Do You Really Want Another Report on British Soft Power?

March 12, 2014

Via James Pamment’s twitter feed I learn of yet another report on Britain’s Soft Power this time from the British Academy.

Given my antipathy to the concept (check the blog archives to the right)  I won’t bother to summarize it just share the recommendations.  If you want to read it, it’s here.

It recommends (comments in italics by yours truly)

On the basis of the data and analysis provided above, this report makes the following abbreviated recommendations. Governments would be well-advised:

  1. To refrain from direct interference in soft power assets.

 Ummm, so they just give money to fund them?….

2. To invest in and sustain soft power institutions such as the BBC, the British Council, and the education system over the long term, and at arm’s length.

Why?  How much, to do what?  Relative to which countries? I’m sorry if you want to use soft power as a justification for anything we need some kind of a strategy.

  1. To recognise that hard and soft power, like power and influence more generally, reside on a continuum rather than being an either-or choice.

Just junk the hard / soft thing and go back to  thinking about sources of influence.

  1. To understand that the power of example is far more effective than preaching.

Which examples for which publics?  How do you publicise them?

  1. To pay careful attention to the consequences of official foreign policy for Britain’s reputation, identity and domestic society, ensuring that geopolitical and socio-economic goals are not pursued in separate compartments.

The concern of the report seems to be that government damages soft power so don’t do anything that might upset anyone…

  1. To accept that the majority of ways in which civilised countries interact entail using the assets which make up ‘soft power’, whatever political vocabulary we choose.


  1. For their part, citizens and voters need to accept that some hard power assets, in the forms of the armed forces and security services, are necessary as an insurance policy against unforeseeable contingencies, and for use in non-conventional warfare against terrorists or criminals threatening British citizens at home and abroad, although not regardless of cost. Even diplomacy will sometimes need to be coercive (i.e. hard power) in relations with otherwise friendly states in order to insist on the UK’s ‘red lines’, however they may be defined at the time. Because soft power excludes arm-twisting, it will never be enough as a foreign policy resource.

Are there people at the British Academy who think that soft power is all you need?

  1. Lastly, those engaged in the private socio-cultural activities which contribute to soft power need to be aware that they are to some extent regarded as representative of their country’s interests. They need not and should not compromise on such principles as academic or artistic freedom, but it is excessively innocent to imagine that their work takes place in a vacuum, untouched by the manoeuvring of governments and the competing narratives of world politics – especially when they are beholden to the Treasury for funding. Whether they like it or not, the universities, the orchestras, the novelists, the sportsmen and women, the archaeologists – and indeed the British Academy – are all part of the ‘projection of Britain abroad’ (Beloff 1965).*

As James asked in his tweet

JP Tweet


The Beloff reference is fascinating because the report (like almost all discussions of soft power) is completely ahistorical and that reference opens up a whole history.  Beloff’s article was a response to the Plowden Report of 1964 on Representational Services Overseas, primarily concerned with opening the way to the merger of the Foreign Office with the Commonwealth Office it, in passing, advocated a relatively narrow instrumental view of the kind of ‘information work’ that should be undertaken by the ‘official information services’ the BBC and the British Council.  Beloff’s article can be seen as making a kind of proto-branding argument that the general image of a country affected how its political and commercial interests played out.   The title of his article alluded to a 1932 pamphlet by Sir Stephen Tallents, The Projection of England which was an even earlier iteration of the argument.  Projection was a word that cropped fairly frequently in mid-century British official discussions of national publicity and my suspicion is that it’s taken from the French notion of rayonnement, which my dictionary translates as radiation which takes us back to the Sun King himself.

So rather than progressing the British conversation on soft power seems to be regressing.


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