In 1889, Benjamin Eli Smith and William Dwight Whitney wrote of the term ‘global’; “a globe is often solid, a sphere is often hollow. The secondary sense of ‘globe’ is physical; those of sphere are moral.”
Although they are likely unaware of this rhyming epithet, the British government could not have picked a more apt name for their latest international initiative. Smith and Whitney’s characteristics define ‘Global Britain’: in its primary sense, ‘Global Britain’ aspires to be a ‘solid’, monolithic presence. Secondly, it is an unmistakeably physical project, defined by globalized economic and trade interests. It focusses on materialism, and the currency to acquire more.
If Britain genuinely intends to globalize, a moral sphere would better achieve these ambitions; it would certainly result in a more-complete globalization strategy.
After all, globalization is a nuanced concept; one that transcends economic influence. It can be broken up into roughly three (or four) parts: economic, political and cultural (social). In turn, these three categories can be further compartmentalised into two: physical (economic) and moral (cultural/social and political).
By moral, I mean a nation’s ability to project values internationally. Moral influence should convince other nation’s that Britain’s values are also in their interest. If they can establish this level of conviction, without the need for economic coercion, influenced nations become genuine allies, with a stake in upholding these shared obligations. This is the most effective way to spread Britain’s liberal and democratic values.
The Government’s integrated review does not lack for globalizing moral affirmations: it makes numerous references to expounding Britain’s belief that the “freedom to speak, think and choose… offers an inherent advantage.” It even employs a sporting metaphor to explain the UK’s readiness to play an active international role; “Open and democratic societies like the UK must demonstrate they are match-fit for a more competitive world.”
However, the allure of a market-led foreign policy has, so far, proven too tempting. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss recently explained that Britain “must be unashamedly commercial.” This was not just rhetoric; trade agreements abound, particularly with CPTPP members, whilst the US’ decision to end restrictions on British lamb opens up a market potentially worth £37 million. It is understandable that Britain is focussing on shoring up its post-Brexit trade portfolio. The UK is no longer afforded the economic foundations provided as part of a major multilateral trade collective.
‘Global Britain’ must now develop into a moral force: other nations must know Britain’s stance on international issues, and be compelled to follow suit: both because it is Britain’s wish, and their own. Without a sphere of moral (cultural and political) influence, Britain cannot claim to be a global force.
Soft power is likely the most accurate metric to measure cultural capital. The political scientist Joseph Nye (the seminal figure in soft power studies) simplistically defines his intellectual progeny as: “when one country gets other countries to want what it wants.”
On a facile reading, Britain’s soft-power influence does not appear particularly worrisome: Brand finance ranks Britain 3rd in its ‘Global Soft Power Index.’ 3rd certainly doesn’t seem bad; it keeps the UK ahead of America, China and France, all nations that project significant international influence.
However, since the Integrated Review defined ‘Global Britain’, the UK has dropped 3.9 points. Only China (4.4) and the US (an admittedly astonishing 11.2) dropped more.
Moreover, if verifying Britain’s waning soft power requires anecdotal evidence, one need only look back a few weeks: As host of COP26, Britain was entrusted to usher delegates into various environmental agreements. Their failure to convince China and India to adopt strongly-worded measures against reducing coal use can only be understood as a fundamental soft power failure. If Britain cannot guide global powers to make decisions that are in their long-term interest, how can it consider itself a nation with serious soft power capabilities.
This said, cultural influence requires an element of automaticity. Soft power should be organic; Jamie Njoku-Goodwin points out that “soft power benefits are not… generated by an explicit attempt by the government to use its cultural sector to further any sort of diplomatic or political aim.”
In this way, a government’s relationship with its soft power influencers is like a parent taking a teenager shopping; anything the parent considers ‘cool’ is anathema to the teenager. As Njoku-Goodwin suggests “the policy imperative should be to support, protect and boost those sectors…, for their own sake, and support them to become globally successful.”
That said, Britain has struggled to transfer the free-market’s organic innovation into soft-power influence. Despite singling out the sciences as part of “the wellspring of unique soft power that spans the globe,” the UK government has only pledged to donate 100 million AstraZeneca vaccines internationally. Compared to the US’ pledge to donate 1.1 billion doses before 2023, and the 119 million doses that China have already donated, Britain’s promise pales in comparison. Oxford AstraZeneca may be the vaccine with the greatest global reach; Britain’s lack of direct involvement in its distribution does not affirm the ‘company-nation’ connections necessary to consolidate soft power. It is only by engaging in more philanthropic international pursuits that Britain can secure more soft power, and consequently, global influence.
However, in order to form an influential global sphere, Britain’s internationalist moral approach should transcend soft power; Successful globalized foreign policy also requires political power.
Political power does not necessarily mean military action (although it does not exclude this entirely). When I refer to political power, I refer to any international involvement characterised by an active, internationalist stance; Any tool the UK could use to influence other nations resulting in explicit consequences could be considered part of Britain’s political arsenal.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s commitment to re-instate a Foreign Aid budget comprising 0.7% gross national income is a step in the right direction. However, this was undercut by the disclaimer that the returning funds would resurface, at the earliest, in 2024.
Foreign aid has a unique ability to raise a nation’s profile, particularly in the third world, which has again become a living game-board for great power rivalry. By returning to aid these nations, bringing stability and security, Britain can simultaneously expound its democratic values whilst expanding its international influence.
Britain’s lethargic reaction to the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan is microcosmic of this shortcoming; it is merely a symptom of a larger failure. It could be argued that the greater failure is the UK’s inability to cultivate a democratic Afghan regime capable of supporting itself in the face of renewed Taliban aggression. The Afghan government’s rapid retreat might indicate a lack of conviction in their new ideology; a reticence to fight for an idea that they had not definitively adopted. Economic and military influence is not enough to convince a nation of democracy’s efficacy. They must be convinced of democracy’s intrinsic moral-worth before becoming ready to fight for these freedoms.
So, as Liz Truss’ begins her first full year in office, the Foreign Secretary may wish to take the opportunity for an introspective moment. She has already prescribed the liberal and democratic values to which her policies must strive. She will have opportunities for action; geopolitical situations gestating in Belarus, Bosnia Herzegovina and Ukraine may soon emerge as fully-grown problems. But, for now, she need only reflect on how an active, ‘Global Britain’ may be cultivated into a British sphere of moral influence.
Daniel Gorringe is a Parliamentary staffer. Prior to working in Parliament, he worked in a junior capacity at the Henry Jackson Society think tank in the Asia Studies Department, where he helped research and write numerous projects. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.