There is nothing ‘Soft’ about Britain’s ‘Soft’ Power in the Modern World

Lord Bates

Harvard professor, Joe Nye began his seminal work Soft Power (2004) as follows:‘More than four centuries ago, Niccolo Machiavelli advised princes in Italy that it was more important to be feared than to be loved, but in today’s world it is best to be both’. Professor Nye, went on to describe the term soft power as, “the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes one wants through attraction rather than coercion or payment“.

There are many aspects of national power that may cause other nations to ‘fear’ or respect us military, political alliances and economic power are perhaps the best known.

We are familiar with rankings of economic power by GDP where the UK are currently ranked fifth and closing the gap on Germany in fourth though a very long way off the United States and China. We may know that the World Bank ranked the UK sixth in the annual ranking of the best places to Do Business, up two places on last year. We know of rankings of military power which ranks the UK ninth (Credit Suisse).

All of this is very impressive and helps the UK ‘punch above its weight’ on the world stage in the familiar but rather ugly diplomatic idiom, but what about those aspects of power which may cause other nations to ‘love’ or like us rather than ‘fear’ us?

Here we are helped by a survey carried out by ComRes for Portland Communications who produce an annual index The Soft Power 30 which compares sources of a country’s soft power across six categories—Government, Culture, Education, Global Engagement, Enterprise and Digital. In this index the UK is the undisputed No1 ahead of Germany and the United States with China in 30th position and Russia not even making the footnotes.

This hugely impressive performance does not come as a surprise to those who have the privilege to travel around the world. The English language, our world-class universities, our historic buildings, institutions and ideas such as parliament, the monarchy, and Magna Carta, our legal system, the BBC, films such as the latest Star Wars movie and James Bond, television series such as Downton Abbey and Dr Who, music from the Beatles to Adele, literature from Shakespeare to Harry Potter and sport from the Premier League to our pioneering paralympians are all established sources of Britain’s ‘soft’ capital.

In more recent years however there has been a significant increase in our standing in terms of Global Engagement. The commitment to deliver on the 0.7% of GDP pledge on Overseas Aid has strengthened our moral authority on the international stage and as our economy grows so does our generosity to the world’s poorest. The strengthening of our commitment to the Commonwealth through the Commonwealth scholarships and tripling the places under the Chevening scholars programme for students from developing and emerging powers.

Initiatives such as the GREAT Britain campaign, which has continued on from the hugely successful London 2012 Games. The protection of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s budget in real terms announced in the Autumn Statement by the Chancellor and the strengthened role of UK Trade & Investment, embassies/diplomatic missions and the British Council signal a collective ambition to capitalise on this new found wealth at the heart of government.

Why is this important? Three reasons:

First, culture connects us. Cultural exchange builds trust and understanding and reminds us that we are all human first. Trust is the base currency in which all global politics and trade is transacted. Where there is trust there is trade; locally, nationally and internationally and wealth is created as a result. The commercial world is of course ahead of politics and diplomacy in understanding the value of soft power in terms of brand value now often being the largest item on the corporate balance sheet. Brand value is of course a corporate proxy for trust is the hardest to build and yet the easiest to lose. The same goes for national soft power.

Secondly, because we live in a world where through the growth of international institutions and rules, nations are less able to project hard economic or military power without agreement, soft power achieves a new strategic value for the UK being able to engage positively and yet uninhibited around the world.

Third,  ‘soft power’ is ‘twice blessed’ to paraphrase Shakespeare as when this particular ‘weapon’ is deployed the benefits flow to both the giver. And, when nations enter into an ‘arms race’ in soft power the world always ends up in a better place as a result–not because of being coerced by ‘fear’ but rather by being inspired by ‘love’.

If then power is defined as the ‘ability affect others and obtain the outcomes one wants’ then in the modern world there is nothing ‘soft’ about Britain’s ‘Soft Power’ in delivering those outcomes when compared to ‘hard’ alternatives. It should increasingly be seen as our ‘weapon’ of first resort and receive resources to match.


