Small Wars Journal

Treading Softly: Winning the Peace in the Human Domain

Share this Post

Treading Softly: Winning the Peace in the Human Domain

Alex Wilson

What if you never had to go to war because your strategy in peace was so effective that the carnage of a future war could be avoided?  In other words, are we in the UK, right now, maximising our strategy in peacetime?  Much of this rests on our understanding of Soft Power, but Soft Power seems to be treading so softly in any of the current defence and security debates that it is virtually absent.  Traditionally it has been a key discriminator of long-term strategic success, including in conflict, but has clearly fallen out of fashion with the pundits.  We in the UK, and our allies, should make the case for its return to centre stage, in a time of relative peace, but also a time where inter-state competition could turn to conflict with one miscalculation.  Soft Power changes the minds of people over time, so it happens in the human domain on land, and therefore it is an important topic for the armies to study and understand.

Perhaps recently we have heard little about Soft Power because it does not appeal to policy makers as its effects cannot be scored in hours, days, months, or even years; immediate precision-strike it is not.  But the results, when they do come, can be momentous.  If the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the Warsaw Pact thereafter marked the biggest win in history for Soft Power, then its benefits can be measured in terms of the avoidance of a global conventional and probable nuclear war, the saving of perhaps millions of lives, the democratisation of many eastern European countries, and a new global order.  We in the UK sometimes take for granted our Soft Power because we have wielded it for so long, arguably since the Reformation.  As Gideon Rachman pointed out in a masterful article in the Financial Times in 2008,

“For roughly 500 years, Europe was the political, cultural and economic centre of the world …  Since 1945, Europe has become increasingly prosperous, peaceful and comfortable – and irrelevant. So should a united Europe attempt to reclaim its place at the centre of world affairs? Or should we settle for comfortable irrelevance?”[i]

One of the striking things about Rachman’s analysis from over a decade ago is its continued relevance to us in the UK today.  If we strongly wish to uphold our principles, way of life, democracy, free speech and believe that these should be at the centre of the world – and let’s face it, no other system has proved so enduring and consensual – then we need to ensure that we are out in the world living it, demonstrating it, but without pushing it down the throats of other regimes.  We are told by Portland’s Soft Power 30 index, that the UK is the number one country in the world for Soft Power[ii].  But is the UK, and UK defence, really maximising our Soft Power outcomes?

Joe Nye’s premise of Soft Power is that it is the power of attraction, and it makes others want to be like you.  Put at its most raw, if the average Russian watches James Bond and Hollywood films, would like a vote that actually counted at the polls, and aches for a western standard of living, then you know that the Soft Power of the West is winning.  Don’t worry about how the Russian actually votes now, because that is tactical, look more at what he aspires to.  Many of Putin’s actions, and his defensive mentality, have been driven by his fear that western Soft Power, norms and culture are invisibly invading his country and the world.  At the Valdai International Discussion Club of September 2013, Putin went so far as to say that:

“Another serious challenge to Russia’s identity is linked to events taking place in the world. Here there are both foreign policy and moral aspects. We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilisation. They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual. They are implementing policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan.”[iii]

For Putin to be driven to assert that the West equates Satanism with belief in God shows a level of hysteria, and this is driven by his inability to stop the flow of Western liberal ideas into Russia.  He undoubtedly knows that most citizens in the West are not hankering for autocratic government, repression of minorities and borscht, while Russian citizens do clearly want western goods.  As Reuters reported last year,

“Although the United States and Russia have imposed economic sanctions on each other since 2014, several large U.S. corporations, including PepsiCo Inc and McDonald’s Corp, still count Russia as a growth market.”[iv]

Meanwhile, at the other end of the market, Putin’s kleptocratic elite have been busy buying up some of the most expensive housing stock in the West, particularly London.  

