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Is the government soft on soft power?

Mark Urban | 17:35 UK time, Thursday, 21 October 2010

The National Security Strategy, published on Monday, placed great emphasis on conflict prevention, intervening less often militarily, and greater intelligence gathering to spot emerging crises earlier.

It all fits with a fashionable approach that is sometimes called "smart" or "soft" power.

Yet how should one interpret these on-trend messages in the light of Wednesday's Comprehensive Spending Review? The Foreign Office faces a 24% cut, the British Council one of 25%, and there will be a 7.3% real fall in the intelligence services' account.

The Foreign Office intends to offload much of the pain on the BBC - by getting the corporation to fund the government's £240m share of the World Service budget from the licence fee.

Once the World Service is taken out of the picture, the cut to the diplomatic service looks more like 10%.

Even so, people at the FCO concede that some diplomatic posts overseas are likely to close as a result of the cuts. Typically, they say, consular offices in some countries may be consolidated. In one or two minor states, the embassy itself will face closure.

So what about the World Service, regarded by many as one of Britain's most powerful "soft power" assets, and hence largely funded up to now by a Foreign Office Grant In Aid to the BBC?

In the past, decisions about increasing the hours of one foreign language broadcast or cutting those of another have been regarded as an important instrument of foreign policy. Ministers have hinted that they still expect call the tune, even though they will no longer be paying the BBC piper.

For the BBC though, trying to maintain these overseas broadcasts (and the BBC Monitoring Service, which will also no longer receive Foreign Office money) in addition to its other services, with a frozen licence fee, will be challenging to say the least.

Cuts are inevitable, and the Foreign Office, I hear, is relieved that it will be pressing the responsibility for wielding the axe on the BBC.

As for forecasting problems through better intelligence collection and analysis, both the agencies (mainly MI6 and GCHQ in this case) and the machinery used to process that information (the Joint Intelligence Committee and Defence Intelligence Staff) are expecting cuts.

The mandarins who deal with these services are sanguine about the reductions, both because they have just had a few years of real growth, and because there will be £600m of new money to be spent on the latest priority - cyber security.

We can expect a good old-fashioned Whitehall knife fight about where this cash will flow.

Although GCHQ can expect a central role, officials caution that the money is expected to be used across the whole of government to increase the security of computer systems.

The MoD announced the formation of its Cyber Operations Group this week, and other agencies, such as MI6, are sure to stake their claim too.

Much of it will no doubt go on equipment, as the government attempts to erect more effective firewalls around its departments, and only a small amount of it on offensive efforts that might help this country's decision makers be better informed.

Some might argue that there is one bright star on the soft power horizon in the increase in funding to the Department for International Development. It is planning to double to around £3.8bn a year the amount it spends in crisis areas or failing states.

Although welcome, the question about how this money might make the world safer or Britain more popular will be very hard to answer. Indeed the department is not meant to pursue British foreign policy objectives by the distribution of aid, and today the prime minister, David Cameron, defended the increase in DfID's funding in terms of a "moral duty" to help the poor rather than advance the UK national interest.

In summary then, the agencies most concerned with wielding soft power emerge unevenly from the events of this week.

It is true they have not been cut as heavily as some departments, but also that it is difficult to reconcile the government's avowed interest in soft power with the cuts to the British Council, withdrawal of its direct support to the World Service, and reduction of its diplomatic presence overseas.


  • Comment number 1.


    I can't see the Queen's 90th birthday celebrated with a march-past of faceless men in grey suits. And an apology for no hardware parade, as it is all secret, and rain upsets it.

    Why not admit we are bellicose, warlike, offensive, invasive, militaristic TO OUR CORE? I keep pointing out that ALL our formal pageantry is MILITARY in nature. (The rest is reliant on alcohol - what a bunch of UNRECONSTRUCTED NEANDERTHALS.)

    Anyway - 'Who Dares Dave' is as jingoistic as they come. While he sits at the Globopoly table, hard power will suit his 'hard man' dreams, and we shall remain stuck in a tank rut.

  • Comment number 2.

    For goodness sakes, Mark Urban - what planet are you living on? British Council is a quite dreadful organisation ... riddled with corruption ..
    serving no useful purpose whatsoever ... proper diplomats know that it
    is a complete foreign policy liability ... don't confuse it with 'soft
    power' ....... and do not weep for a Quango that should have been axed

  • Comment number 3.

    And for the real story of the Whitehall knife-fight over the BBC World Service and the FCO budget take a look at the comments posted on Crick's
    Newsnight blog and the role of Jeremy Hunt in all this stinks of conflict
    of interest ....... As for UK DfID's shift of emphasis into the realm of
    counter-insurgency, be aware too that this is causing huge concern among
    development professionals .... UK DfID currently has no proper safeguard
    against the corruption that has been documented in these areas so further
    cuts in back-office auditing staff suggest ring-fenced aid will be wasted

    I say devolve 'soft power' in the arts and education to the devolved Governments and separate that from foreign policy in Whitehall (that
    is the smart and subtle way to do 'soft power'); axe the British Council which is amateur and screws up everything it touches; refocus the FCO budget on providing cultural attachés in key overseas missions to act
    as focal points; and let the private sector do the rest. Look at the French model or indeed the Russian model and let the army handle the
    development aspects of counter-insurgency instead of bloody amateurs!

    UK DfID should stick to tackling poverty.

  • Comment number 4.

  • Comment number 5.

  • Comment number 6.

    And somebody needs to tell the fatheads at The British Council/Education UK that WOLVERHAMPTON IS NOT REPEAT NOT IN WALES .......:

    Any diplomati who buys intelligence from these people is soft in the heid!

  • Comment number 7.

