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Brigadier David Allfrey MBE FRGS UDSS considers understanding and delivering on a national value proposition

In the introduction to ‘Global Britain: delivering on our international ambition,’ the UK government states: 

“The UK has always taken a leading role in responding to global challenges and in making the most of opportunities for our country. However, information and influence are dispersed and contested amongst many more actors, both state and non-state. This, and the pace of change in an ever more challenging global environment, inevitably have a significant impact on how the UK government projects influence and protects its national interests.

“The shifting global context, a new relationship with Europe, and the need to deliver more with finite resources, requires us to evolve and enhance how we achieve our goals. We need to use government assets more cohesively and efficiently to maintain our global standing. Global Britain is about reinvesting in our relationships, championing the rules-based international order and demonstrating that the UK is open, outward-looking and confident on the world stage.  This guides us explicitly to pay greater attention to our national ‘value propositions’ and to market our conceptual, physical and moral assets and capabilities more effectively and more efficiently.”

To reinforce the point, the British Council suggests that:

“At this crucial juncture in the UK’s history, soft power should be at the heart of policymakers’ thinking. Whether it is securing vital new trade deals with friends old and new; renewing relations with European neighbours that may have been somewhat strained in recent years; or securing global progress on global challenges like climate change, the UK’s ability to attract and co-opt others is becoming ever more important to its prosperity and international influence.”

Irrespective of where one stands on Britain’s stance(s) in the world – and whether you label it ‘soft power,’ ‘smart power,’ ‘real power,’ ‘influence,’ ‘cultural diplomacy’ or even ‘business development,’ a focus on the utility of soft power is important as (posited by Joseph Nye in the late 1980s): “the ability of a country to persuade others to do what it wants without force or coercion”.  For military thinkers, this pairs tidily with Sun Tzu’s advice that “To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”

Accordingly, as Britain steps forward within the evolving strategies of Global Britain and these against the backdrop of everchanging world events, it is timely to examine how our nation best presents itself to the world and to reflect on our national brand; to examine how we might seek to engage and influence others, making appropriate use of all that we have while  matching resources and focus to this end.

A brand is a promise that appeals to the head (the rational) and the heart (the emotional) of its target audiences, whether they are customers, partners, stakeholders, those watching from a flank or even antagonists and competitors.  In business, brand management looks to condition every facet of an enterprise: a company’s ethos, values and standards, purpose, ideas, ways of working, messages and tone of voice, pricing, quality of products and services, the behaviours of all its employees internally and externally, and lots more. 

To be credible and successful, a company’s action – and its brand-action – should present as powerfully as its words if not more so.  The same applies to institutions and nations.  To be credible and successful, a nation must fulfil its promises across the breadth and depth of its policies and its associated actions – and they must be robust, consistent and sustainable.

There are many learned works that explore the nature of power, and its definition continues to evolve.  However, most commentators would agree that power – the basis for influence – is ultimately based on control of resources and their value to others.  It makes sense therefore for us to understand our ‘value proposition’: why others should do business with us. 

The Prussian military thinker, Carl von Clausewitz, suggested in his work On War that “war is a continuation of policy with other means” and therefore a nation’s armed forces should be organised and equipped to support national policy whether this be defensive or offensive.  In a similar vein, one should reasonably expect domestic, foreign, economic, trade and cultural policies and capabilities to be tailored and resourced towards presenting our value, and growing influence and power, to set the tone for our conduct and contribute meaningfully to our desired outcomes.  

In totalitarian regimes, it is relatively simple to bring together all the instruments of national power in a singular strategic direction.  In liberal democracies, with their permissive politics, strong media and public opinion and a panoply of special-interest groups, it is much more difficult to develop focus or consensus.

Ironically, it is the freedoms of the evolved democracies that encourage entrepreneurship,  diversity of approach and offer the examples that others might be tempted to emulate but, at the same time, making unity of effort more difficult to achieve.  Perversely, when considering how better to harness a nation’s influence, it is often an eclectic mix of national character and value – sometimes unintentionally – that achieves the best results in drawing others to align.