Joe Nye developed his thesis at Harvard in the 1980’s; that crucial time when the 'Euro Atlantic' allies were winning the Cold War largely through the Soft Power of strong free market economics, democracy and free speech – competences with which the USSR could not, or ideologically would not, keep pace.  Nye summarises Soft Power in his 2004 book as follows,

“Seduction is always more effective than coercion, and many values like democracy, human rights, and individual opportunities are deeply seductive."[v] 

Taking it a stage further, while Nye had already expounded his view of co-option rather than coercion, he later argued that Soft Power pervades through three facets,

“its culture (in places where it is attractive to others), its political values (when it lives up to them at home and abroad), and its foreign policies (when others see them as legitimate and having moral authority.”[vi] 

Of these three, while today’s Western politics and political values may be enduring a rocky patch, the fundamentals of democracy are still strong, and Western countries, including many old Warsaw Pact countries, display an enviably higher standard of living than Russia.  Even Ukraine, Russia’s lost heartland, is able to change its leaders through elections, a fact which will not be lost on the Russian voters.  Simultaneously, Western foreign policy is clawing back the ground lost by its nation-building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is strongly continuing its support for the rules-based international order, springing into action to impose painful sanctions on Russia, from both the EU and the US, after the Russian annexation of Crimea.  This Western unity, emanating from regimes which span the whole political spectrum, will be very evident to most Russians.  But underpinning this power, it is still the culture, the freedoms, the arts, the clothes, the youth and the lively political dialectic that Russian population keep wanting.  

So what?  So, everything.  If Soft Power is this mix of attractive qualities, then surely, we in the UK need to ensure that we are maximising it, and the British Army should be in the forefront of our national institutions in amplifying this type of power around the globe.  This is because of the Army’s history of fighting totalitarianism, its fairness and humanity, its discipline and self-discipline which epitomise Western liberal values.  As the current Chief of the General Staff says, “People are not in the Army, they are the Army”, and perhaps we have been guilty of seeing the soldier as the operator of a specific capability rather than a capability in his or her own right.  Of course, the fact that the British Army has been instrumental in creating and securing a prosperous homeland with a strong capacity to deploy and assist others, will not be lost on those we are working with.  How many of those Afghans or Iraqi’s we have trained, or more importantly, protected, would gladly have traded places with one of us to become a UK citizen?  We know some of the answer, because sadly the refugee camps of Libya, Greece and even Calais are filled with those who are willing to risk life and limb to get to Europe and to the UK.  The deduction is that the more we can send our soldiers overseas, to stabilise, to train, to assist, to relieve from disaster, the more our message is spreading, and the more our Soft Power is infusing other cultures.  In terms of directing this effort, deployments to allied like-minded Western nations is less effective than sending our troops to those lands and regions which need our help, where suffering is rife, or those which border our competitors in order to ensure that our values and culture are on show, and seen in stark relief to those of our competitors.

Maximising our Soft Power will always be an activity in the human domain.  Pieces of military hardware cannot feel the force of attraction.  As a key part of the British ‘brand’ which attracts people, the Army knows instinctively how to lead this effort.  It is not so easy for the other two services.  Projecting power through parking Carrier Groups off a nation’s shoreline, or demonstrations of force by combat air platforms, act as more of a coercive function, scaring, rather than attracting.  Indeed, actions on land as well can have a negative effect, as some of our less successful targeting operations in Iraq and Afghanistan attest to.  But overwhelmingly the example that British soldiers set, the personal relations that they (perhaps more than officers) strike up wherever they are based abroad leads to a level of societal interaction and understanding that defuses tension in the short term and supercharges our own cultural understanding in the longer term. 