    The Foreign Office can start saving big money by getting rid of media relations types in EVERY embassy and high commission in the world. How often do ambassadors and high commissioners need a media spokesman anyway? In Canada, the last mention of the UK high commission was a prize awarded for a stupid comment during the G20 about people of Toronto streaming out of the city and leaving more room for UK diplomats to watch the world cup in pubs!

  • Comment number 8.

    Whatever power there is, or gets bestowed, I fervently hope that, ultimately those who wield it will be accountable to, and hence aware of, and governed by the wishes of democratic voters. The latter suitably informed and up to speed with actions and consequences in their name.

    If the pen is mightier than the sword, then the edit suite is a potential WMD, and leaving such 'power' to those whose accountability seems near zero and tenure near infinite seems... a matter of concern.

  • Comment number 9.


    The BBC shoe-horns visual gimmickry and unconducive musack into, over, behind and through, all programs PURPORTING to deliver factual or rational content. Signal-to-noise ration is of no account. Indeed, it is apparent, that background noise is now ACTIVELY SOUGHT for location pieces.


  • Comment number 10.

    "Ministers have hinted that they still expect call the tune, even though they will no longer be paying the BBC piper."

    Are Ministers not calling your tune Mr Urban? If not, who else is prompting your war mongering and manifestly biased stance toward Iran?

    Any balanced, impartial and fair enquiry into which states are threatening and aggressive in the world will tell you that the USA is chief amongst nations. Yet, all we hear from you about threats seems to regard Iran as a danger to peace. Indeed you are positively obsessed with hyping up the threat from the Persian state.

  • Comment number 11.


    Forgers all - our jingoistic leaders, dominated by Destruction Dave, are busy FORGING ball-points into pointless weaponry; the stuff that heroes are un-made of.

    While we make no effort to raise the overall maturity of Britain, there will always be Tonys and Daves to urge others on, to greater glory, and fodder-fools, led by Sandhurst Donkeys, to do the slaughter. Johnnie Muslim, whose pen was well-versed, long before we could even make a decent sword, is of no account - written or otherwise.

    We are, literally, a bloody disgrace.

    Blogdog: the word 'bloody' is used in its proper sense.

  • Comment number 12.

    the pen is not mightier than the sword if it has no ink...but a sword can still do serious damge and it doesn't rely on ink....

  • Comment number 13.

    The National Security Strategy placed great emphasis on conflict prevention, less intervention militarily, and greater intelligence gathering to spot emerging crises earlier.
    We both know there are problems with the oprganizations that are charged with these responsibilites. So it would've made better sense to me to have these agencies audited and cleaned up before charging with "soft" power.
    1. UK military and US military are like symbiotic twins, and this must stop. The UK must develop a completely independent foreign policy. You cannot, like the Americans, bomb a people into thinking the way you do - even if you use depleted uranium and white phosphorous. The great need, the great hunger is to listen, really listen to the so-called enemy. It's almost impossible to remain a total enemy when your enemy is talking to and listening to your concerns.
    2. I have little respect for intelligence gathering, though I won't pretend to know any of the problems that plague M16, etc. I do note with some bemusement how these agencies, especially in the United States are so much more able to solve security breaches after the fact.
    I agree with "soft" power, which to be effective must be "smart": There fore it makes perfect sense (NOT) to cut
    - the Foreign Office - 24%,
    - the British Council - 25%, and
    - intelligence services - 7.3%,
    especially when no audit has occurred to identify and fix the problems that currently exist.
    What do these cuts tell me?
    a) In respect to "soft" diplomacy, The Coalition Government is not clear on where it is going or why? But it does have the tendency to jump the gun (e.g. Uk bank levy seperate from EU)
    b) The Caolition Government has little conception re "smart" but "soft" diplomacy - maybe no diplomats who are capable of handling "soft" diplomacy, maybe little idea of the resourcing required.
    c) Both a and b above point out the relative inexperience of the Coalition Government re handling World events, except of course to keep reiterating it likes the EU, but it doesn't want to be a part of the EU. To which I keep asking myself why?
    Does the Uk think she is part of the United States?
    d) There will be £600m of new money to be spent on the latest priority - cyber security. The MoD announced the formation of its Cyber Operations Group this week, and other agencies, such as MI6, are sure to stake their claim too.
    If the Coalution Government had a clear vusion re cyber security, it would be useless to stake claims because The Coalition would be telling the "soft" aparatus how the cyber security will work, but of course the Coalition cannot do that; so The Colaition Government runs the risk of being pecked into little useless pieces of cyber intelligence that are uncoordinated for all practical purposes - useless.
    e) The increase in funding to the Department for International Development = doubling to around £3.8bn a year the amount it spends in crisis areas or failing states. You mean like the United States does, taking over failung states, imposing its puppets (as in Haiti & Somalia).
    This type of intervention in international development doesn't seem destined to make the world safer, just more unsafe and exploited.
    David Cameron, defended the increase in DfID's funding in terms of a "moral duty" to help the poor rather than advance the UK national interest. Don't helping the poor and advancing the UK national interest go together - like I extend my hand to a poor country in friendship, I talk to this country; I listen to this country. I give this country all the help I can. Then, our friendshop makes us both better off, and the world a little safer.
    I dislike saying this, but you must keep a keen eye on this Coalition Government. It seems to have little concept of "soft" power and little experience with foreign affairs, and neither of these is a good in the modern world.

  • Comment number 14.

    The government's belief in foreign aid to help our "soft power" is likely
    to be misplaced, the US spends a great deal on USAID, but the country is still widely distrusted, the same with this country. sadly you have more respect in many parts of the world, if you throw your weight around, when our potential and actual enemies see our Defence cuts there probably consider Britain is retreating back into a "Little Englander" posture, whatever the emphasis on "Soft Power", speaking softly with a big stick still matters more in International Politic's.

  • Comment number 15.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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