Have we gone too soft? Russia, soft power and military cuts

Last week the House of Lords Select Committee on Soft Power produced a report calling on the government to do better when it comes to utilising Britain’s soft power capabilities. Just a few days previous to this, a high ranking military official had voiced his concerns over the potential weakening of that which embodies Britain’s hard power – the Army, RAF and Royal Navy. Meanwhile, back at the Kremlin, Putin has apparently been feeling nostalgic for the days of the Soviet Union and plotting his next annexation (if certain pundits are to be believed). By all accounts, Russia’s belligerence in Eastern Europe has come as a shock. Just as it seemed that the withdrawal of our troops from Afghanistan signalled a reduction in the UK’s military commitments, suddenly we are faced with the possibility of deployment in Europe. So have we been too busy worrying about our soft power at the neglect of our hard power?

Soft power

According to the committee’s paper, Persuasion and Power in the Modern World, British soft power means…

…generating international power through influencing other countries to want the same things as the UK, by building positive international relationships and coalitions which defend our interests and security, uphold our national reputation and promote our trade and prosperity. This has been described as the exercise of ‘soft power’, as distinct from the use of force and coercion for a nation to assert itself, labelled as ‘hard power’.

In essence, it’s the ability to get others to do what you want them to do without the threat of force; a blend of charisma, charm and persuasion to get what you want. Which reminds me of that lovely quote that ‘a diplomat is a person who can tell you to go to hell in such a way that you actually look forward to the trip’. But this is about more than traditional concepts of diplomacy. In the view of the committee, the world has changed rapidly in the last few decades and with increased connectivity, globilisation and interdependence Britain cannot be complacent about how it exercises soft power. Rather than the formal treaties, alliances, trade negotiations and military competition of old, twenty-first century foreign relations are to be conducted via less obvious channels such as the BBC, the British Council and our universities: think Britannia rules the international research community. Art, language, music, television, sport, heritage, NGOs, the Commonwealth – all of these represent avenues through which Britain can make its presence known in the world. But it’s not all about Downton Abbey and exporting our boy bands. How Britain is to secure its interests abroad, ensure its own defence and influence those it needs to is an important, difficult and complicated task.

Military cuts

The idea that Britain can get all that it wants without resorting to military resources is an appealing one. After the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, there has certainly been a perceptible shift in regards to sanctioning use of the UK’s armed forces abroad; experts have argued that it will be a long time before the British public countenance international military action that involves boots on the ground. This aversion to become embroiled in any more foreign conflicts – together with economic needs – has influenced large cuts to the military and a move to relying on reservists. The army will face cuts of 20% to regular troop numbers over the next six years, while reservist numbers will increase. The Royal Navy and RAF will also be losing regulars while gaining reservists.

However, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Putin’s apparently increasingly bellicose attitude has brought this issue of hard versus soft power into sharp focus. Now it seems we could be facing an aggressor very close to home, and the wisdom of such military cuts is being called into question. Retiring Nato deputy supreme commander, General Sir Richard Shirreff, voiced his concerns when he claimed that the military – especially the Navy – would be left ‘hollowed-out’ by the cuts: ‘…“The yardstick by which we measure ourselves is our ability to punch above our weight”. You can’t do that now. By that yardstick, therefore, we’re failing.’ While Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, tried to dismiss Shirreff’s concerns as ‘nonsense’, the Commons defence select committee is also worried about the UK’s future military capabilities should these cuts go ahead. As it argued recently the crisis in Ukraine has shown that the threat of state-on-state conflict had not abated.

Soldiers Patrolling in Afghanistan. Photo: Cpl Mike O’Neill RLC LBIPP/MOD

Getting smart

The committee on soft power is quick to point out, however, that this is not a zero sum game:

We emphasise at the outset that we do not see the use of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ methods in the projection of a nation’s power as alternatives, but as mutually reinforcing. The coercive or ‘hard power’ use of military resources remains a key component in a nation’s armoury. But all our evidence confirms that new and more subtle combinations of both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ methods of power deployment are now necessary for national effectiveness and advancement on the global stage. These combinations have been christened as ‘smart power’: the use of both traditional and modern instruments of power to project and gain influence in a fast-changing world.

Again, Afghanistan has had its impact on our current thinking regarding smart power. The recent conflict provides a perfect example of how hard power alone is not necessarily enough to create the international order that the UK wants. Military methods have to be combined with political and social operations to achieve long-term peace and stability in countries ravaged by war. But then, we’ve known this all along. We knew this in the aftermath of the Second World War when the Allies were busy rebuilding Germany and Japan; we knew this going into Iraq and Afghanistan and coined the phrase ‘hearts and minds’ to remind us. There exists an entire canon of work on counterinsurgency (or COIN) that acknowledges the need for political remedies alongside military practices. And yet, when it came to Afghanistan, smart power appears to have been either forgotten or ignored, to the extent that the Lords committee is calling for a review into ‘how well DFID, the MOD and the FCO cooperated in Afghanistan, with a view to providing lessons for any future post-conflict reconstruction efforts’.

All of which means what for Britain’s future international relations? How do we rectify the committee’s findings with the recent military cuts and Russian belligerency? Well the lesson that already appears to be learnt from Afghanistan is that smart power needs to be front and centre of however Britain navigates future military questions. For as much as we should cultivate the variety of ways in which Britain influences the world, there will always be those who will only respond to force. It is understandable that recent events have made people reticent to becoming involved in further foreign conflicts. But we do not always have a choice. If Britain wants to have any kind of position of influence in the world, ultimately our soft power has to be supported by our hard power and we need to be militarily capable of this. Shirreff, the defence committee and others are not saying we should not have any cuts – just that any change to the military should be in line with Britain’s international commitments and defense requirements. At the same time, our military leaders and politicians need to understand, accept and employ the notion of smart power in foreign affairs.

As for Putin: well one of my previous posts demonstrates the affection I have for Russia and its people, and my belief that we should always try to see things from the other’s point of view. However, history provides ample evidence of what happens when we do not stand up to tyrants.

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  1. #1 by noelhibb9Noel Hibbert on 12/04/2014 - 4:29 pm

    You are on the right track here. We are in a looming 1930′s political conjuncture where a number of alternative political scenarios are emerging that can be very dangerous.for the world. The analogy of a rapdidly re-arming, beligerent and aggressive Russia, poses serious problems for a complacent western political leadership, including the USA.. Revanchism is on the march, based on old grievances, and as yet we have not woken up the emerging crisis in the the East.

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