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Le Royaume-Uni et le monde

Foreign policy in an age of austerity : ‘soft power’, hard choices

Trevor Harris
p. 17-36


Soft power, according to Nye, can be a highly cost-effective form of national projection within the contemporary international system. With such an objective in mind, the relation between soft power and budget restrictions became increasingly important after 1945. Initial post-war resistance to the idea of using national heritage, particularly, as soft power, gave way to a more pragmatic attitude by the 1960s. The Falklands conflict then further stressed the relationship between national power and national finances, while hesitations continued in respect of what kind of power might be projected. Conservatives argued that Britain’s role remained a global one – a position New Labour continued to support, even infusing it with a sense of national mission. These global ambitions soon foundered on the financial crisis which began in 2007, ushering in policy decisions overtly designed, from the beginning of 2011 – notably following various debates in the House of Lords – to implement a comprehensive soft power strategy. 

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soft power, IR, crisis
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  • 1 Joseph Nye, “Soft Power”, Foreign Policy, 80 (Autumn 1990): 153-71. He also uses the term “co-optiv (...)

1It was Joseph Nye who, in an article in Foreign Policy in 1990, first coined the term “soft power.1 The latter, he argued, consists in attempting to shape the attitudes and preferences of others, in getting others to want what you want, rather than forcing them to do what you want: in short, in attraction rather than coercion or payment. To be fair to Nye, he has not claimed that soft power itself is new: in an interview on France Inter in November 2010 Nye said, “Soft power is as old as human history”. Nye was interested above all in stressing the clear advantages of soft power over other types of power. In his original article he underlined that:

  • 2 Nye, “Soft Power,” 167.

Soft co-optive power is just as important as hard command power. If a state can make its power seem legitimate in the eyes of others, it will encounter less resistance to its wishes. If its culture and ideology are attractive, others will more willingly follow. If it can establish international norms consistent with its society, it is less likely to have to change. If it can support institutions that make other states wish to channel or limit their activities in ways the dominant state prefers, it may be spared the costly exercise of coercive or hard power.2

2Soft power is therefore generated by three main components or resources: culture, political values, and foreign policy. If a state can harness soft, “co-optive” power, it follows that hard, “coercive” power can be avoided. More importantly, the successful deployment of this soft power means a net financial gain for the state; the use of hard, military power, for Nye, necessarily being a “costly exercise”. Nye’s article, published against a background of a faltering “Reaganomic” boom and incipient recession in the US, meant that the concept of soft power was, from the start, associated with – and perhaps generated by – the idea of budget restriction.

Emergence of the concept of soft power in Britain

3Budget problems were certainly in the air at the end of 1945 during the debate on the Finance Bill at Westminster. Labour’s Francis Bowles broached the subject of Britain’s national projection in relation to its financial circumstances :

  • 3 HC Deb 10 December 1945 vol 417 c56.

[W]e come to the question whether we want to become a Switzerland or a Monte Carlo. I remember the present Foreign Secretary, when he was Minister of Labour, introducing the Catering Wages Bill and speaking of a large number of people wanting to come here for the purpose of seeing our blitzed towns. Since he introduced that Bill there has been a good deal of blitzing in other parts of Europe, and I do not think people want to come to see our blitzed towns very much. As the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Bartlett) pointed out, we have some lovely countryside and antique buildings and possessions, and it is right that people should come here and admire the country in which we live as much as we do, but I do not think we ought to encourage that from the point of view of getting foreign exchange, for the simple reason that I do not think I should like the beauties of this country to be commercialised in that way.3

4Bowles, even in the depths of post-war financial chaos, formulates an explicit rejection of the principle of using heritage and related national assets – “soft power” before the letter – as an instrument of policy designed to help balance the books. The idea of using the British countryside or architectural and cultural heritage as a money-spinner still rankled.

5The necessity for resorting to soft power had become much clearer some twenty years later by the time of Britain’s marathon battle to enter the EEC. Labour’s Douglas Jay, recently ousted from the Board of Trade by Harold Wilson, was very clear, writing in 1968, about what he saw as Britain’s priorities. Although Jay, quite logically, does not yet use the term “soft power”, this is evidently what he has in mind:

Certainly we can no longer dominate other continents by military or economic pressure ; but it does not follow from this that we need, or should, cease to influence them at all. The methods must change ; but many of the objectives–­ international law and order, a peaceful world, a high standard of living for ourselves and others–need not.

  • 4 Douglas Jay, After the Common Market, 1968, p.

In future Britain will have to pursue these objectives, not by military or economic power, but by trade, by technical and scientific skill, by overseas investment and by the spread of British political, social and cultural ideas.4

6Douglas Jay’s rejection of the idea that the United Kingdom was in a position to continue to pursue a world role based solely on military and financial might none the less excludes any contraction or regionalisation of the United Kingdom’s overseas role; it is the means which have to be modified, not the ends. Jay is assuming, however, that Britain’s global objectives and range of commitments are a question of “influence”, not of domination ; the assets alluded to are those of attraction, not of coercion. Britain’s status as a world power is clearly already linked to its capacity for technical and cultural exchange and its ability to encourage in others the adoption of humane values. From Francis Bowles’ discomfort with the idea of using culture as a way of promoting the country, Jay has moved on to the idea that the promotion of Britain’s national influence is, on the contrary, dependent upon its ability to spread its inherited cultural values; values, it is assumed, which can only improve the world.

