Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 19:25 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 19:25 | SYDNEY

Soft power: A British perspective

30 November 2012 10:41

Paul Madden is the British High Commissioner to Australia.

So, on the back of the Olympics and Royal Jubilee, Monocle's annual survey has placed Britain at the top of its Soft Power league table this year. When I was running the FCO's Public Diplomacy department (2003-5) I would have been delighted.

But one thing I learned from that time is that a country represents an assemblage of brands about which people can have a diverse range of views. It is perfectly possible that someone may dislike some specific aspect of your foreign policy but still be happy to invest in London property and send their children to be educated in the UK.

Of course, as Joseph Nye pointed out in 1990, soft power is not just about making people like you, it's about influencing behaviour to get particular outcomes. Some of the impacts of our long Olympic summer provided direct support to our international economic agenda. Our businesses have shown they can deliver, and millions more tourists will have decided to visit.

But some of the underlying values which Britain projected, consciously or unconsciously, were also important in influencing the way people think about the UK's role in the world.

I suspect some people here in Australia who hadn't visited recently might have been surprised to see just how multicultural modern Britain is. Over 50 of the teams competing at the Olympics had more than 10,000 people from their country living in Britain. That helps to explain the breadth of our international engagement, and the fact that we have a relatively sophisticated understanding of a range of ethnic and religious diversities.

Many visitors commented on the warmth of the welcome they received, including from thousands of volunteers – just as in Sydney. But how does that translate to outcomes? Immigration is a sensitive issue in many countries right now, against a backdrop of slower economic growth. For countries like Britain and Australia, policies aim to facilitate the flow of the people the economy needs – bright students, skilled workers, business investors – and regulate the flow of others. Sometimes the tougher rhetoric can put off even the people we're trying to attract. So smiling welcomes at the Olympics can help.

Because the IOC, rather than the host nation, owns the Olympic brand, Britain developed a separate GREAT campaign to capitalise on London's summer in the world's eye. The FCO ran 200 events in 60 countries. Here in Australia we linked up with British racing greats and other celebs attending the Melbourne Grand Prix for a high profile launch. I met Hamish and Andy there, and ended up going on their show to talk about Britain...another example of soft diplomacy.

Personally I believe that, in soft diplomacy, what you do is usually more important than what you say.

One of the biggest cultural impacts Britain has around the world today is through its media. The BBC, the FT and The Economist have a significant impact on how people get their understanding of the world. But the government's role in that is essentially passive: we let them flourish. Even with the BBC, which receives public funding, we have no influence on its editorial lines. People in countries with media censorship suspect this independence can't be true, but in their hearts they know it is, and that's why they tune in. Open, transparent societies put much of the soft power in the hands of the people.