The Small Island with Big Influence

The island of Great Britain (which is actually the ninth largest island in the world).Image Credit: NASA via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

     Two years ago during the G-20 Summit, a spokesman for Russian president Vladimir Putin reportedly said that Britain was a “small island no one listens to.” British Prime Minister David Cameron accepted the official line from the Russians that such remarks were not made, but nevertheless responded with a robust defense of the United Kingdom.

     “Britain may be a small island”, he said, “but I would challenge anyone to find a country with a prouder history, a bigger heart, or greater resilience.” He focused on this small island doing its bit in being resolute throughout World War II in the effort to “clear the European continent of fascism”, as well as the island that helped to abolish slavery, invented “most of the things worth inventing, including every sport currently played around the world”, and being responsible for much of the “art, literature and music that delights the entire world” as well as for the world’s language of trade and commerce – English.

     He added that the UK was actually a collection of islands with places such as Northern Ireland, Shetland, and Orkney, and that despite their overall size, these islands could boast of “having the sixth-largest economy, the fourth best-funded military, some of the most effective diplomats, the proudest history, one of the best records for art and literature and contribution to philosophy and world civilisation”, and that this was something to be proud of. 

     At the time, there were skeptical voices in response to Cameron’s statements. Some people on the political left poured cold water on the remarks – saying among other things that Britain was involved in slavery and the slave trade before ending it, that the Soviets were bigger players in defeating Hitler, and the many British “inventions” were in fact only created in their modern form by Britons. On the other side, there were conservative stiffs on the right who thought that it was out of British character to be so boastful about the UK’s achievements – saying that it made more sense just to pay no attention to the Russians. Keep calm and carry on, they said.

     However, the Prime Minister was right to give that defense of the United Kingdom in light of remarks that were designed to belittle a country that has been considered (at least in some circles) to be on the decline ever since the end of World War II. With the United States in the role of a superpower and the rise of countries such as China, India, and Brazil, there are those – including many Britons, it seems – who make it an industry to talk of Britain being a broken-down and washed-up former imperial power with wilting influence and a place in which there is little or no civic or patriotic pride. 

     Of course, it is true that Britain no longer wields the sort of power it once had when it could command the resources of a global empire – the largest in human history – and can no longer expect people to bend to its will. However, Britain does remain a world power of paramount significance through the exercise of soft power.

     Soft power – as defined by Harvard Professor Joseph Nye – is the “ability to affect others to obtain preferred outcomes by the co-optive means of framing the agenda, persuasion and positive attraction”, and it works by “using networks, developing and communicating compelling narratives, establishing international norms, building coalitions, and drawing on the key resources that endear one country to another.” This is in contrast to hard power, which involves the use of military and economic might to coerce others through methods such as military interventions, economic sanctions, and monetary payments. In short, as Professor Nye has said, “hard power is push; soft power is pull.”

     Nye coined the term “soft power” in 1990, but admits that it is not a new concept. As an American, Jazz Diplomacy comes to mind as a method the US government used to woo other countries and develop friendly relationships, but the idea has roots going back farther than that, and Nye mentions Lao-tsu’s comment that it is better for people to barely know that a leader exists, rather than for the people to obey his commands.

     As the world becomes more complex, multi-polar, and defined by interconnected relationships which create limits on the effectiveness of hard power, the use of soft power becomes increasingly paramount.

     Here, the United Kingdom is in an excellent position to make a difference as it tops the rankings of a report by Jonathan McClory of Portland Communications in conjunction with Facebook and ComRes, called The Soft Power 30. It ranks countries based on six objective areas: business attractiveness (Enterprise), cultural influence and outreach (Culture), digital footprint (Digital), government structure, public institutions, and public policy (Government), engagement with other countries and diplomatic outreach (Engagement), and the equality of education and the attraction of foreign students (Education).

     The UK came in second place in the Digital, Cultural, Engagement, and Education sub-indices, and was in the top twenty with regard to Government (13) and Enterprise (17). There was also a subjective component which featured international polling data regarding how international audiences viewed particular aspects of a country, such as trust in conduct in foreign affairs, perceptions of contributions to global culture, desire to visit for work or study, and perceptions of cuisine. On these and four other metrics, the UK scored at 7th place in the view of people from outside the country. 

     Altogether, and when compared to other countries, the UK emerged in front with a score of 75.61, well clear of the runner-up Germany (73.89), which edged out the US (73.68) and France (73.64) before the top five rounded out with Canada at 71.71.

     According to the report, the UK’s strong performance across all sub-indices that make up the soft power index was the result of “publicly funded and state controlled” resources, such as the BBC World Service, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), the Department for International Development, and other critical institutions. It also cited the work of the British Council, the UK’s higher education system, and “publicly funded cultural institutions” – referring to them as “world class” and providing a “tremendous source of attraction and admiration around the world.”

     Aside from these government-backed and government-funded resources, there are also private sector resources which help to exert soft power in more subtle ways, such as Britain’s creative industries (art, film, music, architecture, design, and fashion), renowned and respected British businesses (Rolls Royce, Burberry, and British Airways), and British sports culture with institutions such as the Premier League which “have a positive impact on perceptions of the UK.” In addition, a further explanation on this point cited how soft power is exercised through popular examples of British culture, including Harry Potter, David Beckham, and the Royal Family.