  • 5 HC Deb 30 June 1986 vol 100 c714.

7Another twenty years further on, in a House of Commons where the climate of opinion was still coloured by the recent Falklands/Malvinas Conflict and by the longer-term realities and perceived threats of the ongoing Cold War, the Secretary of State, George Younger, during the debate on the 1986 Defence Estimates, understandably concentrated on the question of Britain’s military/hard power capabilities. Further, Britain’s financial circumstances were such that he willingly recognised the need to address the “question of matching programmes to resources” and intoned the, by then, familiar Thatcherite mantra of “value for money”:5 the link between policy and budget, already acknowledged by Jay, had now moved closer to the centre of the debate and would remain there.

  • 6 HC Deb 30 June 1986 vol 100 c712.
  • 7 HC Deb 30 June 1986 vol 100 c771.

8But if the financial circumstances of the country were now seen as a criterion which had systematically to be taken into account, the nature of the power involved and being projected was still a moot point : a resolution had not yet been fully effected between Nye’s “hard” and “soft” power. George Younger opened the 1986 Defence debate by reminding the House that “The provision of national security is the first task of any Government”, by emphasising continuity of policy, or what he describes as the “evolutionary approach”,6 and by rejecting any radical or revolutionary solutions. His point was paraphrased by his fellow Conservative, Kenneth Hind, later in the same debate, in response to contributions from some on the Labour benches. Under Michael Foot, Labour had fought the 1983 election on a unilateralist platform and some on the Labour benches still argued, in 1986, that Britain should abandon the nascent Trident programme which was intended to replace Britain’s ageing Polaris nuclear deterrent. Several Labour contributions during the Estimates debate went in this direction, but Hind vigorously supported Younger, and “not the unilateralism that has been urged upon us, with the hope that neutralism will follow. Britain’s history defies neutrality in any respect. It is foolish. We cannot become Switzerland overnight, as many Labour Members seem to believe.”7 Younger subscribes without question to the fundamental conservatism of foreign policy as a natural and essential part of the job of the state. A sense of history and of the responsibilities and constraints this imposes on Britain are also central to Hind’s intervention. Indeed, his assessment appears in some ways still redolent of nineteenth-century priorities. For Hind, it is axiomatic that Britain’s specific history determines present policy: Britain, he implies, has a clear role to play in major global issues and cannot therefore become neutral.

  • 8 HC Deb 20 November 1991 vol 199 c373. Labour’s George Brown, by then speaking from the Lords, had a (...)

9A few years later, in a House of Commons now prone to what was dubbed “PMT” (Pre-Maastricht Tension) the Alpine referent was yet again pressed into service by the Conservative, Ray Whitney, during the debate on Britain’s approach to the European Intergovernmental Conference then in progress ahead of the key European Council in Maastricht. Whitney pointed out, in the context of the possible introduction of a single currency in Europe, “One of my hon. Friends said that we could become like Switzerland, but we cannot. That option is not open to us”.8 Again, becoming like Switzerland is not presented as undesirable, but as impossible. Such wistful dreams of neutrality, of opting out of the global great game, of disengagement, of retreating to Little England, were not, by the early 1990s, shared by very many in the Labour Party, either: Labour’s social democratic wing had remained committed to multilateralism and Britain’s world role and, under Tony Blair, would soon set about stifling all tendencies in the opposite direction.

10Younger’s (and Thatcher’s) “value for money”, in practice, therefore meant retaining the same or similar global aims by the application of incremental (budgetary) modifications. As global history encouraged Britain to develop new characteristics in order to adapt to an ever more competitive environment, this gradual mutation of policy, or “evolutionary approach” to Britain’s global profile, points to a quasi-Darwinian perspective still derived, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, from seemingly unshakeable foreign policy convictions on the nature of Britain’s unchanging place in the world. In ideological terms, then, there was a strong sense in which Britain’s global heritage still carried with it a set of obligations or responsibilities which could not be shed. The debate was not about whether Britain should be a leader, but about how best to continue in this role. Margaret Thatcher’s quasi-Beaconsfieldism, a sense of Britain’s destiny which allegedly prompted her to inform George Bush senior at the start of the first Gulf War that it was no time to “go wobbly”, may have been thrown into stark relief by domestic and European difficulties, it was not supplanted by the Swiss solution.

