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Foreign Policy (Soft Power)

Volume 539: debated on Wednesday 1 February 2012

May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Bone? I declare an interest as secretary of the all-party group on the British Council and as a governor of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy.

The purpose of calling this debate is to focus on the role of soft power in British foreign policy and how it is to be used in defining country strategies. Over the past decade, Governments have become increasingly aware of the importance of soft power. I define that as the power to attract and co-opt alongside the hard power of traditional military and economic means of achieving foreign policy objectives. There is a growing acceptance that soft power is an important component of foreign policy and should be seen as a complement to rather than a substitute for hard power.

I want to talk about how there can be better integration between the different elements of hard and soft power. My impression is that, although different institutions work effectively on their own, they could deliver a lot more if they actively collaborated on a systematic basis in all countries where they operate.

I want to share some examples of Britain’s soft power assets, and then examine the need for the development of a co-ordinated vision for our foreign policy by addressing some of the practical realities and questions that surround putting that into practice. It is important to recognise at the outset that, compared with many countries, Britain has an immensely rich set of soft power institutions, resources and tools. In 2010, we were ranked joint first in the Institution for Government soft power index. In 2011, we were placed second, behind the USA. Soft power institutions, such as the British Council, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, Voluntary Service Overseas, the Commonwealth Foundation and the BBC World Service perform a valuable role in developing trusting relationships with overseas countries.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. On soft policy and achieving our foreign policy objectives, does he agree that a fundamental part of winning over people’s hearts and minds, as we have seen in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and Libya, has been the work of the BBC World Service in communicating that we have a lot more that unites us than divides us?

Absolutely. I will come on to speak about the World Service in a moment. All those assets deploy so much of what is great about this country: the English language, arts, education, and the values of civil society and democracy.

I pay tribute to the work—since, I think, 1934—of the British Council. It now works on the ground in more than 100 countries, particularly in strategic areas such as the middle east, north Africa and in emerging economies. It may be helpful to know that last year it provided more than 1.3 million hours of English language teaching, supporting 5 million English teachers across the world. It now uses digital broadcasting to reach 100 million students. In addition, it provides exams and qualifications, and links UK primary and secondary schools, universities and arts bodies with overseas institutions in long-term beneficial partnerships. Despite taking a 26% budget cut in this comprehensive spending review period, it has a clear resolve to continue its core work by continuing to win competitive education and development contracts.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, the BBC World Service also makes a massive and effective contribution to the development of the UK’s relationships abroad. It reaches 166 million people every week—through radio, television and the internet—in 27 languages, as well as English. Unlike the state-sponsored media of many of the countries in which it operates, its editorial independence ensures impartiality and objectivity. It is that professionalism and impartiality that generate trust and credibility overseas. The audience of BBC Arabic TV increased by more than 80% in recent months, including an increase in the online audience of 300% during the height of the Egyptian protests—clearly, it is a very powerful tool. Recent changes in funding streams and organisation will allow the World Service to work more closely with the domestic BBC, benefiting both the UK and other countries.

The Westminster Foundation for Democracy engages with political parties across the world. That work involves—I have done some of it—training party officials to develop their capacity to create policy, to campaign and to fulfil effectively their function as Government or Opposition parties in emerging democracies. That work builds up democratic institutions and understanding. It also generates long-term trusting relationships between those countries and the UK, and the individuals in those Governments and the UK. All these institutions leave a legacy and impact on the individuals who encounter them and inevitably lead many to develop a natural empathy, respect and affinity for our country.

As I suggested at the outset, given all that these institutions do, there is a need better to co-ordinate their work into an holistic vision for our foreign policy. We have to recognise—this is my experience of being a member of the Defence Committee and working for WFD—that different Departments and institutions naturally have varying perspectives on foreign policy and the status of our relationships with countries across the world. That includes the Department for International Development, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence, as well as soft power institutions such as the British Council and the BBC World Service. For example, the primary objective of DFID focuses on poverty and long-term development goals, but that might not always align with the immediate demands of a military intervention to secure a strategic objective for British foreign policy.

