THE BLOG

Soft Power and the UK

01/04/2014 13:18 BST | Updated 31/05/2014 10:59 BST

A report on British foreign policy priorities released last week by a committee of senior members of the Lords won wide media coverage. This was mainly because David Howell, a former Energy Minister and the Committee's Chair, said that some of the UK's immigration policy was "creating a nasty Britain feeling" and he also happens to be the British Finance Minister, George Osborne's father-in-law.

I hope this one issue does not obscure detailed consideration of the wider points in this substantial report, entitled "Persuasion and Power in the Modern World. " The Lords committee on Soft Power took a year to produce it and heard evidence from many foreign policy experts.

The term "soft power," originally coined by American Professor Joseph Nye, includes in the British case the BBC World Service, its universities and the English language. Many Kurds' links with Britain began with one or more of these. The report also emphasises "the reliability and trustworthiness of British businesspeople" as a significant advantage of trading with the UK.

Britain is in a fortunate position given what the report calls its "tremendous range of institutions and relationships in politics, economics, science and culture, often amassed over generations" if more by accident than design. But a conscious and co-ordinated approach to fashioning and wielding such soft power is now needed.

Soft power can influence others to want the same things as the UK "by building positive international relationships and coalitions which defend our interests and security, uphold our national reputation and promote our trade and prosperity." The report also says it should be carefully combined with hard power, essentially military force, to form "smart power."

This is made more urgent by what the report describes as immense changes in international relations. These include digital empowerment, more global protest networks, and complex trade supply chains. These are diffusing and fragmenting traditional state power, and enabling peoples and countries to be increasingly interconnected and interdependent. This applies to the Kurds, who are dispersed across several blurred borders.

All this takes place in the context of the rising economic and political power of non-Western countries, which is altering the international balance of power and influence. The report urges those who make British foreign policy to act on these new realities or the UK will "risk finding itself outwitted, out-competed and increasingly insecure" in a transformed and turbulent world.

Action would benefit relations between the Kurdistan Region and the UK. One major suggestion, for instance, is that British Embassies be allowed to "flourish as dynamic centres of commercial, diplomatic and cultural activities." The Consulate-General in Erbil is very effective but following these proposals and increasing funding would make it even more so.

On the controversial immigration issue, the report says the UK "must make every effort to ensure that legitimate visitors can access UK visas quickly, easily and cheaply" and communicate visa and immigration policies with a balance and tone that do not discourage those who add to the UK's prosperity from visiting the UK and supporting its businesses.

The report diplomatically notes that "we do not believe that this is always the case at present." It is clear from many discussions over the years with Kurds that how the visa system operates harms British interests.

The report emphasises the importance of the Commonwealth, a voluntary and multi-ethnic alliance with a footprint on every continent and a focus on sport and education. Some see it as a ridiculous relic of Empire but it is valued by its member countries, some of which were never British colonies.

Some years back in Baghdad, I asked MPs on one of the Iraqi Parliament's economic committees if they thought Iraqi membership of the Commonwealth would be desirable or feasible. They agreed that it would although it doesn't seem likely for now. One day, perhaps.

What difference this report makes depends on how far its analysis is pushed by its members and by the response of ministers and others who think about foreign policy.

One of the committee's members was the Liberal Democrat Peer, Emma Nicholson, who was appointed as the British Government's Trade Envoy to Iraq in January. She is in a good position to incorporate its insights into her work.

The Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee could also make use of some of the analysis in the report as it draws up its own on the Kurdistan Region. The Government will formally respond in detail to both these reports.

The more general report from the Lords and the more specific one from the Commons could encourage ministers to redefine the UK's foreign and economic policies. A smart Britain would do much more to link with like-minded peoples and places, including the Kurdistan Region.