11Nor did New Labour’s more “ethical” foreign policy sever itself from Britain’s exceptional past. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, or Britain’s retrocession of the territory of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China in 1997, are often presented as epoch-changing events in a decade which saw the eclipse of one superpower and the emergence of another. Yet none of these events brought with them the much trumpeted “end to history”. They were, rather, new beginnings and led quickly to a transformation of the international situation to which the United Kingdom, and other powers, had to adapt just as quickly. The Labour Government elected in May 1997 set about the task by commissioning a major Strategic Defence Review which sought to identify the new opportunities and new threats lying in wait in this rearranged global context. The introduction by the then Secretary of State, George Robertson – later to become Secretary General of NATO (1999-2004) –, made New Labour’s foreign policy position very clear:

  • 9 Cd. 3999 (July 1998), introduction, para 19.

The British are, by instinct, an internationalist people. We believe that as well as defending our rights, we should discharge our responsibilities in the world. We do not want to stand idly by and watch humanitarian disasters or the aggression of dictators go unchecked. We want to give a lead, we want to be a force for good.9

12 An apparently distinctive New Labour note is struck by the “force for good” paradigm. But far from moving the discussion in the direction of global retreat or neutrality, Robertson underscores the centrality of Britain’s continuing global role : leaving this behind is assumed to be just as impossible as it had been under the Conservatives. Again, the language used (“instinct”) emphasises the pseudo-biological determinism which precludes Britain’s disengagement.

  • 10 This was Blair’s Chicago speech to the Economic Club, 22 April 1999: available at https://www.globa (...)

13Over the next ten years, Tony Blair followed what was claimed to be an innovative policy to deal with profoundly altered geopolitical circumstances, a policy in which Blair foregrounded the role of what he called the international “community”10 in shaping the new international system: a system characterised, Blair stressed in a major speech soon after coming to power, by “interconnectedness” and the necessity to deploy determined “values” in order to win “hearts and minds”. But, if this “Blair Doctrine” – in which the Prime Minister was ably assisted by his first Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook –, was driven by a quasi-evangelical zeal, with Blair himself willingly cast in the lead in this new “ethical” age, he became ever more entangled in the threads of the new system he had aspired to manage and shape. 911, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the London bombings of 2005: these and other events did nothing to demonstrate that the new international order had benefited from a post-Cold War peace dividend, or that Britain had taken advantage of shifts of power to disengage from a global role which many had long judged inappropriate and unsustainable.

14On the contrary, Blairite foreign policy seemed to fix the United Kingdom at the centre of a global structure of intersecting circles of commitment. If the removal of the stark and (mostly) stable oppositions of the Cold War, had been replaced by a far more fragmented, unstable situation, in Iraq (operation “Desert Fox”, 1998), Kosovo (1998-9) and Sierra Leone (2000-2), successive Labour governments, largely on the basis of a (temporary) re-promotion to a prominent geo-political position in the immediate post-Cold War context, played out a global “humanitarian” military role. But the rapidly changing international situation, growing and bitter opposition at Westminster to the Anglo-American Iraq invasion of March 2003 – and outside Parliament, where there were some of the biggest demonstrations ever seen on the streets of Britain –, further complicated the process of redefining the extent and character of Britain’s “responsibilities”. The global financial crisis from 2007 and subsequent policy of austerity significantly added to these political difficulties and accelerated Labour’s descent into unpopularity; even the departure of Blair leaving the voters unimpressed. Blair’s brief and costly Gladstonian adventure was the last occasion on which British foreign policy was dissociated from relative decline: at the very least, any form of greatness, for the few still contriving to argue that it was feasible, would now have to be had on a shoestring.

The strategic and financial context post-Blair

  • 11 “A Strong Britain in an Age of Uncertainty,” October 2010, Cmd 7953.

15 It was in this new context, then, that soft power would now take hold as a crucial component of national projection. As an activity conducted by governments, cultural diplomacy was a long-standing practice. But the sequence of events briefly outlined above helps remind us of the difficulty of having this kind of activity taken on board as a “serious” part of foreign policy. However, in office from May 2010, and quickly under severe financial pressure to reassess Britain’s strategic role, the Conservative-led coalition government released in quick succession (on the 18th, 19th and 20th October), a National Security Strategy document11, a Strategic Defence and Security Review and a Comprehensive Spending Review.

  • 12 The Comprehensive Spending Review announced an eight per cent cut in Defence and Intelligence spend (...)
  • 13 “Age of Uncertainty”, p. 4.
  • 14 “Age of Uncertainty”, p. 4. An aspect which is repeated throughout the document: “Britain’s nationa (...)

16The National Security Strategy, acknowledging the “new age of uncertainty” in which Britain was now living, stressed the “tough choices” required in the cold financial climate of the 2010 budget deficit.12 Yet such choices still did not extend to re-dimensioning Britain’s involvement overseas: “In a world that is changing at an astonishing pace, Britain’s interests remain surprisingly constant”.13 The “complexities” and the “uncertainties” of the new international situation did not, it seems, clear the way to new objectives – Britain must remain, “open”, “outward-facing” and has interests “all over the world” –, but only to new methods. The NSS document insists several times on the nostrum that Britain’s “political, economic and cultural authority far exceeds [its] size” and that Britain’s national interest requires its “continued full and active engagement in world affairs”.14 This requires standing up for British “values” – the rule of law, democracy, free speech, tolerance and human rights. But it also requires Britain “to project power”.

