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In an uncertain world, British soft power must be redefined

4 min read

It almost goes without saying that the current global re-alignment is conjuring up political uncertainties and fractious hostilities unseen since the fall of the iron curtain.

The Integrated Review Refresh was published by the FCDO on Monday to respond to this, building on the original Integrated Review, published in 2021, which defined the UK as a soft power superpower.

A lot of the content in these reviews has merit. However, I would like to see the UK do more to showcase its strengths and show again that it truly can be the soft power superpower which it proclaims to be, doing more in this post-pandemic world to utilise the convening aspects of its soft power.  

Historically, the UK has been much admired as a country with significant global soft power reach; with cultural, historical, and educational assets serving as sources of influence around the world. The BBC World Service, with its significant global reach, is the flagship  example of this, and one I am particularly proud of. Estimates show that its weekly audience in 2022 was 489 million adults – figures that top any other international broadcaster. Given the debates we have seen in recent days around the future of the BBC, it is important to not lose sight of the BBC’s influential role as a cultural multiplier, spreading the English language and British culture across the world. 

Indeed, the UK has many cultural institutions which exemplify our soft power. Our world-class education system, with its universities and military academies, has been educating world leaders for centuries while the British Council has been hugely influential in teaching and capacity building overseas. Our political system is also widely respected, and the Houses of Parliament have been emulated by other national systems around the world. 

By looking at how our iconic soft power institutions have shaped the world, it clearly reaffirms the importance of British soft power as an arm of foreign policy. But in order to identify how we can innovate and identify new ways to use our soft power, we should look to what other countries are doing and learn from them, rather than resting on our laurels and historic achievements.

There are many examples we could consider across the Globe, particularly in the Gulf, which is perhaps the most often cited region for soft power influencers. However, there are good examples from other regions too. I have been impressed with how Kazakhstan, a landlocked country bordering Russia and China which for centuries has served as a natural corridor between Europe and Asia, has increasingly started leveraging its strategic position using its soft power on the global stage.

For me, the defining British soft power success story in recent years was the 2012 London Olympics

This has been increasingly noticeable since the war in Ukraine intensified, and has resulted in strengthened partnerships with the West, as evidenced by the recent visit by US Secretary of State Blinken, reinvigorated engagement with the EU and the arrival of the Foreign Secretary this week on the final leg of his tour east.  The country is taking a novel approach in seeking to amplify the voices of fellow ‘middle powers’ by hosting the Astana International Forum, taking place later this year. It is envisioned as a global platform which will bring together high-level representatives from all over the world, international organizations and businesses to discuss concrete steps to navigate the multifaceted challenges our world currently faces.

Beyond their convening power, summits, forums and global gatherings have always been an extremely effective soft power and foreign policy tool, if deployed correctly. For me, the defining British soft power success story in recent years was the 2012 London Olympics. It was a once in a generation opportunity for the UK that captured the attention and interest of the entire global community promoting British culture and values at home and abroad.

As a country, although we did a fantastic job of hosting the games, I fear that we have lost some of the dynamism which set us apart in previous years. To understand the value of these events, you only need to look at the impact of the Munich Security Conference, the World Economic Forum in Davos, and Paris Peace Forum, or what it meant to Indonesia to host the G20 in Bali last year. That is why countries in the Gulf have sought to emulate them, and unsurprisingly, why ambitious, and progressive countries like Kazakhstan are now following suit. 

I would like to see again some of this innovation and convening power come back into British foreign policymaking. There is no doubt that our ability to assert it has been hampered in recent years, but we should now look ahead to a brighter future where, once again, we can help define the world through dialogue - shaping collaborative solutions to today’s most pressing challenges. 

Richard Ottaway was MP for Croydon South from 1992 to 2015, and is a former Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee

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