Soft Power and the International System: Lessons from the UK

With the end of the Cold War and the transition from a Westphalian systemic polarity to a Fukuyaman or ‘moderate’ international system, soft power has gained greater prominence in international relations circles.[1]  As Joseph Nye notes, whilst Machiavelli famously advised princes in Italy that it was more important to be feared than loved, in today’s world it is best to be both.[2]  With the Commonwealth, large entertainment industries and institutions such as the monarchy and parliament, the UK is often held up as a prime example of a state able to exert a great deal of global soft power.  Indeed, in 2012 the UK was ranked 1st in the IfG-Monocle Soft Power Index, after a year in which it hosted the Olympics, celebrated the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, and welcomed some 29 million tourists (just under half the UK’s overall population).[3]  The growth of soft power as currency in the international system provides a number of insights into the changing nature of the international political system in an age of globalisation.

Image courtesy of Abuk SABUK, © 2012, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Abuk SABUK, © 2012, some rights reserved.

Traditionalist accounts of the international system are power-centric.  In an international system predicated on self-help, it is only the actions of the states themselves which maintain security and stability. Much of Nye’s work has been an examination of the ways in which power and relations in the international political system have been transformed through the processes of globalisation and increasing mutual interdependence.  The wholesale diffusion of power amongst multiple actors that this hyperconnectivity engenders makes the case for a re-conceptualisation of the notion of power itself.  In an increasingly interconnected world, dominated by transnational flows of trade and the accompanying rise in prominence of a multiplicity of sub-state actors, soft power is now central to many discussions of inter-state relations.  Key to Nye’s premise is that ‘to be loved’ is the same as ‘to be feared’, and soft power is simply another manifestation of a state’s resources and its ability to help itself.

The term ‘soft power’ was coined by Nye in the 1990s, to describe the ability of states to achieve aims and goals in the international political system without the use of ‘hard’ military force.  This is a form of ‘co-optive’ power, a way for a state to achieve its aims with the agreement of other states as well as a way of getting them to do what it wants.  This takes on two dimensions: the formation of cooperative networks and links so that other states recognise it as legitimate and assent to its power and influence, and the structuring of international situations such that other states’ interests are aligned with its own.  The current international monetary system and the ‘Washington Consensus’ are a case in point, reflecting the economic liberal ideology of the US and other western powers and creating a convergence in policy approach to the global economy amongst different states.

Soft power, and the ability to mould other states into conformity with one state’s wishes, either directly or indirectly, rests upon a number of different sources.  The methodology used by the IfG-Monocle Soft Power Index focuses on the components it sees as central to a nation’s soft-power: Business/Innovation, Culture, Government, Diplomacy and Education.  Whilst the sun did eventually set on the British Empire over half a century ago, using these criteria, the UK is arguably extremely well placed in terms of its ability to exercise global influence without recourse to military action.

In a bid to maximise this influence, the UK government formed the Lord’s Committee on Soft Power and the UK’s Influence earlier this year in May.  Since its formation it has heard evidence from a variety of figures, including academics, heads of international firms and foreign ambassadors from countries such as Germany and Brazil.  Through these different perspectives and comparisons of best practise, the Committee hopes to be able to help formulate a coherent governmental strategy for maximising British soft power and cultural influence.

Arguably, this attempt at spreading cultural influence is nothing new.  Overseas cultural missions such as France’s Alliance Francaise and Germany’s Goethe Insititut have long been used by countries in attempts to spread their values and influence overseas.  A recent report by the British Council, founded in the early 1930s, details its methods of cultural engagement which it sees as key to promoting wider social change in line with British values and interests.[4]  Moreover, until recently the BBC World Service has been funded by the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, a clear indication of its perceived worth as a tool of wider cultural diplomacy.  A recent BBC report provides an extremely interesting insight into the conversion of this sociocultural reach into more tangible gains for the UK.  In a survey of global business leaders, the propensity to do business with the UK was directly correlated with the amount of consumption of BBC services, and over half of those questioned said that they were more likely to do business with the UK due to the positive impressions formed of the UK from these BBC services.  Fascinatingly, almost 50% accessed at least one form of BBC service a day.[5]  With a globalised economy the gains of soft power may therefore be more about the potential of British TV series Downton Abbey to attract investment, as one witness to the Lord’s Committee claimed in early November, than any matters of war or ‘hard’ military issues.

The role of soft power is therefore increasingly central to interactions between states and different actors in the international political system.  Perhaps more interesting, is the question of what this all means for the future of the international political system more generally.  Nye imagines soft power as playing an increasing role in a world predicated on information and its dissemination via information communication technology.  Robert Putnam’s studies of civil society argue for the ways in which social capital created through societal institutions is key to overcoming the intra-societal collective action problems inherent in ‘making democracy work’.[6]   Drawing on this, is soft power a form of global social capital, providing the bonds and cognitive webs of shared values necessary for the emergence of greater global convergence, cooperation and interaction?  Much as the association of ‘distinctive British values’ such as integrity and fairness with the UK cultivated by the BBC globally led to an increase in business, could these shared values be used more widely around different issues areas?  This perhaps points more towards the wider evolution of the international political system towards one constructed around a multiplicity of interpersonal interactions, common values and consensus, rather than the ‘logic of power’.  Indeed, Keohane and Nye’s model of complex interdependence imagines a political system in which states increasingly interact around vertices of mutual dependence with their fears of cooperation allayed by the systemic reciprocity of international regimes.[7]  Could soft power provide the lubrication to this cooperative machine necessary to overcome the inertia against initial inter-state coordination?

Regardless, as Joseph Nye noted when himself giving evidence to the Lord’s Committee, the key to soft power’s use is the ability to use it effectively and carefully.  In the future international political system, the states which are able to successfully use soft power and, where necessary, balance it with hard power, will find themselves at a distinct advantage.

[1] Hoffman, Stanley (1970) International Organization and the International System International Organization, 24:3.

[2] Nye, Joseph (2004) Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics pg. 1

[4] Influence and attraction: Culture and the race for soft power in the 21st century. The British Council.

[6] Putnam, Robert  Making Democracy work: civic traditions in early Italy

[7] Keohane, Robert and Joseph Nye (1977) Power and Interdependence: world politics in transition

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