My hon. Friend talks about the work of DFID, one aspect of which is education and its link to our foreign policy. We gave Pakistan £650 million for education to provide people with opportunity, aspiration and a life away from sectarian violence. That has implications for our own security—the training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan were linked to the terrorist attacks in London in 2005. DFID’s work on soft power foreign policy—giving people hope, opportunity and aspiration through education—provides a diversion from sectarian, ethnic terrorist tendencies.

I am not in any way seeking to criticise any individual player; my core argument this afternoon is about the co-ordination between those contrasting perspectives. When I went to Islamabad last autumn, DFID’s massive contribution was very clear.

Any one of these perspectives—development, diplomacy, military or culture—need not displace the others. Rather than picking one, or one being the lead, the challenge is skilfully to harmonise and develop a single, shared vision for our foreign policy. My experience in Afghanistan—in the DFID compound and then talking to people from the FCO and various military leaders—was that they all had a different perspective. What seemed to be lacking sometimes was a desire to integrate fully different views. If one had a clear development goal, it was very easy to find that goal in conflict with a military objective. Rather than seeing those different views as a barrier, the Government need to work systematically to synthesise those complementary perspectives and refine overall policy definition.

There are some excellent examples of where that already works in practice. The stabilisation unit, which is owned jointly by DFID, the FCO and the MOD, brings together expertise from those Departments with police and military personnel. It despatches task forces to conflict-stricken areas—for example, Afghanistan—to develop political processes, reduce conflict and violence, and provide a basis for future development. It remains unclear why the unit should be taken out of Afghanistan at the end of 2014.

The challenge to achieve the systematic co-ordination of different departmental perspectives on a large scale is compelling. We must identify different perspectives where they exist across Government. That will mean undertaking the difficult task of recognising where a departmental mindset is preventing co-ordination and collaboration with another Department’s activities, perhaps between the FCO and DFID. No doubt some Departments and organisations will need to make compromises to agree a comprehensive strategy for the greater good of diplomatic and long-term relations in a region or country.

It is also desirable to aim for a closer working relationship between soft power organisations and the Ministry of Defence. As the ongoing work of the British Council in Libya has shown, soft power institutions can build relationships of trust ahead of and after military intervention in a country. If that approach can be developed in respect of future military interventions, it could ease the work of the armed forces, particularly when working alongside civilians. Working with soft power institutions and making use of diverse expertise could aid the MOD in defining viable exit strategies, rather than just asserting that those will exist. The institutions that I have mentioned have a more nuanced understanding of cultural barriers and attitudes of populations on the ground and can probably more reliably estimate what will be achievable by military means.

We need to recognise that Foreign Office diplomats, wonderful though they are, are not the only actors in British diplomacy. Although diplomats achieve much for British trade and political understanding, arm’s length bodies, such as the WFD, working to build civil society and government infrastructures and developing strong relationships with emerging political parties, do much to develop trust and credibility where Britain’s historic ties are less strong or apparent.

Our diplomacy must allow soft power institutions to play a more significant role in maintaining mutually beneficial, positive relationships throughout the world. As I have emphasised, the key challenge is overcoming ingrained departmental mindsets and historic positions to harness the complementary perspectives and resources of an increasing range of diverse institutions, especially arm’s length soft power organisations.

We must put in place effective leadership, accountability and co-ordinating procedures throughout our institutions to enable what I am arguing for to work properly, and to define a sophisticated foreign policy strategy that serves the interests of the UK optimally across the globe. That will mean determined effort from Ministers and senior civil servants to put vested interests aside, and the instincts of the budget holder being left at the door as each Department recognises that others have something meaningful to contribute. It will also mean having difficult but vital discussions about our vision and objectives with individuals who may have a different starting point at the outset.

It is only through a determined approach of that type that the UK can maintain its unique standing in the world and make best use of these enormously powerful resources and assets that our great country possesses.