For soft power to have its desired outcomes, it cannot be seen to be driven or contrived.  It must be ‘natural’ and authentic.  Any contrivance, artificial promotion, or differences between ‘the walk and the talk’ will quickly be spotted and national credibility compromised. 

Across the centuries, as our world has become more complicated and interconnected, so it has been recognised that the threat or use of hard power offers less than sustainable solutions to most of the world’s problems.  This trend and the brutal economics of defence are compelling us to find “other means” to achieve our ends. 

A painter uses a palette of colours and clever brushwork to create the values, hues and saturation that are needed to shape the composition, to colour the background, convey atmosphere or to draw the eye towards desired points of detail.  More talented artists can use a limited palette to mix an infinite range of colours, tones and tints to match just about any mood or scene.  In our case – and for many of our friends – history, hard work and chance have gifted us a remarkable ‘paint box’ from which to draw – there is something in the box for every occasion. 

So, to match the analogy, perhaps we should learn to become even more imaginative and nuanced in approaching today’s international challenges, looking more carefully and more broadly at the instruments that might be available to us in forming our interactions.  Given Britain’s pedigree in taking a ‘global’ and strategic view of the world, perhaps we might simply need to pay renewed attention to the sophisticated skills of engagement and building multipolar relationships while encouraging the same in our partners.  Not least as an exchange of ideas generally offers benefit to everyone in the conversation.

All of this activity suggests a truly integrated approach to effort and resources.  Therefore, each community of interest should be encouraged not only to look to its own objectives but, at the same time and with as much energy, have an eye to supporting others.  This approach would stimulate a shift in our attitude to collaboration – as opposed to competition – not just in domestic affairs (which might offer its own benefits) but also in deepening our relationships with international allies and friends. 

The government’s recent Integrated Review certainly encourages an emphasis but appears to stop short of the organisational and resource changes that are essential to plan and execute soft power initiatives at scale.  That said, the scope and scale of liaison may be more robust in practice than it appears and, if this is the case, then the mechanisms for cross-sectoral, inter-departmental and inter-organisational cooperation need to be set in a stronger light.  There is a sense that the strategic direction is clear, but we lack for the operational focus and devices to bring it better together and to seize fleeting opportunities.  So often, good projects are driven by personality rather than by the process born of habit.  And, although the FCDO Tool Kit is being used and Integrated Development Plans – and other initiatives – are in train, perhaps there is a need to extend their reach further and deeper into the communities of potential contributors while pressing for even better integration across departments.  There is a sense that many organisations outside the Departments of State would be willing to contribute more – if only they knew how. 

A broad range of ‘colours’ is available to us to mix the most subtle and appropriate combinations, each potentially optimised for the circumstances, the audience and the desired outcomes.  Our ‘palette’ offers options ranging from military intervention at the hard end (prompting involuntary action and short-term effect) through coercive diplomacy, sanctions, payments and inducements to cultural diplomacy, institutional mentoring, and exchanges at the soft end (encouraging voluntary action and often longer-term impact).  The colour mix – and instruments used to paint – will depend on the objectives desired, the ease with which a particular solution might be exercised, the time available and the relative cost.  The real art lies in using all our ingenuity and skills together to create the best ‘picture’. 

So, how to make the best use of national assets to add value to our brand, when our nation, and many others are embarked on new chapters of consolidation and growth; and how to do this without compromise to credibility, richness or authenticity?  This comes back to our having a clear sense of our value propositions.  Where are we excellent, where do we differentiate, where are we unique, where do we represent the ‘best choice’ and where can we offer solutions?  Rather wonderfully, we seem to have so much to offer and across the range of human affairs. 

Perhaps though, the foundations of our proposition are based firmly on our nation’s values and standards.  And, where values coincide with others there are wonderful opportunities for collaboration.  Cooperation brings both depth and width to combined efforts. 

