By John Glen MP - 1st February 2012
John Glen MP considers how the UK can develop a foreign policy strategy that better integrates the "different elements of hard and soft power".
Over the past decade, governments have become increasingly aware of the importance of "soft" power – the power to attract and co-opt – as a complement to the "hard" power of traditional military and economic means of achieving foreign policy objectives. Today in Westminster Hall I will be debating how we can develop a foreign policy strategy that better integrates the different elements of hard and soft power.
Britain has a rich set of soft power assets, and was ranked first and second in the respective 2010 and 2011 Institute for Government soft power indices. Organisations such as the British Council and the BBC World Service perform an invaluable role in developing trusting relationships with overseas countries, by sharing the UK's most attractive assets such as the English language, arts and culture, education, and the values of our civil society and democracy.
Since 1934, the British Council has worked on the ground in over 100 countries, including in strategic areas such as the Middle East and North Africa. They provide and support English language teaching and create partnerships between UK schools, universities and arts bodies, and overseas institutions. The BBC World Service provides reliable news broadcasts to 166 million people every week, in 28 languages. Unlike state-sponsored media in many other countries, its editorial independence ensures its impartiality and allows it to generate trust and credibility with listeners.
There is a need to better coordinate the work of these institutions under a comprehensive vision for UK foreign policy. Different departments and institutions naturally have varying perspectives on our relationship with countries across the world reflecting their different vantage points, whether developmental, diplomatic, military or cultural.
Rather than 'picking one' of these perspectives, they all need to be harmonised into a single vision for the conduct of foreign policy. Instead of seeing the different views as a barrier to a single foreign policy, the government should embrace these complementary perspectives in order to refine overall policy definition.
This approach has worked in practice already. The Stabilisation Unit, for example, is jointly owned by DFID, the FCO and MOD and brings together expertise from these three departments, despatching task forces to conflict-stricken areas at short notice, for example in Afghanistan.
The question is, how can we achieve systematic coordination of different departmental perspectives on a larger scale?
Firstly, we must identify clearly the different perspectives and interests that exist across government. This means using the expertise of soft power institutions working on the ground in foreign countries. This will also mean undertaking the difficult task of identifying where a departmental interest is preventing closer collaboration and coordination with another department’s activities, most obviously between DFID and the Foreign Office in developing countries.
Secondly, we should aim for a closer working relationship between soft power organisations and the Ministry of Defence. The ongoing work of the British Council in Libya has shown that soft power institutions can build relationships and trust ahead of and after military activities in a country.
These relationships, if optimised, could aid the MOD in defining viable exit strategies before entering a country. Soft power organisations may be able to offer a more nuanced understanding of cultural barriers and attitudes of populations on the ground and can more reliably estimate what will be achievable by military means.
The key challenge is overcoming ingrained departmental mindsets and harnessing the complementary perspectives and resources of diverse institutions, whether they are government departments or arms-length soft power organisations. We must put in place effective leadership, accountability, and coordinating procedures to ensure these institutions work together more closely to forge a sophisticated foreign policy that serves the interests of the UK optimally across the globe.
John Glenhas been Conservative MP for Salisbury since 2010.