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John Baron MP: A £2.2million reprieve for the BBC World Service does not reverse short-sighted cuts to our soft power capability

Baron John.ashx John Baron is Conservative MP for Basildon and Billericay.

News that the Government has found an extra £2.2million for the BBC World Service is welcome. But this in itself does not reverse the cuts being made to our soft power capability. One of the key lessons from the Arab Spring is that, in this information age, winning the story is just as important as winning the conflict. To this end, soft power will become increasingly important, to the advantage of those countries which properly resource this asset. Yet Britain is almost alone in reducing its soft power capability.

Secular trends such as increased competition for the world’s natural resources, the rise of powerful competitors, the advent of the information age, and climate change have created new dynamics and challenges. The relatively straight forward realities of statecraft and power are giving way to much more fluid geopolitical forces, in terms of both state and non-state agents.

The information revolution in particular has had a profound effect. Increased computing speed and a huge reduction in transmission costs have reduced barriers to entry into the information marketplace. As a result, in today’s global information age, even the most powerful countries and institutions now have to share the world stage with new entrants such as Wikileaks, NGO’s and terrorist groups. This development brings with it greater transparency and scrutiny.

In this information age, success will depend on who wins the story. And the ability to win the battle of ideas and not just the conflict will depend increasingly on a country’s ability to project its soft power - to obtain what one wants through co-option and attraction, rather than coercion and payment.

The BBC World Service and The British Council are key assets in Britain’s soft power capability. The BBC World Service has a weekly audience of over 180 million globally. It is politically independent, non-profit and commercial free. It has great credibility. Yet the Coalition Government wants to cut its funding. Audiences of 10 million in India are being lost for a trivial saving of less than £900,000. The £2.2million  reprieve is welcome, but the BBC World Service still has to find £42 million of annual savings by 2014. Such short sightedness is beyond the comprehension of friend and foe alike.

The British Council is the UK's international cultural relations body.  It was founded in 1934 at the time of the rise of fascism in Europe. Its remit is "to build mutually beneficial cultural and educational relationships between the United Kingdom and other countries, and increase appreciation of the United Kingdom’s creative ideas and achievements." Its overseas network extends to over 100 countries. But yet again it is being forced to make cuts, and encouraged to become more ‘commercial’ despite the risk of this damaging the brand.

Contrast our short-sightedness with the approach of our competitors. China has established 320 overseas Institutes in the last six years. France has nearly 1,000 Alliance Française missions abroad. Germany spends £230 million on Deutsche Welle every year, whilst the Goethe Institute’s 144 missions abroad serve to promote German language and culture. Despite the poor perception of its recent foreign policy interventions, the strength of the American brand remains undiminished. Even a country the size of Switzerland manages to effectively punch above its weight – which proves soft power capability is not dependent on military might. 

When it comes to the projection of this capability, the West has inherent advantages. As older states with developed science, arts and fashion, respected civil bodies and traditions of democracy, the currency of soft power is more readily available and deployed. Despite their heavy investment in soft power, autocratic countries are less likely to succeed because it has little credibility. Its attractiveness is limited by the very nature of the regime which espouses it.

The hope is that there will be a greater recognition in the conduct of our foreign policy that our interests lie in upholding our values – democracy, the rights of the individual, the rule of law, etc. But such values must not be forced onto other countries. Persuasion is much more powerful. But, if this is to be the case then it will be increasingly important for ‘hard power’ to be complemented by ‘soft power’, in order to win the battle of ideas as well as the conflict. The UK has a relative advantage, but it is being squandered through trivial funding cuts and misguided policies.


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