So what do we need to do?  How do we inculcate an understanding of our Soft Power, and continue to ensure that we are projecting it?  Ideally the UK's National Security Council would start to take Soft Power into their lexicon, and if they really do understand it, they will realise that it cannot be wielded like other levers of power.  But an understanding of what keeps the UK at the top of the Soft Power 30 list is vital for the NSC, so that they do not inadvertently cut a vital soft power activity just because it doesn’t yield immediate results.  The British Army needs to rediscover its historic role in furthering security around the world, especially with allies who are suffering with security challenges.  This is best done by formed units, it cannot be done by a single officer or contractors, who would be sent abroad for years rather than weeks or months, and with their families who are a vital part of exemplifying our values.  These deployments, perhaps up to Battalion or Regimental size, need to live and work among the people, making lives better by working with the local population, learning their languages, educating indigenous forces, investing in the local economy, preventing hardship, reporting events faithfully.  The ideal tool for this may well be the Army’s Specialised Infantry Battalions (SPIBs).  Could these units become the humble successors of what Slim knitted together in his 14th Army in World War Two, formed as John Masters remembers from, “Twenty races, a dozen religions, a score of languages … relations were good between officers and instructors, regardless of ethnicity.”[vii]  The groundwork for this force had been built by British Soft Power in the previous decades around the globe.  SPIBs today could likewise be empowered to work with indigenous forces, building lasting relationships over time.      

If we accept that a fighting defence of the British Isles is a low probability, but that fighting with allies further afield is a high probability, then the UK needs to start building out our global Soft Power footprint now.  One of the issues which is preventing the British Army from wielding its significant Soft Power, is that for the first time in over two centuries, we are based in the UK.  A number of problems arise with this.  Firstly, while some ceremonial troops may be visible to a worldwide audience at Royal Weddings and major state occasions, nothing can really beat the power of meeting and seeing the British Army deployed on your doorstep, helping, training, setting an example, and perhaps even dying for you, or sadly as happened recently, to save your endangered wildlife.  Secondly, an Army based in the UK is not what our best youngsters want to join.  They want challenge, to travel, to see the world, all while representing a renowned organisation.  To be sure, they want to fight as well, but when that is not an option, stabilisation, capacity-building and humanitarian operations abroad are a very acceptable second.  The worrying historical precedents which befell countries who reduced their global footprints and fell back into isolationism do not need to be rehearsed here.  We know instinctively that being constantly engaged is better than trying to build up understanding once deployed, as any Iraq or Afghanistan veteran will tell you. 

On the cautionary side, one of the maxims of Soft Power is that it has to be handled carefully.  It can only work passively.  As soon as you try to force your Soft Power onto a competitor, attempting to change his culture, or his political system, it can quickly become a repellent.   Chairman Mao attempted to spread his gospel of communism through the translation and distribution abroad of his Little Red Book, published in 1964, but apart from the Black Panthers, very few seriously took the text up.  It is about setting an example, not preaching the gospel – passive, not active.  Other sceptics will carp at the expense of garrisoning soldiers and their families abroad.  But I would wager that most military minds will agree that for the UK, it would be more operationally effective to have an army of 40,000 deployed abroad than an army of 80,000 deployed at home. 

There is much to think on as we reduce our long-term presence abroad, and maximising our Soft Power is clearly something the British Army used to be good at, and can be in the future as well.  Its value is enormous.  But we cannot do this sat in Aldershot, or on six-month deployments to trouble-spots.  And for those warriors who think that this is all too limp and should be led by people in sandals, I would remind them that Soft Power conforms perfectly to Sun Tzu’s maxim, written 2500 years ago, that:

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

End Notes


[i] Rachman, Gideon (2008). Irrelevance, Europe’s Logical Choice.

[ii] https://softpower30.com/

[iii] http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/19243

[iv] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-russia-sanctions-companies/factbox-u-s-companies-with-exposure-to-russia-idUSKBN1HK2N0

[v] Nye, Joseph S. (2004). Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics.

[vi] Nye, Joseph S. (2011). The Future of Power. New York: Public Affairs. p. 84.

[vii] John Masters, “The Road past Mandalay”

Categories: Soft Power - United Kingdom

About the Author(s)

Colonel Alex Wilson is in charge of the British Army’s Strategic Analysis Branch. He has served as Chief of Current Ops in HQ ISAF in Afghanistan in 2013, and recently returned to the UK from the EU Military Staff where he was head of planning and assessments.