  • 15 “Age of Uncertainty”, p. 9.

17However, the gap between the rhetoric and the hard financial realities has clearly grown. The choice of words could easily go unnoticed, but is interesting. Britain is not required, at least by the vocabulary of the expression, to have power, but to “project” it. Moreover, it is not military power, but simply an undefined “power”. While the document also stresses that Britain’s “capability to act” overseas and its “strategic presence” both need to be maintained, again no hard, military options are mentioned. The security strategy, indeed, seems to be premised on a number of demands which most neutral observers might have assumed would automatically be taken into account anyway : good organisation, preparation and intelligence, and drawing on the experience of the past. To these is added the most obvious variable, the defence budget, the mention of “armed force” being placed last in a list where it is preceded by Embassies, High Commissions, international development programmes, intelligence services, defence diplomacy and cultural assets.15 In what is a highly repetitive document, it is this wide range of capabilities which is constantly stressed, a “whole government” approach using “all the instruments” of national power. The latter expression, used four times in the document, and which clearly includes Britain’s “cultural assets” and “cultural authority”, would very logically invite the use of the term “soft power”: but the expression is not used at all anywhere in this key contribution to strategic thinking, absent even from the carefully graded list of “National Security Priority Risks” in the third section of the document and the government responses to these outlined in Part Four.

  • 16 A debate (28 April 2011) “To call attention to the level of co-ordination between Government depart (...)

18The omission of the term from the lexicon of the NSS in October 2010 (or from the Strategic Defence and Security Review published the following day), must constitute one of the last occasions on which this was the case in Government or official documentation. In a report on “The Implications of Cuts to the BBC World Service”, published just a few months later, in April 2011, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs committee uses the term abundantly: and from this point on, the expression becomes a fixture in the Government lexicon/literature; the House of Lords library published (14 April 2011) a note on “soft power” in advance of the debate on that theme (moved by Ann Taylor, former Labour Chief Whip and minister, now a Labour Peer, Baroness Taylor of Bolton) to be held in the Lords a fortnight later.16 It seems clear, therefore, that the concept of soft power was exercising minds at Westminster in the early months of 2011, prompted in part, perhaps, by the publication in December 2010 of a report by the think tank, Institute for Government. The opening paragraph of that report sums up what it takes to be the quandary in which the new coalition government finds itself:

  • 17 Jonathan McClory, The new persuaders: an international ranking of soft power, p.1. This report was (...)

The future of Britain’s global role stands at a precarious juncture. External and internal challenges alike are weighing on the government’s capacity to wield influence abroad. Externally, the global status quo is rapidly changing as the centre of economic and political power continues to drift from West to East. At home, the state of Britain’s public finances demands a considerable retrenchment of Government spending. Remaining influential abroad in this context will require Britain to recognise its ‘soft power’ advantages, and consider how to leverage them effectively.17

  • 18 The link between soft power and government spending was further stressed by the decisions taken in (...)
  • 19 McClory, 2010, p.3.
  • 20 McClory, 2010, 4. “These countries are buttressed by historic global connections, long-standing net (...)
  • 21 The meaning of “culture” in this context, as in many others, continued to oscillate between the bro (...)

19The report underlined the extent to which the difficult choices being made by government in a challenging financial landscape were giving rise to growing concern.18 McClory, as an enthusiastic reader of Nye, was well aware of the importance of political values and foreign policy as components of soft power. Of the former he writes : “The political values and institutions that govern a nation strongly affect the preferences of others. When government institutions effectively uphold values like transparency, justice, and equality at home, they are naturally more attractive abroad” ; while foreign policy, McClory writes, “is about a state maintaining legitimacy and moral authority in its conduct abroad, i.e. is a state seen as a force for good or ill ?”.19 Soft power is thus also about “international political leadership”, and includes such parameters as the “reputation of embassies and diplomats”, for example. But McClory also takes account of much more diverse and precise criteria as a country’s cuisine, or even the “quality of national airline”.20 As an expression of values, and as a financially viable foreign policy option, it was the cultural component, particularly, of soft power, which quickly became a focus for discussion and opposition to what was perceived as a poorly conceived and short-sighted government policy.21

The Lords debate “soft power”, April 2011

20It is this broad cultural component which figures prominently in the Lords debate –“Government Departments: Soft Power” – a debate which was clearly the direct consequence of the three major policy documents released by the government the previous October.

  • 22 Baroness Taylor of Bolton, HL Deb 28 April 2011 c279. She repeats the idea a little further on: “I (...)
  • 23 HL Deb Lord Hall 28 Apr 2011: c292.

