Soft power and the decline of UK national influence

I read a fascinating article yesterday about how Brexit has damaged the UK’s standing internationally. The main thrust of the piece is that while the UK is only the 5th largest economy and by no mean the largest military force, it punched way above it’s weight when it came to soft influence like culture, democracy, and diplomacy.

Image from Der Spiegel

Hard Power is the ability to exercise influence via coercion be it military or economic and the United States is showing what Hard Power means in its insane sanctions with China. The US also wields considerable Soft Power through things like Hollywood and it’s portrail of life in America and a set of ultimately (still) liberal value, the support of freedom and capitalism.

American music, culture, and even the Internet has shaped the reach of the US and its influence globally. Can you image a world without Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple? Certainly, competitors would fill their shoes but these essentially Americn firms are deeply wired into our everyday lives.

The United Kingdom has had significant Soft Power over the last few hundred years. It began with Hard Power and the colonizing of great tracts of the world in the 19th century and the phony excuse that we were giving them the rule of law, representative democracy, and the English language.

Our Soft Power brand post the second world war was of a calm, responsible, essentially fair nation who would behave with decency and compassion. I would exclude the independence of India from this analysis as it was cruel, vindictive and disastrous. But by and large, the UK was an honest nation who would stick to their word and behave responsibly.

We exported our heritage, music, literature and drama far and wide. From the Beatles to Cool Britannia in the 1990s, UK music was world-class. Our sportsmen and women behaved themselves and obeyed the rules. Wimbledon has changed little over the past few decades with minimal advertising on court, a dress code and a whole set of behaviors and norms that reflect a British Identity we still cling onto.

Companies want to invest in the UK as it has accress to a large market (Europe), access to capital (City of London), access to (fairly) skilled labour, access to good R&D. As a result of all of this the UK was still a force on the world stage as we had a significant amount of Soft Power.

However, Soft Power, like reputation takes a long time to build and a short time to loose. In the Monocle survey of Soft Power in 2018 the UK was 1st -this year we are 6th with the UK being described as ‘antagonistic, chaotic undiplomatic’. This means that we are seen as harder to deal with, less trust worthy and most important for me less relevant on the world stage. We will find ourselves increasing ignored as Brexit crawls on as other nations conclude that it is just too much like hard work to deal with us.

So we are in danger of abandoning our closest trading partners for a mythical utopia of free trade agreements with a world who find us less trustworthy and harder to deal with. This is a recipe for disaster.

Beyond the systemic damage to our political system caused by Brexit I think we will only realize how far we have fallen when we are no longer members of the G7 and give up our seat on the Security Council.

Sadly, unless we are careful, we will define ourselves by our past not our future.Parts of our society want to go back to some halcyon time between the end of rationing in July 1954 and the World Cup final in 1966. I do not, the future is far more interesting than the past.

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