     Soft power from the United Kingdom is also exercised via a “very strong civil society” which includes a diverse range of organizations “from charities, NGOs and the religious community, through to cultural institutions and even trade unions.” Furthermore, Britain is home to various international organizations (Amnesty International, Save the Children, and Oxfam) which are focused on issues and concerns such as development, disaster relief, and human rights, and therefore “form an integral part of British soft power.” In this sense, soft power is exercised on a voluntary basis by the people themselves, including those who are ordinary and often unrecognized for their efforts. 

     Such efforts are undoubtedly made easier by Britain’s significant international clout, which is derived from its “enviable position” in the G7, NATO, the European Union, the UN Security Council, and “at the epicenter of the Commonwealth.” With a seat at the top table of virtually every organization of “international consequence”, Britain takes its role as an outward-looking country, and it may very well be for this reason (on top of all the others) why Britain attracts more foreign direct investment than Germany, Spain, or France, and why it claims the top spot in the soft power index.

     However, the report did note areas of potential concern, such as the possibility of Britain leaving the EU, and on this matter, the report noted that the extent of Britain’s influence will be tested during the negotiations for EU reform and that David Cameron must bring something home from such negotiations, lest he lose credibility as a world leader and deal a blow to confidence in Britain. 

     This comes at a time when, as the report noted, Britain is moving a “more inward looking politics” and no longer committing itself as much to international outreach due to budget cuts to critically important institutions such as the FCO, the British Council, and the BBC World Service. Such cuts in funding, claims the report, “will prove a false economy in the future” because the driving force in global affairs will be large networks forged over decades. Without them, Britain’s influence is seriously undermined, and Professor Nye has said, once soft power is lost, it is costly to re-establish.

     Overall however, this report displayed to a large extent the reason Britain – far from being the broken clap-trap portrayed by nationalists and some newspaper columnists – is a great country with the potential for a brighter future, and also justifies Prime Minister Cameron’s defense of it in response to the alleged Russian comments two years ago.

     That the report states that most British people may be surprised to learn that Britain is number one in a significant global ranking is in indication of how many Britons no longer believe in themselves or their country, when in fact there is much to be proud of throughout these sceptered isles. Indeed, the report remarks that the “success of the 2012 Olympics was a coup for a country struggling to rediscover its confidence in the wake of two recent wars and a major recession.” Watching those Games myself, I was certainly happy for Team GB in winning as many medals as it did and glad to see the British people enjoying themselves as their country exceeded expectations.

     Hopefully, this report can be of some assistance in helping the people of the United Kingdom to realize what they have in their country, and how they take it for granted. This means taking some satisfaction in the capital city London, which the report counts as “the jewel in the crown” among the UK’s soft power resources with its “unrivalled…global outlook, position, and connectivity” which results in it attracting more visitors than any other city in the world.

     London – for all that it has been much-maligned (and for some good reasons) – is a strong resource in the hands of the UK that ought to be embraced, especially as a place that can serve as a springboard for people to visit the UK beyond the capital city.

     The same applies to the BBC, which via the World Service, helps to project Britain around the globe, and I can personally testify to this as a regular listener who values the service and believes that it does so much to help foster positive views about Britain and make it great. For that reason, I am concerned about the potential for the government to make short-sighted changes to the BBC and its funding mechanism, as well as the threat from the SNP, who want control over broadcasting and the BBC to be devolved to Holyrood. The result either way will be to shrink the BBC to a shell of itself and to strike a devastating blow to Britain’s very identity.

     For all of its faults, the BBC is a recognizable and very visible symbol of Britain, and efforts must be made to reform it for all the right reasons, but not for party political reasons or for reasons that are deliberately meant to weaken the UK.

     Indeed, I wish the people of the United Kingdom – from Inverness to Southampton, from Belfast to Kent, from Anglesey to Shetland, and everywhere in between – would just take a moment to pause and take stock in the country they call home and see the things that ought to be treasured, including the Union itself.

     After all, there must be a reason why people from overseas (including yours truly) wanted Britain to stay together and not be broken up. There must also be reasons why they like the Royal Family, why they watch the BBC, why they read Shakespeare, Burns, and Rowling, and among other things. Partly, it is because all of these help to make Britain what it is, shape how we view Britain, make us admire and respect Britain, and most significantly, draw us to Britain. Without them, the country – divided and utterly broken – would become unrecognizable at best and dystopian at worst, and the world would be poorer for it.

     We need a strong and robust United Kingdom that deftly, efficiently, and effectively deploys its soft power, while also keeping its hard power on hand. We need a United Kingdom that is at the heart of helping to resolve world issues. We need a United Kingdom that preserves its institutions while also looking to the future and being confident in everything it does.

     But in order for that to happen and continue, we need the British people to come together as one and value themselves and their country as people on the outside do. To that end, there ought to a designated day for people to celebrate the United Kingdom – its people, achievements, institutions, history, and culture – so that there can be a sense of civic pride in the country and make the bonds that bind even stronger going forward, and I urge everyone reading this (who lives in the UK) to sign this petition to help make it a reality.

     However, a new national day will only go so far, for there must be substance behind it. In time, I hope that more people throughout the UK (from England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales) will take some time to get out and see their country to appreciate it, and work with one another in a great British civic effort to make it a better and more prosperous place for all at home, and to project it positively across the world.

     This will be the basis upon which the country – these small islands in the Atlantic which punch above their weight – will survive for the ages in the spirit of Burns: “Be Britain still to Britain true, Amang ourselves united!”