“If liberal ideology were to die, it will not be the result of a murder. It will be the result of a suicide.” So said the Singaporean academic Kishore Mahbubani in an Economist debate earlier in the summer. He is no anti-Westerner though. Mahbubani really does not want the post-WW2 liberal international order upon which the world has operated in the last seventy years to collapse. He does not think that China is in a position to kill liberal ideology, but he has a major caveat; populism, stagnant economies, and a lack of self-criticism are increasingly damaging the West’s power, and if they are not brought under control, the West will commit suicide. China will not need to fire a bullet.
It’s tempting to believe that the West is in decline. Trump, Brexit, the growth of Asian and African economies, and the Euroscepticism and anti-immigrant populism sweeping the world’s largest trading bloc could easily persuade someone to believe that the West’s best days are behind us. The ‘Decline and Fall of the American Empire’ and the ‘Decline of the West’ are recurrent discussion points among many in the chattering classes.
One 1990 Foreign Policy paper addressed this talk of decline. Its author Joseph Nye said: ‘those who believe in decline tend to favour protectionism and to counsel withdrawal from what they consider “overextended international commitments.” In a world of growing interdependence, such advice is counterproductive and could bring on the decline it is supposed to avert; for if the most powerful country fails to lead, the consequences for international stability could be disastrous.’
That essay, titled Soft Power, is a startlingly prescient paper. Those two sentences could easily have been written in 2018, as would most of the piece. It talks about power passing from the ‘capital-rich’ to the ‘information-rich’; the increasing power brought by factors like technology, education and economic growth and how excessive anxiety about American decline will turn American opinion towards nationalism and protectionism and constrain America’s ability to deal with issues of international interdependence.
The ‘Decline and Fall of the American Empire’ and the ‘Decline of the West’ are recurrent discussion points among many in the chattering classes.
Though Nye’s essay focused on the power of the USA, his perspective could easily apply to the United Kingdom. With Brexit looming close and a hard Brexit more likely, Britain appears to be turning towards protectionism. Our fear of decline as a nation, in both absolute and relative terms, is tangible. We are divided about what should be Britain’s role in the world. Former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s words spoken at West Point 56 years ago, that Britain has lost an Empire and not yet found a role, still ring true today.
The British government needs to find that role, otherwise its ability to exercise power will be diminished. But what kind of power? Nye’s essay says that states have two types of power; hard and soft. Hard power is the more traditional power; it’s the ability for a state to acquire what it wants through coercion or payments. This looks unlikely. Britain’s hard power assets have been slashed since the end of the Cold War. Take the military; in the 2017/18 FY, the UK spent only 1.8% of its GDP on military spending. At the end of the Korean War, it was 9.2%. We have only 11 submarines, 156 tanks, 19 destroyers and frigates, and 148,000 serving personnel. We had far more equipment and soldiers thirty years ago. And Theresa May shows little sign of spending more money on the armed forces, much to Gavin Williamson’s displeasure.
So what about soft power? Nye describes soft power, or ‘co-optive power,’ as ‘the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. It arises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies.’ Unlike hard power, soft power costs less, gives states more legitimacy and makes countries wealthier. That’s not to say hard power is unimportant, but in a more economically and technologically interdependent world, it’s less critical.
And Britain is rich in soft power assets. In fact, the PR agency Portland Communications rated the UK first in its 2018 Soft Power 30 Index. They ranked the UK highly in the fields of culture, education and digital media. Institutions like the BBC, British Council and universities, and brands like the Premier League received special mention. Britain came first despite the turmoil caused by the Brexit referendum two years ago. This was partly due to the strong global public opinion of the United Kingdom.
Unlike hard power, soft power costs less, gives states more legitimacy and makes countries wealthier.
British culture rocks the globe. Shows like The Crown, Sherlock, Planet Earth II, and Midsomer Murders were sold to over 200 territories. Even Piers Morgan is popular abroad! His Killer Women series has been sold to 195 territories. In 2016/17, over £900m of UK television programming was sold overseas. More than double that number was spent on film production in the UK. Currently at my local picturehouse are four British-made or co-produced films; Mission Impossible – Fallout, Idris Elba’s Yardie, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, and The Children Act. Some of these productions may be backed by American money, but that money is spent in Britain, benefiting the British economy and its cultural output.
Universities are Britain’s other major soft power asset. Just go around any British university and you will hear accents from every corner of the globe. My own alma mater, City, University of London, has the ninth highest proportion of foreign students of any university in the world. It’s not even number one in Britain though. That’s the LSE! British students having relationships with foreign students mean those foreign students can go back home with more positive images of Britain. And apologies to my fellow lefties out there, but private schools are also important soft power assets. Over 50,000 non-British pupils go to independent schools, 28,500 of whom have parents living abroad. Such is the influx of foreigners into British boarding schools, that many Sussex parents will no longer send their children to Roedean School in Brighton, where foreign students make up 40% of the school, because they believe the proportion of foreign pupils is too high.
Taken with the English language, democracy, political rights, tech sector, high levels of foreign direct investment, foreign aid, and heritage, Britain has abundant soft power assets. Does Brexit put them at risk? It rather depends on the type of Brexit that Britain gets. A hard Brexit will put the value of these assets in greater danger. This is because countries with a more positive global influence can raise exports. But were a hard Brexit to occur, the knock-on effects to Britain’s global reputation and its economy could be devastating. A report from the University of Edinburgh that was commissioned by the British Council, found that a 1% net increase in perceived global influence raises exports by around 0.8%. So if a hard Brexit occurs, Britain must takes extra steps to protect its reputation and resources.
A unit within the Foreign Office dedicated to advancing British soft power could be set up to ensure this. Alternately, a parliamentary committee could produce an annual report on the position of UK soft power. One 2014 House of Lords report made such a proposition. Future British governments can afford to be isolationist no matter how confident they think Britain can act unilaterally. That soft power unit must work effectively with other departments to protect and advance British interests. The Treasury will be a critical partner. The Edinburgh University report found that increases in a country’s GDP and GDP per capita have strong correlations with rising FDI and international student and tourist numbers. Support for the British Council was also critical.
But whatever kind of Brexit Theresa May manages to negotiate, the British government must not put the strong health of our culture, tech and education industries as collateral for a hard Brexit. Joseph Nye said the problem for the US power after the Cold War will be ‘less the new challenges for hegemony than the new challenges of transnational interdependence.’ In a world of increasing interdependence, neglecting soft power is not just wrong; it’s farcical. Britain cannot afford to lose its soft power interests. They must be defended and promoted with vigour. That’s the role Britain should play. Then we can respond to Dean Acheson’s statement with the words: “Britain may have lost its Empire sir, but our superpower is our soft power.”