Boe, Boyle and Bombs: Smart Power Rules

Watching Alfie Boe belt out Snow Patrol at the VE anniversary got me thinking about smart power. Soft power is about attraction and persuasion rather than coercion – “letting other people have your way” as diplomacy was described by Italian diplomat Daniele Vare. Joseph Nye argues that the most effective power combines hard and soft – smart power. This is the modern version of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Speak softly and carry a big stick “.

Any country needs to think strategically about this. Prime Minister David Cameron describes Britain as “the smart power superpower”. In the IfG-Monocle Soft Power Index, the UK came first in 2012, on the back of the London Olympics, second in 2013 and third in 2014. It is a league table that matters, and not just to diplomats. 

Effective smart power requires the right messages, the right mechanisms and the right means. I think there are six rules for the use of smart power in modern statecraft and modern streetcraft.

1. KNOW YOUR STORY

A nation needs a good narrative. This will be more effective if it is aspirational, inclusive, and doesn’t rely only on killing people from other nations. This is not easy. Danny Boyle’s brilliant telling of Britain’s island story during the 2012 Olympics moved many of us to tears, but a small number to rage. The countries that are most effective at smart power will understand their own story, and why it makes them attractive. It makes it easier to persuade others to support our agenda, on the basis that it is theirs too. It makes it easier to persuade others to share our values, because they work for them too. And it makes it more likely that they buy our goods, because they want them too.

2. KNOW YOUR ASSETS

Much smart power just happens. In fact it is far more credible when the message is carried by sportsmen, artists, Royals or business people rather than diplomats or politicians. Austria’s transvestite winner of the Eurovision song contest in 2014 did more for its reputation as an open and liberal country than years of government speeches and press releases. Guantanamo is as influential on the US brand as the Statue of Liberty. The Nobel Peace Prize will keep Norway near the top of the soft power league table as long as leaders aspire to win it. I spent time last week persuading the brilliant David Gray (in John Lewis –  him not me) to come to Lebanon. Like others who have performed here recently – Joss Stone, Keane, Katie Melua, Pet Shop Boys, Tom Jones – he’ll be a great ambassador for Britain. Diplomats have to draw on the power of what other players represent, while avoiding looking like an awkward uncle dancing at a wedding.

3. KNOW YOUR PLAN

A coherent smart power strategy does not just happen. Many emerging economies have recognised this, and are investing massively in media, cultural institutes and scholarships. Russia Today’s annual budget is over 700m USD, and China has set up over 400 Confucius Centres, promoting Chinese language and culture, globally in the last decade. Governments can focus the instruments they control. In particular this means coherence between development, defence and foreign affairs ministries. And backing organisations like the British Council, British Museum, Creative Industries Federation and BBC.

4. YOU CAN’T HAVE ONE WITHOUT THE OTHER

Even the most brutal empires recognised the need to balance military and non military force. Genghis Khan would have been unlikely to describe any of what he did as soft. But he realised that he maximised his influence if he was able to help people feel that they were better off with him than without him. The Romans were weak when they forgot the importance of bread and circuses, relying on subjugation alone. Rome was at its strongest when it created a narrative and offered aspirational people a share in it and a sense of magnetism, the early version of Reagan’s “Shining City on a Hill”.

Yet soft power without the threat of hard power quickly becomes “speak loudly and carry a small stick”.So hard and soft power must reinforce each other. They are different muscles to flex and sometimes to use. Hard power must never be neglected – as President Theodore Roosevelt said, don’t punch unless you have to, but never punch soft.

5. KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE

Any smart power strategy must recognise that those it is trying to influence are shaped by a different set of narratives, values and beliefs. As a post colonial ambassador, I frequently bounce into classrooms in the Middle East to talk about British creativity, openness, and innovation. Yet what the class sees is a successor of Arthur Balfour, whose declaration is seen as having laid the basis for the Arab world’s humiliation. Or the grandson of Mark Sykes, whose redrawing, with Picot, of the Middle East’s borders is seen in the region as having created every subsequent problem. They see imperial baggage.

Of course, we can’t wish away the baggage. We have to try to see ourselves as others see us, but not be defined, or knocked off balance by that. If we do not acknowledge it, we come across as arrogant, or cultural imperialists. We are not projecting smart power in a vacuum.

6. KNOW YOUR STRENGTHS

As nations weigh up their comparative advantages in the global race, there is no doubt that English-speaking countries have one significant advantage, for the next hundred years, at least. For anyone who wants to succeed in the 21st century, the English language is the language of information, education, opportunity,  the internet, globalisation. For traders and travellers, the language of Shakespeare, Facebook and the London and New York stock exchanges is not just useful – it is indispensable.

There are already more conversations in English between people whose second language is English than there are between native speakers of English.

                                   ********************

Diplomacy is easy when you’re a country on the rise. Representatives of other countries answer your phone, seek you out, expand their embassies and trade delegations. 

Diplomacy is also easy when you have won on the battlefield. Your rivals or opponents are more inclined to see things your way, and your allies to cut you some slack.

Diplomacy is easy when your people are in a pioneering mindset. The diplomats who put together empires aren’t the people who build them. They are preceded by traders, explorers, innovators. The great empires were all built on great start ups.

Diplomacy is easy when the rules are clear, when you are all playing on the same chess board. The subtle dance between the 19th century’s great European states had moments of great jeopardy, and in the end could not contain the shifts in the underlying tectonics of power. But, post Napoleon, the key players all felt the same interest in preserving a status quo. They spoke the same language, often literally. They even ensured that it was the language of the vanquished party.

Where diplomacy is hard therefore is where you are a nation or a region in perceived decline, when it becomes harder to get that White House meeting, or your press conferences is downgraded to a ‘pool spray’.

Diplomacy is hard when your hard power is on the wane, when your citizens are less willing to make great military sacrifices to impose the nation’s interests or extend your influence.

Diplomacy is hard when you are competing with players with greater pioneering zeal, when your nation looks its creative edge or hunger for innovation. Increasingly, that competition is not just from other nations.

Diplomacy is hard is when the rules of the game are in flux, when there are players willing to turn the chess board over, when the international system is being disrupted.Much of the West is therefore in a phase of hard diplomacy. Diplomacy that wears out the soles of your shoes, runs up time in the air, makes you work the phones, forces you to innovate and adapt. So it matters less whether you call it soft, smart or whatever the next catchphrase. What matters is that we call it power. And that we get out there and use it.

(There is a great House of Lords report on soft power here:  

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201314/ldselect/ldsoftpower/150/15002.htm)

(And here’s Alfie: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UKY3scPIMd8&feature=youtube_gdata_player)