21Ann Taylor is keen to use the debate to underscore the necessity for all government departments to work together: clearly it is felt that damaging policy decisions have resulted from poorly coordinated government. “I am not convinced”, says Ann Taylor in her opening remarks, “that there is a total buy-in from everyone in all the departments nor that everything is quite as joined up throughout the piece as it perhaps should be”.22 Rather than what New Labour had christened “joined-up government”, Taylor clearly starts from the position that the government’s poorly coordinated approach is marginalising the effectiveness of soft power: a move from diplomacy to cultural diplomacy, to the encouragement of cultural performance/output as public diplomacy is urgently required. Lord Hall of Birkenhead – appointed as BBC director-General a little over a year later – reiterates this point a little further on in the debate: “The opportunities for us are huge, but the current lack of clarity and co-operation between government departments and cultural organisations means that we are not making the most of them.”23

  • 24 See Thomas Grose, “To the world UK culture is aces”, USNews 2 February 2016: (...)
  • 25 HL Deb 28 April 2011 c295. Neil MacGregor, for example, Director of the British Museum, writing in (...)
  • 26 HL Deb 28 Apr 2011 c291.

22Turning to the main subject of the debate, Ann Taylor foregoes the dubious privilege, as she sees it, of attempting to define soft power: “We could”, she says in her opening remarks, “spend the whole of this debate trying to define the term ‘soft power’, and many academics do exactly that”. Instead, Ann Taylor chooses to launch the debate on the more precise/productive trajectory of “the use of all the avenues of influence that add up to soft power”. For the purposes of the debate, soft power, broadly, equates to the country’s “likeability quotient”24 or, as Lord Smith of Finsbury puts it more fully later in the debate, “what can be achieved for the improvement of international relationships and for the standing and reputation of this country through culture and the arts and through sport, learning, discourse, the exchange of ideas and thought, and creativity”.25 Echoing these sentiments, Lord Hall of Birkenhead emphasises that, “Arts and culture can help to build citizenship and a democratic plural society. They give citizens a forum for self-expression and for challenging the status quo. This is not about telling people what to do or about transplanting our own ideas into another culture; it is about helping to provide spaces in which people can express themselves“.26

  • 27 Baroness Taylor of Bolton, HL Deb 28 April 2011 c281: a point repeated a few moments later by the N (...)
  • 28 Lord Smith of Finsbury, HL Deb 28 Apr 2011 c295.

23However, it is not assumed during the debate that soft power can completely replace hard power. “We all agree”, says Ann Taylor in her opening speech, “that prevention is better than cure and that should be the first objective. We have long acknowledged the need to co-operate on hard power through institutions such as NATO. But it is important to remember that, as in Afghanistan, you cannot win by hard power alone. No one would say that soft power is a substitute for hard power; we need both, and we all need to recognise that”.27 The Lords debate is, rather, an “opportunity to highlight the underemphasised, underappreciated but hugely important role that soft power plays around the world,”28 and to demonstrate how soft power can be harnessed to maintain or even increase British influence; how, in essence, it can be an effective instrument of foreign policy:

  • 29 Lord Hall, HL Deb 28 Apr 2011 c290.

When it works well, it helps to explain and understand what lies behind conflict. It explains and can give understanding of different viewpoints and cultures; it breaks down national stereotypes; it can help to find solutions to issues and conflicts that may seem intractable; and it can help promote dialogue and deep and lasting relationships of mutual understanding [...], can do things and reach places that conventional diplomacy cannot.29

  • 30 Lord Smith, HL Deb 28 Apr 2011 c300.
  • 31 HL Deb Howell 28 April 2011 c309.
  • 32 Lord Howell HL Deb 28 April 2011 c312. David Howell at the time was a minister of state at the FCO. (...)

24Above all, in the context of dwindling resources, supporters of soft power point out during the debate that it can make less go further and help to marshal the multiplier soft-power effect that [...] big international organisations can have”. Soft power, in other words, is cost-effective as well as effective,30 two aspects which the Conservative peer, Lord Howell, brings together and claims are mutually dependent : “Our national credibility depends on the budget rigour to keep within our means”.31 David Howell, like other peers, recognises the need for “a subtle new interweave of both power deployments” combining soft and hard into “smart power”. But, he adds, “we all have to formulate a new strategy that combines all the hard and soft power facets available to us not only in government, but outside government as well”.32

Foreign policy privatized ?

  • 33 Howell is very clear on this during the Lords debate: “a good deal of soft power projection lies ou (...)

25Howell’s contribution here underlines two key concepts drawn from what is now often defined as the Thatcherite consensus: first, that perception of the nation from overseas includes an element of appreciation of the general solvability of the country; second, and more importantly, that national projection is not the sole preserve of the government or the state.33 The political characteristics of the relationship between patriotism, projection, power and economics are, consequently, an important part of the core discussion in the Lords, but are also central to the much wider debate about Britain’s place in the world which has developed since the end of the post-war consensus, and particularly in relation to the background concept of British relative decline and the appropriate response to this.

26In practice, the drive – so warmly encouraged by Lords from all benches in the chamber – to enlist all possible sources of soft power in order to optimise the projection of the nation, leads inevitably to a translation of policy initiatives and policy implementation from government to civil society. Soft power, in effect, facilitates, indeed requires, a significant displacement of the projection of the national image from central government to an array of independent economic sectors: to non-governmental agencies, but also to international non-state actors and to the private sector. National projection as part of the state’s foreign policy and consequently a non-negligible portion of the geopolitical activity of the state concerned is, in practice, privatised. Where the BBC is concerned, for example, the granting and renewal of the Royal Charter gives government – though not Parliament –, a direct link to policy and implementation via the Privy Council. Where NGOs, non-state actors and private companies are concerned, however, the potential for private policy initiatives – and for a democratic deficit – increases considerably.