This approach is not to suggest that we all need to think – or desire – the same because part of our national instinct is the desire to find synergies and consensus.  As a case in point, amongst the array of transnational organisations with whom we deal, the Commonwealth is a remarkable and long-standing example of this.  How better to celebrate Her Majesty The Queen’s platinum anniversary than to reach into this colourful and vibrant community to reinforce existing friendships and seek new opportunities?

For some nations, their values are carefully defined in their constitutions but in the case of the UK, some research is required to establish where our values are recorded.  They may be found in early iterations of the Prevent documentation, as principles in the British Council’s syllabus for British citizenship and in a slightly reduced form in the National Curriculum.  These values – like our Constitution – while understood by many through precedent, custom and habit, are not so often reinforced explicitly in policymaking. This makes a ‘golden thread’ quite challenging to follow, particularly in developing initiatives and their associated resources. 

To seek a path through this landscape, we need first to place proper value on the Return of Influence (RoF); that which comes from persuading others to support your ideas or to partner with you.  The emotions of appeal, attraction, and emulation.  These are opposed to the punishment, compulsion, inducement, and persuasion associated with the blunter instruments of hard power. 

Influence is notoriously difficult to measure as it depends on ‘warm’ rather than ‘cold’ metrics.  Although it can be measured subjectively through conversion rates and shifts in attitude, it is often tricky to isolate objective measures of success that can be set tidily on a Balance Sheet or in an audit report.  Like a marketing budget in business, it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint the precise inputs that have generated the desired effect.  As is so often the case, it is the sum of the parts that matters. 

In Britain, great work is being done annually by BrandFinance, Portland Communications and others to rate the international community in terms of their soft power results.  While the methodologies will continue to evolve, trend analysis offers real insights into what works and what does not.  So, without wishing to be perverse, perhaps it might be a good moment to set the data side-by-side with the outcomes of hard power to test where an optimum Return on Investment (RoI) might lie.

Come what may, perhaps we all need to examine more closely the dynamics of hard and soft power and their relative impact on wider relationships and influence in the spheres of business, government, international relations, culture and heritage, media and communications, education and science and on people and their values.  This examination needs to be horizontal (between disciplines) as well as vertical (within disciplines) and perhaps across some carefully guarded borders.

Such work is sure, in my view, to confirm that many of us can contribute usefully.  Well trained Service and Civil Service personnel can swiftly and easily turn their skills and experience to soft power activity, while the private sector and charities have a wonderful opportunity and sometimes desire to support national endeavour in common purpose. 

Experience shows that ‘soft power’ – in all its forms – can be a natural and effective catalyst in national and institutional brand-building towards building prosperity and prestige.  However, it is challenging to orchestrate all the elements without appearing contrived or insincere.  Indeed, a national brand invariably reflects an outside view of a nation and its people so a positive view can only be achieved if everything is aligned.  This all suggests that harnessing our soft power assets requires guidance and support rather than control – a great point is often made lightly.   And, while many people claim to understand the nature of soft power and its relationship with hard power, less often do we make the essential connections that result in the best outcomes.

We have not done a bad job across the years but, given the conceptual, physical, and moral advantages that we enjoy, perhaps there is room to do even better. 

Universal Defence and Security Solutions Ltd (UDSS) was founded by General Sir Richard Barrons and Peter Hewitt to provide policy, strategy and operational solutions for governments, businesses and commercial organisations, on a global basis. UDSS has the largest and broadest membership of former British Armed Forces personnel, regular and reserve from SNCO to 4 Star, as well as former MoD Civil Servants. This enables UDSS to provide the very best expertise in the major defence and security challenges of today, including leading in contemporary military ‘hard power’ capability; ‘hybrid’ or ‘political’ confrontation; information operations and cyber warfare; peace support; wider security; constabulary; humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. 


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