International Development and Hard and Soft Power in a Changing World

  • Monday, 5 March, 2018
    10:15 - 12:45

The common thread linking all the speakers at Policy Exchange’s Making Good on Global Britain conference was optimism. All of our speakers believed that Britain can be a force for good in the world because of our values and our track record. However, they differed on how and where those values – sometimes backed up by hard power – can best be applied.

Our first panel explored the role of international development in tackling Global Challenges. Alex Thier from the Overseas Development Institute celebrated the achievements of development in the last few decades, and called for the UK to be “relentless” in its focus on ending extreme poverty. George Freeman MP echoed his challenge in the Foreword to the Policy Exchange report Global Britain, Global Solutions for Brexit to be a moment when the UK reasserts its vision and values, and shared his experience of visiting a refugee camp in Lebanon and seeing British aid in action.

Lord Collins, Labour’s international development spokesman in the House of Lords, said that poverty and bad governance were still holding too many people back and argued that a fair tax system and active trade unions were vital for developing countries. Afsana Lachaux of that British-American Project sounded a cautionary note, saying that the UK must be careful not to prop up unstable regimes and corrupt governments. James Wharton, a former DfID minister, told how he had cut the number of different programmes being delivered in Africa so that the UK do fewer things, but do them better, and said that the Government needs to do a better job of articulating why aid spending matters in order to build public support for it.

Our second panel debated the balance between hard and soft power. Sir Ciaran Devane of the British Council developed the theme of British values and the importance of leading with those when we project soft power around the world. Tom Tugendhat MP referred to  The Cost of Doing Nothing, which he co-wrote with the late Jo Cox for Policy Exchange, to illustrate the importance of intervention, and implored the Government to be “boring, because boring is good, boring is predictable, boring is living by the rules”. Former FCO Special Adviser Baroness Helic warned that “you can have as much cultural diplomacy as you like, but you’re only going to be taken seriously if you have a strong military behind it” and deplored the West’s retreat from the Balkans. Labour MP Khalid Mahmood described how China is “colonising” parts of Africa and criticised limits on the number of overseas students as counter productive.

Over lunch, General David Petraeus was in conversation with Australian High Commissioner Alexander Downer. General Petraeus shared the lessons learned in his years of experience leading US and coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, including “you really ought to understand a country in an enormous amount of detail before you invade it”. Both speakers agreed that the British Parliament’s 2013 vote against intervention in Syria had “reverberated” around the world and were sceptical about the use of red lines – favouring rather a “clearly defined policy”. They also debated the rise of China and the challenge that potentially poses to the rest of the world. Having championed the benefits of free trade in the Foreword to Policy Exchange’s study  Global Champion, Alexander Downer expressed doubt about the Trump Administration’s planned tariffs on steel and aluminium.

In answers to questions, General Petraeus said that trustworthy and transparent local partners were vital and gave examples of corruption which he had tackled in Afghanistan – including a senior medic who was siphoning off medical supplies. He paid tribute to the British contribution to stability, saying that one of the “unique characteristics to Brits” is that “they study the world”.