27This hollowing out of government power, its diffusion into numerous and disparate areas of society and economic activity, necessarily represents a cause of concern for those – on the left or the right – who persist in seeing foreign policy as one of the fundamental planks of government activity and one of the central responsibilities of the sovereign state. George Robertson, Labour Secretary of State for Defence under Tony Blair, and the éminence grise behind most of the thinking of the defence review of 1998, was scathing in his assessment of the performance of the coalition government from 2010. Speaking in October 2015, Robertson bewailed the 30 % shrinkage in national capacity for overseas military intervention over which the coalition government had presided. For Robertson this amounted to “an unforgiveable betrayal of our national standing and our international relevance”.34 Particularly galling for Robertson was the fact that government defence cuts had taken place against the backdrop of the “Arab spring” and the significant alteration to the international system which that entailed.

28The defence cuts and the drift towards soft power solutions, siphoning state responsibilities into non-governmental organisations, was bound to provoke the ire of traditionalists. Furthermore, as the international environment continues to fragment, to grow increasingly complex, the soft power paradox also continues to grow. As the international system becomes more difficult to manage, so intervention becomes simultaneously both more difficult and more necessary: the pull of soft power increases precisely as the necessity for state power increases. Soft power, in short, expresses the fundamental contradiction of the post-Thatcher consensus: excessive liberalisation, operated in order to roll back the frontiers of the state, threatens, in the present case, to undermine the state’s main raison d’être and, consequently, to make it more vulnerable.

  • 35 HL Deb 28 April 2011 c288. Other main issues addressed in that debate the BBC World Service and the (...)
  • 36 The expression appears four times in the report (7, 15, 16, 46).

29The Lords’ debate was part of a coordinated Parliamentary reaction to this policy drift and to the funding arguments being conducted within government through the autumn of 2010. A new threshold of acceptability in this respect was clearly crossed by government in its Comprehensive Spending Review in October. The Treasury pressure exerted on the main public service provider, the BBC, was such as to require the Corporation, in the terms of the Review, to make severe cuts. The Lords debate foregrounded a number of key areas : Lord Alderdice, for example, comments, “It has always surprised me how few people in this country realise what an extraordinary jewel the British Council is”.35 The fate of the BBC World Service, especially, became a subject for some fairly heated exchanges : its funding stood to diminish, in real terms, by 49 % over the following five years. Its defence was taken up by the commons Foreign Affairs Committee, whose report, “The Implications of Cuts to the BBC World Service”, was published just before the Lords debate. The Committee argued strongly for a reversal of the proposed cut, claiming that the World Service was a crucial part of Britain’s interests internationally, being the “jewel in the crown” of British soft power.36

Soft U turn

30It is difficult to assess accurately here the part played by the Lords debate and the Commons report in the soft power “U-turn”37 which did in fact take place as part of the Government’s National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review in 2015. A boost in funding was announced in November 2015 to the tune of some £ 289m by 2020, “to build the global reach of the World Service and increase access to news and information”. Reversing the earlier trend, therefore, the additional funding was to be spent mainly on enhancing services to a number of global hotspots: Russia, the Middle East, North Korea and North Africa, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Eritrea – to the obvious delight of the Director of BBC World Service Group, Francesca Unsworth, when interviewed on “Feedback”, 6 December 2015.38

31Unsworth refutes the suggestion that the World Service has become, following this new funding arrangement, a de facto arm of British foreign policy. Participants in the Lords debate, and those responsible for casting the text of the Commons report, may have had other ideas. The precious stone metaphors used in connection with the World Service are an interesting choice, given the history of an expression such as “jewel in the crown”. Are we to infer that the BBC World Service is, as it were, the “India” of Britain’s soft power empire? Or does one need to assume that soft power is a mere parody of empire, a defensive, preventive form of imperialism, or a simple euphemism for the (ongoing) management of decline? Lord Alderdice, speaking in the Lords debate in April 2011 had chosen to see soft power as the most recent avatar of a pro-active national narrative: “I hope that the Foreign Office in particular will accept responsibility not for looking to a continual sliding down of the strength and power of this country, but for taking the opportunity to develop all its resources and move forward with pride and a sense of ourselves as a country that has something to give to the rest of the world”.39 Others also seemed keen to keep Britain “punching above [its] weight”. In December 2011, a Chatham House programme paper continued to claim that Britain’s international role remains conditioned by “the country’s unique combination of foreign policy assets – across the diplomatic, military, economic and cultural spheres – stemming from its legacy as a great power”.40 The United Kingdom, one is led to understand, having been present at the birth of the international system, and linked to every stage of its long development, necessarily also finds itself linked to the most recent evolutions of that system. The US Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, went further: on 13 February 2016, he insisted that Britain should “continue to play that outsized role on the global stage that it does because of its moral standing and its historical standing”; a wish confirmed by Barack Obama, insisting that “the US and the world need your outsized influence to continue”.41


32Soft power is certainly an old form of power. Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) was one of the earliest attempts to understand and explain it. Joseph Nye has produced a more definitive account.

