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Can the UK afford not to invest in Global Britain?

Article by Sir Ciarán Devane

September 29, 2020

Can the UK afford not to invest in Global Britain?

The UK’s security, prosperity and influence in the world is generated through a complex mix of soft and hard power; an open economy and a strong military, a significant aid programme and cultural and educational institutions which are admired the world over, our people and our values. Through each of these elements, we say to the world that we are a partner, which is trustworthy and easy to work with. One which demonstrates generosity and respect in sharing the best we have to offer.


A strategic view of sources of hard and soft power is a vital part of any nation’s foreign policy, particularly at a time of an upheaval caused by technical changes, a rebalancing of economic and geo-political power, and of course of a global pandemic. Crucially, a country’s soft power both enables and legitimises the UK’s hard power, providing the vital foundations of international reputational resilience that is at the heart of any national foreign policy.


Our soft power is crucial to the UK’s international credibility and capacity to effect change. Whether it is persuading other countries to sign a trade deal, agreeing to collective targets for reducing carbon emissions, promoting British and universal values or deterring rivals from hostile acts, trust matters. And trust is built on experience, example and attraction.


International relations theory talk of realism in which the strength of the economy and size of the military create power, influence and security. If one cannot trust the neighbours one should carry a big stick. Theory also talks of institutionalism in which a rules-based international system in underpinned states working together through multilateral institutions and global issues addressed through multilateral action. By working together, the collective resources are deployed for the national and common interest. Constructivism on the other hand believes that shared values and experiences create a cohesive community with common norms and common beliefs. One is less likely to invade a country one has an affinity with.


All three theories of course have merit and all are indeed true. As the British Council’s first annual report, written in 1940 in the heat of war, put it creating a basis of friendly knowledge and understanding between people leads to a sympathetic appreciation of one’s foreign policy. Indeed, it is the role of the prudent state to foster this interchange of knowledge ideas and discoveries, in time of war and in time of peace. If this was the view of Churchill’s government in the 1940s, it is no less valid today. Foreign Policy needs to look at problems through all three lenses. How do hard power capabilities help be they kinetic or sanction based? What about diplomacy and aid? And what is the role of soft power assets which created affinity, influence and understanding through leveraging the UK’s education, science, and creative assets through our people and our institutions.


A good foreign policy stance needs hard capabilities, playing well with partners, and high levels of connection, relationship and trust. The Government’s Integrated Review aims to take this holistic approach, assessing and redefining the UK’s international capabilities with a view to developing a full spectrum, ‘smart power’ strategy to deliver the Prime Minister’s vision of Global Britain.


However, even the most comprehensive strategies are only turned into reality when they are backed up by investment and it is this necessity, which creates the critical interdependence between the Integrated Review and the Comprehensive Spending Review in the Autumn. Combined, these dual reviews represent a once in a generation opportunity to reset the UK’s international capabilities. However, rarely has a Foreign Secretary – or a Chancellor, for that matter – had a greater set of external challenges to contend with to get the job done, not least the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the UK and global economy.


What then for Global Britain? How can the UK afford to make real the vision of a Britain that is a leading power, both worthy and capable of holding on to its seat at the top table of leadership and its place at the top of the league table of soft power nations? How can the ambitious aims and objectives of Global Britain be achieved against the backdrop of a contraction of the economy and ever rising demands in health, welfare and social care?


Economic data this week does appear to show a modest bounce back but, even if the COVID-19 recession is followed by a mercifully rapid recovery, the challenges of an ageing population and other long-term structural issues will continue to put huge pressure on limited resources. Add to this the fact that the Government will be navigating its way through all of this at the same time as pressing ahead with the Prime Minister’s ambition to level up the entire country and the scale of the challenge becomes clear.


In making the case for Global Britain, the Government’s own communications hint at the difficulties and opportunities that lie ahead, and the need for greater agility and adaptability: 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.[1] This goal may be difficult but it is absolutely the right ambition.


As a precursor to the outcomes of the Integrated Review, the Government has forged the FCDO as a means of using ‘finite resources… more cohesively and efficiently’. Such a move will allow for greater strategic alignment and cohesion across the UK’s international capabilities. It will in all likelihood generate savings that will go some way but not all the way to levelling up the UK’s foreign policy tools across all three lenses.


Cuts are the default in a recession, but the case can be made for breaking with precedent and actually increasing investment in the UK’s international footprint. It is widely recognised that defence spending promotes scientific innovation, generates economic activity and supports thousands of UK jobs in places like Barrow-in-Furness and Dunbartonshire. Similarly, investing in soft power has a direct, measurable economic impact.


A study by the University of Edinburgh found that cultural institutions, like the British Council and Goethe-Institut are unsurprisingly highly influential in attracting international students and international tourists.[2] A quarter of all international students who come to the UK cite the British Council as being a key driver of their decision to study in the UK. That is worth billions to UK education and to the cities, towns and communities, which house them.


