Material on British Public Diplomacy 1997-2001

If you’re working on British public diplomacy under the Labour government from 1997-2001 you come across references to Panel 2000, the Britain Abroad Task Force and the British Council’s Through Other Eyes research project. What’s irritating is that most of the material on this period was on the web and has now disappeared as organizational websites have been updated.

I had noticed that there were some pages from the BABT web site available in the Wayback Machine but I hadn’t spotted that it’s the complete site with working links. This includes the list of priority countries for the taskforce, plus summaries of activities in each of them. Because the FCO and British Council sites have also been archived in the same place you can also find the September 1998 ’21 recommendations’ report from Panel 2000 and both (1999 and 2000) of the British Council Through Other Eyes reports on perceptions of the UK with all their tables as well as country by country summary reports.  These aren’t full polls and they focus on educated groups but they ask about perceptions of other countries as well as the UK – it’s interesting to see how positive views of the US were even in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.



UK Soft Power: The Government Responds (Sort of)

If you work in a large public organization there comes a time when your department is up for review. You probably have to write a self-assessment document and/or respond to a report. There’s a routine that generally happens. You parcel out different bits of the task to appropriate colleagues and then try and assemble what they send you into something coherent. There’s always a question you don’t want to answer or you realize there’s something that you should have been doing but haven’t. What do you do? Easy; just pretend the question is something different and or talk about what you do and hope that whoever reads the report doesn’t notice.

I’m reminded of this because I’ve just been reading the government’s response to the House of Lords Report on UK Soft Power and it’s pretty obvious that this is how it has been constructed.

My six line summary of the HoL report was:

Britain is in a world increasingly characterised by hyperconnectivity and ‘the rise of the rest’ and this makes soft and smart power more important. The UK has lots of soft power assets but the government tends to neglect them and shows no ability to coordinate anything. We need stronger mechanisms for defining a national strategic narrative and pointing the great many players in the right direction.

And there’s nothing in the response that would cause me to think that the original report or my summary is wrong. The Lords Committee saw the discussion of soft power as a way of pulling together disparate elements of national life and while the response is happy to address individual projects and initiatives it wants to steer clear of big questions. This is pretty clear in the first few pages of the response (6-11)

The Lords wanted the government to talk about soft power domestically to alert people to the international implications of what they do. The response offers indirection. The Lords place emphasis on the UK having an identity distinct from the US or the EU. The response either doesn’t get the question or is deliberately ignoring it and starts talking about ‘messaging’. The Lords wanted a coordination mechanism the response starts talking about the role of the National Security Council which is rapidly running out of credibility. The Lords suggested the development of a national strategic narrative; the response points to the Government’s Communication Plan which is something else entirely.

Once the response gets past the big stuff they are able to just throw in everything that they do: Conflict Pool, Emerging Powers Initiative, Building Stability Overseas Strategy without ever addressing whether this adds up to anything coherent. There’s a tendency to identify ‘soft power’ with communications. DFID’s contribution to soft power is that they publicise what they do; that’s not really the issue that the House of Lords were raising.

When you cobble together a response from the bits that colleagues send you it’s easy to make editing mistakes. On page 33 we are pointed to the ‘FCO’s “Projecting Britain Overseas” project (see 1c above)’ but when you arrive at section 1c there’s no reference to this. Projecting Britain overseas? Apparently the age of one way communication isn’t dead.

“Multiple Benefits for All”: The EU Does Cultural Relations

Last week a group of European ‘cultural operators’ put out, on behalf of the EU a report entitled Culture in EU External Relations: Engaging the World – Towards Global Cultural Citizenship, this is intended as a step towards the developing a role for culture in the EU’s external relations.   Not surprisingly these organizations, (which can expect to benefit from more funding for culture) are thoroughly in favour:

Multiple benefits for all will be the principal outcomes of such a new strategy.

These outcomes will include stronger links of mutual empowerment and trust between Europeans and their interlocutors in third countries. They will open up significantly greater markets for Europe’s creative economy or enhance and improve political relations with other regions. They will contribute to the nurturing of artistic excellence everywhere. They will therefore offer ‘win win’ benefits across the board.


Aren’t there any downsides? Given that there’s no attempt to map out the necessary scope of such a strategy beyond mentioning some possible pilot projects there are no costs so it’s all win win.

There are some very interesting parts of this document not least the summaries of the research that was done on the 18 countries that are part of the European Neighbourhood and the 10 that have Strategic Partnerships with the EU.  Particularly in Asia some of the Partners really don’t seem that interested in Europe at all.  Closer to home some the reactions seem to be ‘if you put up the money of course we’ll collaborate with you’

I’ve blogged before about the rise of cultural policy and the way that this has affected the discussion of culture in external relations. The classical view of the relationship is expressed in this tweet from the French Foreign Ministry:



We do cultural things and it makes our country look good and spreads our influence around.   Yet there’s a second way of thinking about culture which has been important in Europe which is ‘cultural cooperation’ there’s a genealogy here that leads from early 20th century advocates of European federation, through the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations and the Western European Union and the Council of Europe. Here cultural cooperation an objective in its own right, in part at least, because it was seen as way towards a common European identity. The Council of Europe was one of the vectors for spreading the idea of cultural policy via the mechanisms of cultural cooperation (Parry 2000).   Thus the report here veers between an instrumental language and one that simply takes it for granted that culture is its own justification. Indeed at points I get the impression that there’s an instrumentalization of the instrumental language – that is they talk about political or economic effects because they think it will make the report more persuasive.

There’s some appreciation of the difficulties that the EU will have in running a cultural policy as part of its external action but given the difficulties that the organization is already having funding and coordinating public diplomacy and getting buy in from different Directorates General (see Duke 2013) it’s really difficult to see coordination happening.

It’s also noticeable that compared to a British Council concept of cultural relations or German Auswärtige Kulturpolitik culture in the report is understood quite narrowly education, science, development are mostly excluded and the focus is on arts and arts management with some reference to cultural and creative industries but the EU definition includes advertising which seems quite far from the core concerns of this document.

Duke S (2013) The European External Action Service and Public Diplomacy, in Davis Cross MK and Melissen J (eds) European Public Diplomacy: Soft Power at Work, New York: Palgrave, pp. 113–136.

Parry J (2000) Companies of Clouds: The Development of Multilateral Cultural Cooperation in Western European International Organizations, PhD, University of Warwick.