33There seems little doubt that soft power in its contemporary guise is closely linked to both the end of the Cold War and to the emergence of the Internet. In a fully globalised international system with a highly competitive 24/7 information market, all government policy becomes visible to the international community and therefore becomes potential foreign policy. Perceptions of that policy mean that all such policy is, in turn, a vehicle for potential soft power. It is this growing realisation which persuades ministers sensitive to the opportunities, and to the threats, that all government departments should buy into soft power. Government has, as it were, itself become “interdisciplinary”, to the extent that all business is now interconnected in terms of its perception at home and overseas : the somewhat overblown and often criticised claims for “joined-up thinking/government” which characterised the Blair governments, now seem to have found their way out of intra-state politics and into inter-state politics. In short, soft power seems to offer a potential strategic solution : both in the context of the longer-term question of relative British decline, and – since 2007-8 – in relation to the more urgent Treasury agenda. Is it not possible, perhaps, to have greatness at a knock-down price ?

34The House of Lords continued to press the case for soft power and went on, following the 2011 debate, to establish a Select Committee in May 2013 on “Soft Power and the UK’s Influence,” which took evidence over the next year and produced a major report in March 2014, thus completing an intensive and impressive campaign to bring this issue to the attention of Government, and the general public, and no doubt contributing in a significant way to the policy change in respect of the BBC at the end of 2015.

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“Strategic Defence Review. Modern Forces for the Modern World.” Cmd 3999. The Stationery Office, July 1998.

“A Strong Britain in an Age of Uncertainty. The National Security Strategy.” Cmd 7953. The Stationery Office, October 2010.

Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Commons. 10 December 1945.

Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Commons. 30 June 1986.

Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Commons. 20 November 1991.

Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Lords. 24 October 1984.

Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Lords. 28 April 2011.

Blair, Tony. “The Blair Doctrine.” 22 April 1999.

Burrell, Ian. “Government invests £ 85m in BBC World Service in Soft Power U-turn.” The Independent. 23 November 2015.

Grose, Thomas. “To the world UK culture is aces. The United Kingdom uses its cultural appeal to wield soft power around the world.” USNews. 2 February 2016.

Harvey, Michael. “Perspectives on the UK’s Place in the World.” Europe Programme Paper 2011/01, Chatham House, December 2011.

Jay, Douglas. After the Common Market, London: Penguin, 1968.

McClory, Jonathan. The new persuaders: an international ranking of soft power. Institute for Government, 2010.

Nye, Joseph. “Soft Power”, Foreign Policy, 80 (Autumn 1990): 153-71.

Robertson, George. “The 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review and its Implications.” The Peter Nailor Memorial Lecture on Defence. 27 October 2015.

Stewart, Heather, Chris Stephen and Patrick Wintour. “Barack Obama urges UK voters to ’stick together’ with EU”. The Guardian. 21 April 2016.

Bolton, Roger (presenter). “Feedback: BBC World Service Soft Power.” 4 and 6 December 2015. Podcast

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1 Joseph Nye, “Soft Power”, Foreign Policy, 80 (Autumn 1990): 153-71. He also uses the term “co-optive power”.

2 Nye, “Soft Power,” 167.

3 HC Deb 10 December 1945 vol 417 c56.

4 Douglas Jay, After the Common Market, 1968, p.

5 HC Deb 30 June 1986 vol 100 c714.

6 HC Deb 30 June 1986 vol 100 c712.

7 HC Deb 30 June 1986 vol 100 c771.

8 HC Deb 20 November 1991 vol 199 c373. Labour’s George Brown, by then speaking from the Lords, had also dismissed Swissification during a debate on employment levels in the manufacturing industries: “Great Britain, which built itself great as an industrial manufacturing country, is trying to become a Switzerland, when it cannot possibly be one” (HL Deb 24 October 1984 vol 456 c201).

9 Cd. 3999 (July 1998), introduction, para 19.

10 This was Blair’s Chicago speech to the Economic Club, 22 April 1999: available at

11 “A Strong Britain in an Age of Uncertainty,” October 2010, Cmd 7953.

12 The Comprehensive Spending Review announced an eight per cent cut in Defence and Intelligence spending for 2010-14, in line with the announcement in the NSS that “Government departments dealing with national security cannot be exempt from these pressures” (p.10) .

13 “Age of Uncertainty”, p. 4.

14 “Age of Uncertainty”, p. 4. An aspect which is repeated throughout the document: “Britain’s national interest requires us to reject any notion of the shrinkage of our influence” (p.10); Britain has “a global reach disproportionate to our size” (p.21).

15 “Age of Uncertainty”, p. 9.