Equally, cultural relations underpins the propensity to trade with the UK and the propensity for the UK to be the destination of foreign direct investment (FDI). The more countries that host a state’s cultural institute, the better the return for the parent state. A one per cent increase in the number of countries a cultural institution from a given country covers results in an increase of almost 0.66 per cent in FDI for that country. In 2016 when the study was undertaken, such an increase was calculated as being worth an additional £1.3bn for the UK, significantly more than the entire turnover of the British Council. In addition, it prompts a 0.73 per cent increase in international students choosing to come to the country. Again, using the figures from 2015/16 the researchers calculated that this would be equivalent to almost 3,200 additional international student enrolments at UK institutions.


The hard-nosed economics of these gains means that the tax receipts and additional economic activity generated by the increases in FDI and students are more than enough to justify an increase to the grant-in-aid Government funds the British Council with, particularly if it allowed for some additional non-ODA money to ramp up our engagement with the developed world, which is the source of much of our education exports and our FDI.


Over the long term, investment in soft power builds trust, increases attractiveness and bolsters the UK’s reputational resilience. The strategic use of long-term commitments and arms-length expertise to build relationships before they are transactionally useful creates conditions favourable for diplomacy, greatly increasing the likelihood of success in negotiations around bilateral trade, collective security or multilateral action on global challenges like climate change.


A forthcoming study by IpsosMORI has found that across the G20 69 per cent of people who had been involved in a British Council programme said they trust the people of the UK, compared with 63 per cent who had been involved in a non-British Council cultural programme, and 58 per cent who had never been involved in a UK cultural relations activity. That trust is hugely important to the UK’s prosperity – 15 per cent of people who say they trust the UK say they intend to do business or trade with the UK, compared to only eight per cent who say they distrust the UK.[3]


The activities of the British Council are especially impactful on levels of trust in the UK government. On average trust in government stands at 64 per cent for those that have had a cultural relations experience with the British Council versus 51 per cent for those that have had a non-British Council cultural relations experience and 48 per cent who have not had any kind of cultural relations experience with the UK.


According to Joseph Nye, the guru of soft power academic and the inventor of the term ‘soft power’, investing in diplomacy and soft power is more important than ever before in this new world, networks and connectedness become an important source of power and security. In a world of growing complexity, the most connected states are the most powerful.[4]


Nye was referring to the US but what applies to the US, still the world’s leading superpower, applies even more strongly to a middle power like the UK which faces significantly greater competition for influence within its larger class of rivals.


Being a middle power can be uncomfortable when caught between rival great powers, but it can also be a path to success. Nimbleness, openness, a willingness to engage and collaborate characterise the successful middle power. South Korea punches above its weight in the G20 and other international fora because it finds common ground with others to forge mutually beneficial alliances. This is the model for Global Britain. It is a focus on networks, mutuality and the common good, on building familiarity, trust and attraction. And the best way to build trust in the UK is to help people experience it.


The Integrated Review and Spending Review provide a once-in-a-generation opportunity to recalibrate the UK’s international engagement and chart a fresh course outside of the EU. While the economic realities require hard decisions of Ministers, instead of asking the question as to whether the UK can afford Global Britain, we should actually be asking can the UK afford not to invest in it? For me, the business case is overwhelming and the evidence is clear.


To realise the Government’s ambitions and make a success of the many international opportunities available to the UK while simultaneously addressing the very real threats to our security and prosperity will require additional funding for the overall UK effort overseas. Effective deterrence of revanchist powers will only be possible with increases in the MoD and Intelligence budgets. Likewise maintaining the UK’s comparative advantage in soft power and its reputational resilience depends on continued support for the cultural and educational assets that contribute so much to the UK’s international appeal. At the heart of that work sits the British Council which provided with appropriate funding can deploy those assets in the UK’s interests, connecting the best of this country to potential friends, partners and allies around the world. The UK’s national power is – or at least should be – greater than the sum of its many hard and soft assets. Strategic alignment backed up with sustainable finance for the whole spectrum of UK capabilities are the recipe to ensure a successful Global Britain.


Sir Ciarán Devane took up the role of Chief Executive of the British Council in January 2015. Ciarán has focused on ensuring that all stakeholders understand and value the contribution that soft power, cultural relations and the British Council makes to security, prosperity and influence, and that the organisation and staff are aligned behind that vision.


Image by Biswarup Ganguly under (CC).

[1] FCO and FCDO, Global Britain: delivering on our international ambition, Government, June 2018,

[2] Professor J.P. Singh and Stuart MacDonald, Soft Power Today: Measuring the Influences and Effects, Commissioned by the British Council from the University of Edinburgh, October 2017,

[3] Alice Campbell-Cree and Mona Lotten, The value of trust: How trust is earned and why it matters, British Council, June 2018,

[4] Joseph S. Nye, The Other Global Power Shift, Belfer Center, August 2020,

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