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Parliaments and Soft Power Diplomacy

On Tuesday 29 January the BGIPU and the British Council came together to discuss Parliaments and soft power diplomacy.

John Worne is Director of Strategy for the British Council. Prior to the British Council John worked around the world in international telecommunications and at the centre of UK Government.

‘Soft Power’ to the people
Joseph Nye’s classic definition of ‘soft power’ coined in 1990 is ‘The ability to attract and co-opt rather than coerce, use force or give money as a means of persuasion’.

In sum – and in an ideal world – sharing culture and trade is a lot better than exchanging bullets or giving aid.

The ‘soft power’ conundrum for Governments
That’s not to underestimate the significance of ‘hard power’ or international development assistance – military intervention, diplomacy, sanctions and subsidies, as well as aid are as vital to international relations, geopolitics and people’s lives as they have always been.

But the problem for many governments – outside one party states and dictatorships – is these days more and more culture and trade happens outside or despite governments not within or because of them.

And in the last five years in particular the explosion of connectivity and social media means that even the bits that were potentially controllable once – broadcast and media – are now increasingly ‘for and from the people’ not by or through the state.

‘Soft Power’ components
My contention is ‘soft power’ is much less the property and tool of Governments these days and much more the responsibility of people and cultural institutions.

If say Government, diplomacy, culture, education and business/innovation add up to ‘soft power’. I think that’s nearly right. But the weight and impact of these pieces of the jigsaw is changing – and there is a very big one missing…

The rise of institutions and icons
One element which I think is changing, is that far more of a nation’s ‘soft power’ now resides in its cultural and educational institutions:

  • in our case the UK’s great galleries, museums, universities and theatres

And in brands and icons:

  • for example the Premier League, The Royal Family, Team GB and Paralympics GB, Jaguar, Burberry and the celebration of UK life which was Danny Boyle’s Olympic opener).

Mixed Economy Cultural Institutions:
And here I believe the UK has a real comparative advantage as we have a very successful and resilient model: public institutions with ‘mixed economy’ funding – some public funding, some commercial earning.

Unlike for example China or France who commit very large-scale public funding to culture and language promotion. I believe the UK’s ‘mixed economy’ approach combines the best of both worlds.

It keeps our great institutions to their public service mission through their Royal Charters and connection to the state. But ‘arm’s length’ and the incentive to be entrepreneurial in box office, partnership, sponsorship and commercial arms – often in partnership with great commercial brands and sponsors – keeps us on our toes and not limited in our ambition by public money alone.

‘We the people
But the big missing piece of IFGs soft power model is people.

A great deal of the UK’s ‘soft power’ is now created directly and daily by the ordinary and extraordinary people of the UK – teachers, artists, sportspeople, young people, policymakers, parliamentarians, commentators and raconteurs to name a few.

What we blog, tweet, tag, snap, post, comment on and curate speaks volumes for who we are – and reaches all four corners of the world through diasporas driven by the twin currencies of ‘interest’ and ‘followership’.

And as we have seen in the UK and in other parts of the world – in twitter storms, wikileaks and flashmobs – the boundaries, legalities and revolutionary power of ‘social’ are uncontrolled and uncontrollable by Governments. Sweden and Google lead the public and private charge for a free Internet. But whoever wins, the genie of social media is out of the bottle and won’t be put back in.

To state the obvious – people can now connect and create content, share ideas and learn about each other at the speed of light. And this is where a lot of the UK’s power of attraction now lies – in our openness, creativity, content creation, artistic expression, diversity and plurality.

Cultural Relations
At the British Council, we’ve always been in the people business – our public service mission for the UK has always been to increase the number of people around the world who speak English, have studied in or with UK institutions and Universities and are open to and attracted to UK culture and people.

But thanks to digital learning and social media the scale at which we can now do it dwarfs what was possible ten years ago. As a small example, our digital LearnEnglish sites attract hundreds of millions where previously we could only reach or teach thousands face to face.

So much more of ‘soft power’ in the 21st century is ‘people power’ – the power of people to vote with their feet, move directly or virtually where they want and gravitate towards people, places, opportunities, ideas and creative content which are more internationally and instantly mobile than ever.

The job in the UK:
And for us at the British Council a more internationally aware UK workforce with the languages, international experiences and confidence to engage in India, China, Brazil, Africa, Asia Pac is vital to our future economic and cultural health.

By working with UK young people to get them connected to schools overseas, learning languages and travelling to learn internationally we are responding to an economic imperative – the shift of economic power to the East and South – and a cultural one too if we want to stay at the top of the world league for education and culture.

In summary:
I always summarise the UK’s soft power by saying ‘to know us is to love us’.

It isn’t much more complex than that. When we share our country as it is, when we go out into the world as we are, when we are as honest about what we get wrong as well as what we get right there is no country or people which is more attractive than the UK.

We are a naturally self-effacing bunch, we are our own worst critics and we don’t like to boast – but we are, in truth a 21st century ‘soft power superpower’.

The opportunities and demand for English, education and UK culture have never been greater than they are today. We just need to take that 2012 spirit and bottle it – because as the Olympics and Paralympics showed 21st century UK can absolutely wow the world.