16 A debate (28 April 2011) “To call attention to the level of co-ordination between Government departments on the use of soft power in the interests of the United Kingdom”, a debate prompted by Baroness Taylor’s fear - expressed as she opened the debate - that the Comprehensive Spending Review “might lead to rather short-sighted cuts that would have long-term consequences for Britain’s influence in the world”

17 Jonathan McClory, The new persuaders: an international ranking of soft power, p.1. This report was closely followed by the publication in February 2011 of Joseph Nye’s The Future of Power; and in early May, Nye spoke to this theme at a talk given to the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House).

18 The link between soft power and government spending was further stressed by the decisions taken in the Comprehensive Spending Review of October 2010, notably those concerning cultural policy. If national hard power has to be further reined in, as the National Security Strategy and the Strategic Defence and Security Review made clear, then soft power would clearly need to be safeguarded if national influence was to have any real chance of filling part of the void created by successive cuts in military spending. The Comprehensive Spending Review, the final instalment in the government’s policy trilogy of autumn 2010, confirmed the trend in the coalition’s thinking and prompted much adverse reaction.

19 McClory, 2010, p.3.

20 McClory, 2010, 4. “These countries are buttressed by historic global connections, long-standing networks of influence and traditionally strong cultural production. But as the old guard collectively enters into a period of sustained austerity, soft power assets will be among the most tempting budget lines to cut – as evidenced by the UK’s recent spending review. There is a dangerous false economy in cutting soft power capabilities. Soft power is much easier to lose than it is to gain. And if the old soft power networks of the west are trimmed back, emerging powers will doubtless look to fill the vacuum” (ibid., 7).

21 The meaning of “culture” in this context, as in many others, continued to oscillate between the broad, anthropological sense and a more restricted sociologically conditioned sense of aesthetic endeavour and production – whether highbrow or lowbrow. In a soft power context McClory, for example, defined culture as the “set of practices that create meaning for a society”. McClory then glosses this, adding: “This includes high culture like literature, art and education that appeals to elites; as well as television, cinema and pop music aimed at mass entertainment markets” (McClory, 2010, p.3).

22 Baroness Taylor of Bolton, HL Deb 28 April 2011 c279. She repeats the idea a little further on: “I do not want to exaggerate the problems, but ensuring a joined-up approach is definitely an area where ministerial leadership is important” (HL Deb 28 April 2011 c280).

23 HL Deb Lord Hall 28 Apr 2011: c292.

24 See Thomas Grose, “To the world UK culture is aces”, USNews 2 February 2016:

25 HL Deb 28 April 2011 c295. Neil MacGregor, for example, Director of the British Museum, writing in The Times in April 2011, outlined his own approach saying that, “Exhibitions are of course about objects. They are not about politics or diplomacy. But around the objects on show, exhibitions create a forum of public discussion, a space in which people may safely discuss difficult questions”. See also the article by the BBC journalist, John Wilson, “On the road with Neil MacGregor, the man who uses culture to win friends”, The Observer, 7 December 2014, where MacGregor appears to turn the normal hierarchy on its head: “if good bilateral political relations can help encourage better cultural conversations across continents, that must surely be beneficial for everybody”.

26 HL Deb 28 Apr 2011 c291.

27 Baroness Taylor of Bolton, HL Deb 28 April 2011 c281: a point repeated a few moments later by the Northern Irish peer, Lord Alderdice: “I emphasise that when we speak today about soft power it is not as an alternative to, but as a component of, the projection of power of this country” (HL Deb 28 April 2011 c287).

28 Lord Smith of Finsbury, HL Deb 28 Apr 2011 c295.

29 Lord Hall, HL Deb 28 Apr 2011 c290.

30 Lord Smith, HL Deb 28 Apr 2011 c300.

31 HL Deb Howell 28 April 2011 c309.

32 Lord Howell HL Deb 28 April 2011 c312. David Howell at the time was a minister of state at the FCO. He was successively Secretary of State for Transport (1979-81) and Secretary of State for Energy (1981-3) under Margaret Thatcher.

33 Howell is very clear on this during the Lords debate: “a good deal of soft power projection lies outside government and its control-and rightly so” (HL Deb 28 April 2011 c307).

34 Robertson’s lecture can be accessed at

35 HL Deb 28 April 2011 c288. Other main issues addressed in that debate the BBC World Service and the Commonwealth, the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet.

36 The expression appears four times in the report (7, 15, 16, 46).

37 “Government invests £85m in BBC World Service in Soft Power U-turn”, (

38 Podcast available at

39 HL Deb 28 Apr 2011 c290.

40 Michael Harvey, “Perspectives on the UK’s Place in the World”, Europe Programme Paper 2011/01, Chatham House, December 2011, p. 4.

41 Barack Obama quoted in The Guardian, 22 April 2016

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Trevor Harris, « Foreign policy in an age of austerity : ‘soft power’, hard choices »Observatoire de la société britannique, 20 | 2018, 17-36.

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Trevor Harris, « Foreign policy in an age of austerity : ‘soft power’, hard choices »Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 20 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2018, consulté le 24 mars 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Trevor Harris

Professeur de civilisation britannique à l'Université de Picardie Jules-Verne

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