From the BBC to museums and universities, new report warns that UK must continue to invest in soft power

12 Mar 2014

The British Academy has today launched a new report advising the UK government on the importance of soft power in global relations and why it is essential to invest in the long-term assets that the UK has at its disposal. 'The Art of Attraction: Soft Power and the UK's Role in the World' authored by Professor Christopher Hill and Dr Sarah Beadle, discusses the nature and relevance of soft power in the context of how and why it matters for the UK. It analyses the UK's soft power resources and its ability to mobilise them, examines the main dilemmas, and includes a series of recommendations for policy-makers and wider society.

Soft power - a term coined by British Academy Fellow Joseph Nye - is the ability to influence the behaviour of others and obtain desired outcomes through attraction and co-option. Over the past decade, it has been debated and discussed as governments across the world have sought to exploit their soft power assets.

The UK is widely regarded as 'a cultural superpower', with the longest history of parliamentary democracy, and a proud record of some of the world's leading thinkers, scientists and literary giants. Yet despite an abundance of soft power resources, the UK government's ability to mobilise them on a day-to-day basis is limited – and indeed there are serious questions about the extent to which it should do so. But that does not mean it should neglect them. Quite the opposite. Investing in and sustaining soft power institutions such as the BBC, museums and universities over the long term, and at arm's length, is essential.

Professor Christopher Hill, author of the report, said: "UK foreign policy is too often conducted in a compartmentalised manner, with the would-be benefits of soft power either judged to be outweighed by security concerns, or simply never taken into account. Despite their relatively low cost to the public purse, higher education, cultural organisations, arts and museums, the BBC World Service, and other soft power assets have not been protected from financial cutbacks. Neither have the substantial advantages of proper investment in them been fully recognised. If governments are patient enough to wait for the long-term gains, they will reap more benefits than by striving too hard to deploy these potential assets or by running them down for the quick fix of improving a budget deficit. Governments worldwide would be well advised to recognise that the key quality of soft power is its primary location in civil society. Soft power begins at home, as reputation and trust are both intimately linked to the nature of domestic achievements."

Professor Dame Helen Wallace, the British Academy's Foreign Secretary, said: "Soft power is an important element of the 21st century. It isn't a case of either hard power or soft power, they reside on a continuum. But soft power is not easy to translate into policy. Efforts to exploit it may give rise to unintended consequences and it can easily backfire if the state fails to take into account its interplay with other, more assertive, external policies".

Key points in the report for governments to consider include:

  • To refrain from direct interference in soft power assets.

  • 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.

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

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

Universities, orchestras, novelists, sportsmen and women, archaeologists, the BBC – and indeed the British Academy – are all part of the 'projection of Britain abroad'. Soft power is likely to become more important in international relations over the coming years. UK governments can help themselves simply by recognising this, and by providing enough resources for the development and maintenance of its long-term assets.

You can read The Art of Attraction: Soft Power and the UK's Role in the World here.

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