Soft Power and Conflict Prevention — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:47 am on 5th December 2014.

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Photo of Baroness Williams of Crosby Baroness Williams of Crosby Liberal Democrat 10:47 am, 5th December 2014

My Lords, I add my thanks to the most reverend Primate for introducing this debate. Such a turnout on a Friday morning is so impressive that it reflects the great respect that this House has for him and the work that he and the Church of England have done. I hope he will take much strength from that observation.

I have been interested in the way that we have talked increasingly about soft power. I remember when the concept was introduced—originally, I think, by Professor Nye of Harvard. He talked about soft power in a very influential book which was published about 20 years ago, in a country that, for a very long time, did not perceive soft power as anything other than an escape from the hardest choices that have to be made. Among the things that I hope various Members of this House—perhaps not least the noble Lord, Lord Admiral West—will be able to talk to us about is what the relationship should be between the military and soft power, because it is crucial that they work together and are not in conflict with one another.

We have huge assets which a number of noble Lords—not least, of course, the noble Lords, Lord Howell and Lord Anderson—have mentioned. It is important to say that one of the things that we should make quite clear is that we have those remarkable assets which, frankly, we have consistently undervalued. The list is astonishing. Importantly, of course, it includes the BBC, as the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, said, and in particular the World Service, which is often the Cinderella of the whole BBC system. It should not be, because its influence and effect have been colossal—far beyond the expenditure on it. Secondly, we have the huge advantage of the English language, which we have been lucky enough to make our own but which is now the closest thing we have to an international language. It is of crucial importance.

Thirdly, and not least, as the most reverend Primate said, there is the astonishing and growing influence of British universities and British technical colleges up and down this country. I completely and totally endorse and strongly support the remarks that he made about visas. We are seeing a conflict between the attitudes of different government departments, which is doing none of us any good. I speak as someone who was an overseas student first at Columbia and later at Harvard. There is a lifelong effect from studying in another country and getting to know that other country—coming out with friends from that other country, as the most reverend Primate said. Incidentally, there is one point that should be made about that—and not only the point about visas, which I hope the Minister will convey with some extreme passion to the Home Office. We also, importantly, need to think carefully about the hospitality that universities organise for those students who know this country not at all and do not perhaps speak English very well but who need a certain amount of help and assistance in settling down in the new context of a university in another country. It can be crucially important that people establish friendships while at university. Very often, those friendships—if one wants to be very tough-minded indeed—lead to business deals, investment and relationships between businesses of a kind that is of economic value to this country, as well as of cultural and educational value. We consistently underestimate the extraordinary power of higher education in building bridges and links with other countries, not least within the Commonwealth.

That brings me on to the Commonwealth itself, as the noble Lord, Lord Howell, said. It is an astonishing asset. We have largely failed to realise its full potential, which is absolutely immense. It is one of very few organisations in the world which, apart from being international, is also intercultural, interracial, and inter-educational and, not least, brings together different religions, cultures and so forth. I think that we could make much more of it. In that context, we have failed to recognise the astonishing contribution made by the Prince of Wales, who has established within the Commonwealth astonishing ways in which to recruit young men and women into entrepreneurial futures and innovation in science, and into new jobs. He is sometimes regarded by the media in this country as something of an eccentric figure, but it is important that we recognise the great contribution that he has made, with thousands of young men and women finding opportunities for the future and being able to contribute to the Commonwealth. That is something that we need to look at very closely. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, because he has played a very large part in this. Although I myself am a strong European, I agree completely that there is no necessary conflict; in fact, on the contrary, the United Kingdom should be crucial in building bridges between this newly developing great society and the old world of Europe. It could be immensely good for Europe as well as for the Commonwealth itself.

I shall say a word about the third form of soft power, which is very important but quite controversial. I refer of course to economic soft power, which comes very close to being hard power. I know Russia quite well—I am going to go there next week—and I think that sometimes we fail to remember its history, which is that of a huge country that is constantly challenged by invasion and, in some cases, occupation and, in many cases, misunderstanding. One sees in many policies of the Russian Government at present what could be described as a somewhat paranoiac reaction to the sense of being constantly on the defensive. What I am trying to say is that I recognise that sanctions have been effective—but targeted sanctions are much more sensible than generalised sanctions, which tend to be carried out with the suffering of the general public. Having targeted sanctions of the kind that we have specifically imposed on senior leading people in Russia is a much more sensible and imaginative policy. I also strongly believe that, if you are going to occupy yourself with a policy of sanctions, it is absolutely crucial that there is side by side with it a policy of negotiation and reconciliation. We have not done that sufficiently with Russia. We are moving tragically towards some kind of rather foolish resumption of the Cold War. What we need to do above all is to relate Russia to the other forms of relationship—cultural, artistic and educational —that are open to us, to show that great country that it is not simply put in the doghouse, to be blamed and pushed out of the international community.

I do not say those things while failing to recognise the colossal challenge to the world of law that is represented, particularly, by the annexation of Crimea without any legal process having been gone through or without acknowledging the deep and difficult concerns of the Russian relationship with Ukraine, a country that I know well. But it is so easy for us in Britain to forget the desperate history of the relationship between Ukraine and Russia, going right back to the First World War and the Second World War. As a country that wishes both well, we have a considerable role to play in mediation and negotiation, and it is one that we should take up more ambitiously and with more conviction than we do at present.

I shall talk briefly about a couple of other things. I shall talk quite controversially for just a moment about the role of the City of London. It is a very powerful international organisation with links throughout the world. It has long been part of the things that people greatly respect about the United Kingdom, but it is currently putting itself into a very vulnerable position. I greatly appreciate the role that the most reverend Primate has taken in trying to suggest to the City that it needs to regain its moral compass. The last three rounds of scandal—the forex scandal, the LIBOR scandal and, earlier on, the banking crisis itself—suggest that the City needs to sit down and think very hard about what its relationships should be in a world of soft power. I shall give only one illustration but I could give many more. It is vital that the leading banks in the UK, which have long had great respect paid to them, often rightly, should look much more energetically than they currently do at the whole issue of money laundering and its relationship to drug money and the sale of arms. In Parliament, we deserve greater attention to be paid to these things by the City, and I hope very much that the Treasury Select Committee and others will start to take up these matters in a way that the most reverend Primate has taken them up, with great courage and almost in the legacy of Christ overturning the tables at the temple that were mastered by the money changers.

Finally—and I apologise to the House if I have talked for longer than I should—I shall say one other word about the issue of soft power, and the way in which we as a country have to get across two things to our citizens and ourselves. One is, essentially, that if we are going to be effective in soft power, we have to show a certain humility. You cannot impose the old attitudes of the past. That means that, essentially, what we have to do is to extend our own education and learn from other countries—not least in the Commonwealth. There are things that we can learn from others. That is very important for the attitude that we take towards the wider world.

I conclude by saying that I have always believed very deeply that one central theme of Christianity is the victory of the Cross over the massed armies of Rome. That is in a sense a victory of soft power over hard power, and we have perhaps no better example to bear in mind when we consider how we should proceed with the policies advocated by the most reverend Primate.