In 2015 Michael Bates undertook a 1059 mile walk in China to mark the First Year of UK-China Cultural Exchange and raised over £90,000 for the Red Cross. In 2016 he will undertake a walk between Argentina and Brazil to raise awareness for the 2016 Olympic Truce and to raise funds for UNICEF. Further information can be found at

8 comments for “There is nothing ‘Soft’ about Britain’s ‘Soft’ Power in the Modern World

  1. MilesJSD
    30/12/2015 at 10:47 am

    This basic democratic information is Key, and a somewhat welcome surprise –

    [because we are still a “the public does not need-to-know” top-down one-way ‘benign’ but ‘fair-weather’ oligarchy

    with more than one of its other vital heads buried in sand:
    such as the deliberate corruption of our ‘world-beating’ English language – please see my longer-than usual more strategic comment to Baroness Deech’s below post on “xenophobic” “religious” “political” and “wrong-habits that feel right” inter-national human discriminations].
    There are other and worse ‘sleeper-sabotage-bombs’ hidden in our inaccesible Constitution and below our private as as our world-leading “face”;
    so let me ‘majorly give way’ here …

    • MilesJSD
      30/12/2015 at 10:53 am

      hidden…(below our private) as well as (our world-leading “face”).

  2. 30/12/2015 at 6:45 pm

    You mention the influence of the Chevening scholars programme. There are many other such scholarships available to overseas students, not least Rhodes scholarships,places at Goodenough College, cadetships at Sandhurst and,for an older age group, places at the Royal College of Defence Studies. These institutions play an enormously important role in making opinion-formers from many countries aware of the U.K. and our ethos.
    Christopher Bellew

    • MilesJSD
      04/01/2016 at 2:49 pm

      The final word to us of the then new Royal Military Academy Sandhurst’s Intake-1 graduation June 1948, was
      “You young gentlemen may go amongst all races of people worldwide, just remember that the way to a man’s heart is through Religion:
      his… religion”.

  3. claire
    02/01/2016 at 3:02 pm

    Dear house of lords, please stop the genocide of the palestinians. stop the pro israeli zionists from whitewashing what israel does and shutting down all debate on what israel is doing to the palestinians.

    • MilesJSD
      04/01/2016 at 2:59 pm

      Dear claire,
      please do a detailed Appreciation of the whole-world-wide Situation & ‘Predicamentation-ing’
      before deifying “one-side” [the Palestinian Arabs]
      and demonising “the other side” [the IsraeliJews] –

      there are so many factors –
      could you, please ?.

  4. 06/01/2016 at 3:07 pm

    As Director of Goodenough College, which accommodates international postgraduates studying at London’s universities, I welcome the greater emphasis on Britain’s Global Engagement. The recent increase in funding for Commonwealth and Chevening Scholarships has been underscored by an explicit reference to these schemes and others in the 2015 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence & Security Review which states ‘We will maximise the benefits of this investment over the coming years, building a strong international network of individuals who support the UK and our values’ (paragraph 5.5).

    The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals also include a commitment to ‘substantially expand globally the number of scholarships available to developing countries by 2020’.

    A pity then that the Government continues to make it difficult for international students to study in the UK through its immigration policy.

    Andrew Ritchie

    • maude elwes
      19/01/2016 at 2:30 pm

      @ Andrew Rirchie

      Your analysis on British tax payers money being once again increased and used for non British participants exacerbates the situation fro those who wish to attend colleges without financial strangulation if they are British.

      As our country is in financial dire straits, according to what we hear via our media, it would be fitting if all foreign aid to whomever it goes was withdrawn and a new look at whose interests our money should be allocated toward.

      International students should turn to their own country for funding or perhaps their own families, as they do here, getting themselves into extreme dept should not simply be an option for British students.

      Obviously I can read you have a vested interest in their being assisted, but, in those circumstances you should turn to private philanthropists who are more willing to fund those outside our boarders than from within them.

      Our immigration policy in the UK is ludicrously lax and certainly needs tightening in line with world depression. We cannot afford more dependants wherever they originate.

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