Thank you, Mr Bone, for giving me the opportunity to contribute to this short but important debate. I praise my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) for securing it. I agree with his two central arguments: first, we need to ensure that soft power is co-ordinated across the Government and is not just seen in Departments and, secondly, it must be properly integrated with hard power, so that we can bring to bear Britain’s collected and varied assets in an effective, focused way on the problems that we seek to address. Let me expand on that, because although that gets to the nub of it, I have the opportunity to speak at greater length.

The starting point for the Government is that there is a great role for soft power—probably a greater role than in the past—in today’s international landscape. By soft power, we mean a state’s ability to achieve preferred outcomes, not by coercion but by persuasion or attraction, building up networks, engaging with people at all levels to increase trust and respect and being prepared to listen and to show respect in turn.

Soft power is especially important as political and economic power spreads south and west. The countries that have traditionally exercised political leadership in the world over several hundred years are no longer able to ally their political roles with such a big share of the world’s economy. Britain—others are in the same position as us—needs to bring to bear a wider range of assets to try to ensure that our position is understood and sympathised with around the world. We have many advantages in our favour, which I will come to.

I apologise for being late entering this debate.

On the growth of power in the east, does the Minister agree that, although we have an extraordinary historical connection with countries such as India and China, it is clear that we can no longer trade on that historical relationship? As we begin to think about soft power, we cannot think that we necessarily have some cultural competitive advantage any more.

I basically agree. A slightly more complicated answer would be that our historical and cultural connections, which are extensive around the world, can sometimes put us in an advantageous position compared to our competitors, but they sometimes put us in a disadvantaged position.

We should not assume that, just because Britain has a comprehensive range of historical ties with other countries, we are necessarily the preferred partner of choice of the Governments, or the people and companies, in those countries. We should not think that we are able to rest on our historical laurels. We need to ensure that our soft power advantages are continuously updated and are relevant to the interests of the countries with which we engage. Let me run through a few of them, so that hon. Members better understand my point.

It is reckoned by independent observers that four of the top 10 universities in the world are in the United Kingdom. I think that the other six are in the United States. Another way to make that point would be to say that we are the only country apart from the US with universities in the top 10 in the world. At any point, some 400,000 foreign students are studying in this country. That is a huge soft power asset. If people go to Malaysia, for example, as I do, it is striking how many of the political and business elite have studied in British universities and have a depth of understanding of Britain that is greater than would otherwise be so.

We have the second largest number of Nobel laureates—second again to the US. Our museums and art galleries and other cultural assets are envied and admired throughout the world. In respect of more popular culture, it is striking how popular the premier league football fixtures are around the world. They are watched by, I am told, 4.7 billion people in a season. I suppose that a lot of those people will be counted on a repeat basis. Nevertheless, that is an extraordinary amount of total dedication to watching events happening in the UK on television. UK premier league football is watched in more than 200 countries.

In political terms, we are unique—the right use of that word—in being the only country that is a United Nations Security Council permanent member and a member of the European Union and the Commonwealth. We have ties right around the world that are not replicated even by countries that are as significant as the United States of America and China.

My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury mentioned the BBC World Service and the British Council, and I strongly endorse his support for those institutions. The foremost daily newspaper in shaping global opinion is the Financial Times—a British newspaper—and the weekly periodical that is most influential in shaping opinion around the world is The Economist, which is a British magazine. A persuasive case can be made for the BBC being the broadcaster that is most influential in shaping political opinion around the world.

All those different areas of thought leadership are amazing achievements, which we often take for granted. Not even the United States or, for that matter, Germany, France, China or Russia is leading the debate globally in that respect. Despite having less than 1% of the world’s population, not the British Government but media institutions in Britain are at the forefront of shaping opinions around the world.

I take the opportunity to pay tribute to the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which my hon. Friend mentioned. It is valued by Members throughout the House for its role in promoting elections, civic engagement and the development of political parties around the world.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]

On resuming—

Thank you, Sir Roger, for giving me the opportunity to resume my contribution to the debate. Before we broke for the Division, I was talking about Britain’s soft power advantages and gave a number of examples. I was talking about the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and the significant role that it plays in promoting values that are endorsed with enthusiasm by parties right across the House.

