24/11/2011 11:36 GMT | Updated 24/01/2012 05:12 GMT

Soft Power and British Foreign Policy

It is fantastic news that the British Council have resumed their work in Libya this month. Their last eleven years of presence in the country were rudely interrupted when they were forced to close the office in February 2011.

The British Council's work in the region over the coming months will include offering citizenship and arts grants to build up civil society; teaching English, including educational radio broadcasts across the country; using UK higher education expertise to create universities that value cultural activity and free speech; and developing curricula and qualifications for vocational education. This type of work has occurred across the globe - including North Africa and the Middle East - since the British Council was founded in the early 1930s. Historically it has enjoyed significant success, including in apartheid South Africa, in democratising countries in Eastern Europe, and in post-Soviet Russia.

There are three reasons why I think the work of the British Council and other organisations such as the VSO and the Commonwealth Foundation are an essential part of a modern and sophisticated foreign policy.

First, the work of these organisations reflects the importance of 'soft power'. Soft power is the power to influence and encourage others to sympathise with our values. It is not a substitute, but rather a complement, to the 'hard power' of economic or military means.

Soft power cannot achieve specific aims within a given timescale in the same way as military or economic activity often can; but it can build healthy political relationships and political capital that complement these more direct tools of foreign policy.

This could involve restoring a country to a point of stability after a prolonged conflict, or engaging in conflict prevention activities. The ongoing use of soft power resources can develop relationships that can lend legitimacy to any necessary military presence, as well as inform any strategic and tactical decisions. The hard power of military intervention, or economic sanctions, is sometimes inevitable in the modern world, but should not be the only component of an effective British foreign policy.

Second, the recent reports of the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) and the National Security Strategy have stressed the value of soft power and diplomacy in response to the challenges facing defence funding. The SDSR refers to a need for a "whole of government" approach to foreign and defence policy, and the value of British culture and language, and participation in international institutions, to Britain's role in the world.

The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, emphasised the importance of soft power when defining the coalition's foreign policy. He argued that soft power institutions such as the British Council and the BBC World Service build up British influence and support British values that we wish to see shared abroad. The Prime Minister also identified the importance of these institutions in supporting democracy in the Middle East and North Africa.

In Libya, this calls for building up civil society so that progress does not rely on any political party or national government. By developing a trusting relationship between ourselves and Libya, especially through the teaching of English, Libya is more likely to choose to embed the values of a modern representative democracy: freedom of expression, citizenship, and international opportunities and cooperation. This will lead to a consolidation of Libyan democracy, greater political stability, and the likelihood of a stronger basis for future trade and positive international relationships.

Lastly, the British Council's work is one example of the UK demonstrating its moral commitment across the world. British involvement with other nations should ideally not start and end with military force: our foreign policy has always centred around the promotion of British interests, but it also has at its heart a long-term commitment to other nations. Building mutually beneficial relationships with other countries should be a continual ambition of our international activity. We must recognise a wider commitment to other peoples, by fostering democracy and encouraging the institutions that help maintain political stability.

The work of the British Council and similar organisations, and its soft power influence, is an important facet of a sophisticated and enlightened foreign policy. The reestablishment of the British Council's presence in Tripoli is a great example of this and a welcome move to help secure a peaceful, democratic future for the Libyan people.