THE BLOG

Shakespeare and Soft Power

07/01/2016 10:44 GMT | Updated 06/01/2017 10:12 GMT

The debate on Britain joining airstrikes against Daesh in Syria generated more heat than light with an exaggerated focus on their impact, for better or worse. The Ministry of Defence website records just one missile strike in Syria over Christmas. This skewed debate also overlooks the contribution of British soft power to defeating Daesh. Airstrikes and Shakespeare.

An often overlooked soft power body is the British Council (BC), which is known for English language tests but there is more to it than that. A big event in Erbil will be the Shakespeare Globe Theatre staging a play in April as part of the global celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the great Bard's death.

The BC is the UK's international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities and was founded in 1934 to create 'a friendly knowledge and understanding' between the people of the UK and the world, using British cultural resources such as art, sport, education, science, culture, language, innovation, creativity and sharing the UK's values and ways of living.

The BC claims it boosts the UK's international standing by increasing the country's influence and networks with decision makers, influencers and the wider public. It increases UK prosperity by encouraging trade, investment and tourism. It helps to keep the UK safe and secure by reducing extremism and improving stability and security in strategically important countries. It also increases influence by growing the number of people who know and trust the UK. It works in over 100 countries on six continents and reaches over 20 million people face to face and through its events, and more than 500 million online and via broadcasts and publications.

It has drawn on this experience in valuable evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry into how the UK can help beat Daesh. It provides thoughtful analysis of the attraction of Daesh and suggestions for overcoming its 'demonstrable global ability to appeal to young people, women and families.' It cites many reasons for this such as unemployment, social isolation, faith and disillusionment and that Daesh offers recruits a place in the world, a job, a sense of purpose, that military successes and savagery demonstrate strength, and sells a vision of past glories, of a golden age of Islamic purity, of a strong, imperial power whose success was based on conquest. It adds that 'The romantic appeal of the Caliphate should not be underestimated. For young people, searching for a sense of identity and belonging, as well as new and exciting experiences, a visible and persuasive organisation like ISIL can be seductive.'

It says that Daesh is a symptom of deeper, much more challenging problems and fills a vacuum in the Middle East and North Africa region. A chief issue is the region's large and growing youth population, which faces high unemployment while many too often have jobs that do not meet their aspirations.

Young people are often locked out of political power with no outlet to have their voices heard. Alienation, disillusionment and even depression are commonplace. The West can encourage structural reforms to unlock weak economies but in the short to medium term there are insufficient employment opportunities for young people. The UK can help develop the skills and resilience needed to thrive in a difficult jobs market by equipping them with the confidence and ability to create opportunities for themselves through entrepreneurship. Otherwise, highly educated graduates - 'frustrated achievers' - can be radicalised. Many are attracted to be fighters because they can earn up to $500 per month, 'a particularly favourable salary in the region.'

Kurdistan is also a youthful country with an oversized state sector and a puny private sector. This was less problematic when oil prices were well over $100 a barrel but unsustainable with oil prices below $40. Encouraging enterprise widens the base of the economy, makes it less vulnerable to external economic shocks and underpins political pluralism.

Individual resilience means encouraging young people to think critically and question received wisdom, work better with others, acquire an increased ability to debate and challenge arguments, and better understand rules-based systems in the classroom, football, debate clubs and so on. A forthcoming paper by Martin Rose, an experienced BC Country Director, examines how critical thinking skills developed through studying social sciences and humanities may provide students with a degree of resistance to indoctrination by extreme Islamists.

It is easier to grasp the directness of bombs and tanks but they are often a much smaller part of the overall picture. Hard power is necessary but works best when combined with the sort of soft power promoted by the British Council and which can contest what Shakespeare called 'The common curse of mankind, - folly and ignorance.'