I want to talk about co-ordination across the Government—something that my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury mentioned in his introductory speech. Departments and publicly funded bodies are facing the challenge of how we can make the most effective use of the money that we have. There is a role for us to identify ways in which we can work even more closely together. We have already undertaken an exercise on how that might work in practice, and we will publish the results later in the year.

We have to tread warily, however. Many of the United Kingdom’s most effective soft power resources are independent of Government control. It is that very independence that makes them valuable—a point that was acknowledged by my hon. Friend in his speech. People who might not wish to talk directly to the British Government will engage with them, so we should not do anything that is perceived as compromising that independence. That does not mean that we should not look for opportunities to work together with our partners as much as possible. I shall give two examples.

First, I was recently in Brazil, where our UK-Brazil season later this year will bring together the Foreign Office, UK Trade & Investment and the British Council, working in tandem with other Departments, commercial organisations and cultural institutions, to promote the UK and to build new dynamic partnerships. Secondly, the Great campaign, launched by the Prime Minister in September, involves the Foreign Office, the British Council, UKTI and VisitBritain. That single campaign brings together all our overseas activity to promote Great Britain under a common banner, to get people from around the world to visit the UK and to do business here. It is expected to deliver 4.6 million extra visitors to the UK, generate tourist spending of £2.3 billion and create almost 60,000 new job opportunities.

The Foreign Office’s work on the Olympics and Paralympics has brought in a wide range of partners, both inside and outside the Government, working together to use the 2012 spotlight to build the reputation and influence of the UK right around the world. They will attract almost 15,000 athletes and will be held before almost 11 million ticket holders and an estimated global audience of 4 billion people. It is a great opportunity for us; they are distinctive events. Together with the royal jubilee this summer, that focus on Britain will be envied by every country around the world—even, I would venture, the United States. The events are important in their own right; they are not public relations events. Nevertheless, we need to be alert to their positive implications for how Britain is perceived globally.

We have been considering how to bring the elements of soft and hard power in a cohesive way into what is sometimes referred to in the jargon as smart power. Military power does not provide the only, or even the best, answer to many of the world’s challenges. Economic and social solutions to intractable problems are at least as important. The building stability overseas strategy, which was launched in July, was the first integrated cross-Government strategy to address conflict issues. Earlier in the debate, we discussed how some of that work had been carried out, and Pakistan was cited as an example of where different Departments and agencies are working together to achieve their departmental objectives, as well as the overall objectives of the United Kingdom Government.

Promoting stability in fragile countries reduces the threat of national and regional conflict. Instability and conflict provide fertile grounds for terrorist and criminal activity, thus preventing economic development and promoting migration. As part of that strategy, we have been working not only with the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development, but with key international stakeholders including non-governmental organisations and international partners, to improve our ability to anticipate potential conflicts and take fast and effective action to prevent a crisis and to help build robust societies.

Soft power is not an end in itself, but a capability to be used in pursuit of a wide range of foreign policy objectives. To make the most effective use of soft power, we must recognise not only the strengths and weaknesses of our partners, but how we are perceived by our target audiences. We must be prepared to engage carefully and respectfully with those whom we wish to influence, and we must use all the channels available to us. Soft power must also be fully integrated into policy making and delivery.

I believe that soft power will become more important in the years ahead. In terms of expenditure, Britain has the fourth largest military in the world, and we are the world’s sixth or seventh biggest economy, depending on how that is measured. As I have said, we possess key advantages such as our permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council, and we are leading members of both the European Union and the Commonwealth. Those formal expressions of power remain important in promoting our national interests and foreign policy objectives, although the ways in which countries exercise influence in the world are often becoming more subtle and varied than the exertion of formal power by a Government.

The United Kingdom has many attributes that are admired, such as our education sector, culture, sport and civic society, and that is a huge asset for the country around the world. Where appropriate, the Government are determined to make the most of such attributes, although many of those things are not necessarily led or directed by the UK Government, but are attributes of British society as a whole.

It has been a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and again I congratulate my hon. Friend on giving the House the opportunity to discuss this important issue.