Soft Power and Conflict PreventionDecember 6, 2014
My Lords, I am most grateful to the most reverend Primate for tabling this debate and commend him and the Church of England worldwide for the strenuous efforts it makes to advance reconciliation between conflicting groups, both here in the UK and abroad. I declare my various interests as laid out in the Lords register.
When I first reflected on the notion of soft power after coming into this House, it led me to a curious starting place: trade. We often think of soft power in terms of non-profit, diplomatic and associational activity alongside the marketplace—many of which were expertly set out in the excellent report by the Select Committee chaired ably by the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford. However, I have been intrigued these last few years by the power of dreams—specifically, commercial dreams that have criss-crossed the world over the centuries as a means of enabling countries and cultures to communicate and connect across language and other barriers.
For example, the European or continental dream emanating from the courts of kings and nobles in France, Italy and beyond, find their expression still today in the luxury wares and fashions that fill high streets around the world. Our own British dream, developed quite consciously and wisely as a means to make our own Royal Family and leadership more accessible in dangerous times, finds resonance today in the goods and products so sought after around the world. The American dream followed, and many others are being built.
Each dream identifies iconic products or artefacts in areas that have universal appeal, allowing them to say something of their host culture that words alone cannot convey, and often specifically in four areas: food and drink, housing, clothing or fashion, and communications, which covers both transportation and now IT. So whether you are drinking a Coca-Cola or Earl Grey tea, driving a Mini or a Cadillac, wearing Armani or Savile Row, and so on, millions are able to partake in both high-end and everyday products and services that enable them to have a taste of another culture from somewhere around the world.
What, one might ask, has this got to do with conflict prevention? Actually, a great deal. American products after the world wars were provided to starving populations once fighting ceased, and created a warmth towards America that persists today in many parts of the world. The role of entertainment—specifically sport, which, I would argue, is a part of the British dream—exported around the world, created a valuable means ultimately of enabling friendly competition between nations, as a way of building relations and avoiding conflicts which might otherwise get out of hand.
Most importantly, each of the dreams in its purest and admittedly stereotypical form, certainly at the outset and at its best, encodes a set of values that belies the simple functionality of the products that make them up. So with the old European dream one can pick up consciously or subconsciously an understanding of quality and craftsmanship, of honour and tradition. With the British dream there is civility, good humour, fair play and, increasingly today, modernity, social responsibility and community. With the American dream there is freedom, prosperity and aspiration.
The Chinese dream is currently under development. I would love to see one emerging in the coming years that builds on the idea of a strong, increasingly prosperous nation rising again on the world stage—important as this concept is—to incorporate through its entrepreneurial and commercial products the values of care for, and harmony with, nature, of family and of respect for others, which I think expresses the best of historic Chinese civilisation’s values over the millennia.
In their best form these values—carried as they are within the dreams and the artefacts that represent them—can, when well executed, deliver more understanding and help prevent conflict more than a hundred conferences or acts of diplomacy, vital as these are. This is because, by facilitating everyday the subconscious admiration of another nation or group’s culture, we create a safe space for dialogue and for focusing on the positive, and step away from division.
Of course, the transmission of values, whether via commercial products or in a more general way through discourse, dialogue, and diplomacy, can be a powerful form of soft power in and of itself, which is why so much energy is poured into related think tanks, education, global broadcasting, national councils, cultural initiatives and so on. However, we have to evaluate whether value transmission is always in its rawest and least-nuanced fashion beneficial to the cause of preventing or reducing conflict, whether armed or not.
I will take democracy as one example. In most circles, and not least in this, the Mother of Parliaments, democracy is our most cherished export, a part of the British dream—and quite rightly so. At times, however, the value that democracy represents when universalised and imposed on other countries prematurely can sometimes do more harm than good, not least to the long-term peaceful cause and development of democracy in such countries themselves. We need to remember how long it took for our own democracy to develop, and remember that stable ones are not built overnight.
Indeed, there are values embedded in each of the dreams I have mentioned which work against peace and understanding and which can undermine the health and well-being of the consumers who partake of them—from the colonialist mindset that parts of the old British dream can convey, to the materialism and literal overconsumption that the American dream now often evokes, or the unequal decadence and faded grandeur of the European dream, and so on.
The key to whether values carried by such dreams or transmitted directly have a positive or negative impact ultimately comes down, of course, to people. And here is the rub: our soft power and that of other cultures derive not just from our products and cultural artefacts, and not even just from our values, but from the behaviour and mindset of the people who promote these values and artefacts to the world.
You may be a politician looking to secure votes here, who seeks to champion values overseas—whether those of democracy or freedom from bureaucracy—but in your heart you care more about how this might play with your own voters than with the countries that you are talking about and the people in them. Your words for a domestic audience can end up increasing conflict and have adverse consequences overseas, especially in an age of social media. Conversely, you might be a journalist or editor who rightly decides to not over-report the executions that are happening in the Middle East to help save lives by not escalating the cycle of violence in the region. In each case, it is the person who determines through their actions and words whether the values they champion end up causing conflict or preventing it.
It is all about people in the end, and their motivations. Here there is a particular poignancy because, noting that Christmas is just round the corner, there is a person, in Jesus Christ, whose soft power, if you like, has persisted to this day and shaped nations, not least our own; and whose example, if followed—perhaps with a bit of help from above—gives us a guide to how to prevent unnecessary conflict and how to be the kind of people who promote peace, not violence. While war is sometimes unfortunately necessary when the cause is just, the harder battles are always in winning and establishing peace and avoiding the conditions which will lead to wars in future.
As has been mentioned, Jesus took a successful system based on war and conquest, that of the Roman Empire—and specifically a form of governance the Romans used called ekklesia, from which we derive our word church or assembly—and encouraged his followers to represent him by helping to peacefully bring his values of love and blessing to the world, using the trade routes that were the Roman internet of the day to shape history to the then ends of the earth. He did this not by confining himself and his message of salvation to one country, city, or even building, but by positively influencing the very people who shape culture and values, and who oversee how these are transmitted locally and globally, and who through trade and commerce shape the narratives—the dreams to which people aspire.
Some might argue that faith, whether Christian or other faiths, is a historical source of conflict, and should be kept out of any debate about soft power. I would argue that again we need to understand the nuance. The kind of faith that underpinned Jesus’s notion of ekklesia, of his church throughout a city making peace and caring for the needs of its citizens—young, old, masters or employers—is the kind that brings peace, and which can help steer the right values and the right artefacts in the right direction. The kind of faith that seeks to make conflict itself a goal, and specifically violence, is attractive when people of peace, the ekklesia and others who share similar values to it, are absent or have been ignored, and represents a kind of last resort for the desperate as law and order breaks down, dreams are shattered and opportunists looking for short-term gain rise up and start to wage both a narrative and physical war.
Today we live in a world of conflict—not just the kind of conflict expressed through physical war but of many kinds, increasingly afflicting our world. Much of it is viral—spreading quickly, fuelled by perceived inequality and injustice. We need people who can follow Christ’s lead and take a stand for winning the peace, not just the war, whose values are positive and who can help prevent conflict, and whose everyday lives, products and narratives, instead of sowing division, promote understanding, restraint and tolerance.