number of nationalities represented outside the doors of the hospital to see just how important the birth of Prince George has been.

It needs only a quick look at the role that Prince Andrew has played as a trade representative for the United Kingdom to see that monarchy still has a role to play in the modern world. Alongside architectural heritage, charitable foundations, the success of the Olympic games and a plethora of others the monarchy are helping to increase Britain’s international standing, prestige and power without resorting to the coercion or force that was emblematic of the past.  The Chairman of the House of Lords select committee on soft power and the UK’s influence has been reported as stating “[soft power] is a way to promote Britain’s reputation, protect its interests and ensure security in a world when the military methods of the last century or two don’t always work.” Britain must continue to influence and drive other nations of the world to ensure a freer, fairer, and more democratic future for all.

What can we use soft power for though in the current environment? The current uses could in fact be many and varied. For example the delicate situation in the Middle East cannot be solved through military force, Syria has shown that military forces breed nothing but further problems. The Chairman of the committee is clearly correct in stating that the military solutions of the past are becoming less and less successful in the modern environment. Domestic and international disputes in the future are ever more likely to be solved around a conference table and Britain will be able to use its soft power not only to bring parties to such a table but to help mediate disputes. Britain can also use its influence in areas of the world such as Africa where the situation for people there is far from a 21st century standard. Britain still has a role to play and in the grand scheme of things it is perhaps possible that the soft power devices and nations will have a greater and more far-reaching role to play than those that still practice military interventionism.

It is an easy fact to see that military interventionism has rarely been a success over the last 100 years. American involvement in Korea and Vietnam can be argued as creating more problems than they have ever solved. The involvement of the USSR and then later the CIA in Afghanistan failed to create solutions and almost certainly contributed to the need of the US and Britain to return to Afghanistan as part of the War on Terror. It is clear that the hard power of the military needs assistance, assistance that can come in the form of soft power.

Soft power used properly will be an inevitable force for good. Promoting and directing the spread of democracy and freedom to all corners of the world, it can be used to foster collaboration between nations sharing a goal of improvement for all. We can aim for global educational improvements, reductions in infant mortality, fighting against repression, disease and inequality whilst fighting for religious freedoms and tolerance. These can be the goals and expectations of soft power, and Britain has a duty and responsibility to try and achieve them. Above all else though, Britain has the opportunity to try and achieve these things, an opportunity, which cannot be squandered. The presence of a House of Lords Select Committee relating to this is a major positive and I hope that the recommendations coming from them will reflect the importance of position that Britain has. With the next election race drawing closer and closer I think that parties should be focusing on how they will use this power on the global stage for the benefit of both Britain and the rest of the world.   I’d like to close with a classic quote that I think is quite apt in describing the crux behind the idea of soft power: “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

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About the Author

Robin White

Robin is a second year undergraduate at the University of York studying History. He's interested in a variety of things from travel and sport, to politics and I'm hoping to work in either PR or political analysis and policy after graduating. He likes to blog about current events, politics, and travel primarily although he has been known to diverge into other things when his interest is piqued... which actually happens fairly regularly.

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