The Foreign Office and Soft Power

March 3, 2011

When the Coalition government came to power in the UK the Foreign Office got some new objectives including ‘develop a soft power strategy for Afghanistan’  as I commented at the time it might help if they explained what they thought soft power was.  I’ve been reading a document that the FCO submitted to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in December last year (it’s the pages from 74 to 113 according to the page numbers on the document/ 76-115 according to the pdf pagination) and this gives a few clues

Use ‘soft power’ to promote British values, advance development and prevent conflict. Use ‘soft power’ as a tool of UK foreign policy; expand the UK Government’s contribution to conflict prevention; promote British values, including human rights; and contribute to the welfare of developing countries. (p.76)

So the first part of this says that soft power is a tool but the part after the semicolon is ambiguous – are we talking about tools or objectives?

On page 86 the paper refers to ‘defence diplomacy and the projection of defence soft power’  on the following page we learn that ‘the FCO participates in a number of Key MoD [Ministry of Defence] engagement planning committees’.  There’s a summary of what defence diplomacy means in the UK lexicon here.

The other place where Soft Power appears is on page 97 where we get this:

As set out in the FCO Business Plan, we will work with other government departments to agree a joint approach to enhance British “soft power” that uses all our national instruments, including the UK’s world-class programme of aid.
In his appearance in front of the Liaison Committee in November 2010, the Prime Minister said that “we should be clear that the development budget gives Britain clout and influence in the world. Six months into the job, I really feel that. When you sit round the table at the G8 or G20 discussing Haiti, Pakistan or Yemen, often the modern equivalent of a battleship is the C17 loaded with aid and the brilliant Oxfam team that is going to go in and help deliver water or whatever. They are real tools of foreign policy and influence and heft in the world. We should be quite frank about that, and not be embarrassed about it”.

I’m surprised that I missed this at the time because the explicit embrace of aid as a tool of policy is very different from the normal British approach   Under the last government implying that aid was at all instrumental was a definite no no. This line sounds almost…..French?  The other question that comes to mind is who is being influenced here is it the people in Haiti or Pakistan or is it the other members of the G20?

The interesting thing is that idea of soft power isn’t used in discussing some areas that you would expect it to be used for eg education, health, culture.  So what we have here is the view that soft power is a foreign policy instrument particularly in relation to the use of aid and defence diplomacy.  It’s not used, in this document at least, in the way that Nye would use it in relation to attraction.

Incidentally pages 233 onwards of the .pdf include a lot material on staffing practice in the FCO – worth looking at if you’re interested in what capabilities diplomats are supposed to have and which embassies and consulates are regarded as hardship postings.


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