Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 1st July, 2015
Gunboat diplomacy was often the way that Britain asserted its presence on the global stage in the 19th Century, and even as late as 2003 in Iraq, thanks to Tony Blair. But the predominant school of thought in London these days is that “soft power” can be a more effective way of winning friends and influencing people. The term was the subject of a presentation this lunchtime for the Global Strategy Forum at the National Liberal Club by Sir Ciarán Devane, Chief Executive of the British Council (that organisation does not have a Director these days, which is an interesting reflection of a change of mentality). In fact, Ciarán Devane does not like the term “soft power”, preferring the much less assertive “cultural relations”, and in his speech he emphasized the aspect of mutuality: the work of the British Council (and by extension, the UK) should be as much about listening as it is about communicating.
Some people have criticised the fact that so much of the emphasis of the Council these days is on English-language teaching, but as Sir Ciarán said, teaching English is a way of enabling people to engage with the world, as English is currently the global language. As someone who has been covering the Middle East and North Africa for the past 25 years, since I was part of the BBC World Service’s 24-hour rolling news coverage of the first Gulf War, I was especially interested to learn of the Young Arab Voices programme that the Council is running, helping to engage younger people (who might be largely ignored by their elders in a society that is still age-hierarchical); they are the likely agents of change, as well as the leaders of tomorrow. In the discussion following Sir Ciarán’s speech, I pointed out that I was surprised to learn about this initiative for the first time today, and wondered whether it is deliberately “below the radar” or something that the Council should be “out and proud” about. The latter, he replied. So let’s shout about it! It sounds a fab idea!
[photo: Sir Ciarán Devane and Acting GSF Chair Lord Howell]