FCO leverages UK HE soft power

Boris Johnson

15 March 2017

Dr Kim Kaivanto discusses how the FCO is using "the ground game" to open up new markets for UK industry. 

As Britain seeks to redefine its place in the world, Boris Johnson’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) deserves recognition for its initiatives to crack open new markets. A steady stream of national news items has ensured public awareness of the Foreign Secretary’s energetic schedule of official visits to foreign capitals. There has been much good work pressing the flesh, reinvigorating relationships with old trading partners, and waving the open-for-business flag for new trading partners.

Yet beneath the news threshold, the FCO is no less active, and perhaps even more so, doing what it has excelled at for centuries: prosecuting the ground game. The instruments of this ground game are not new: soft power, mutual commercial interest, and the nous to seize strategic opportunity.
Today, British society and institutions are particularly well suited to this ground game. Over a generation has passed since Britain repatriated sovereignty back to its one-time colonies. Perceptions of Britain as a ruthless colonial power have mellowed. Yet English remains the language of commerce, the language of global popular culture, and the language of diplomacy. Equally, the practice in international commercial contracting of stipulating British courts as the jurisdiction of choice is very much alive. Britain’s immensely generous providential inheritance stands it in good stead relative to competitor nations.

Countries that have historically looked to the U.S. are finding that the new administration’s messages and actions suggest the possibility, if not the implementation, of shifts and reversals of the status quo in international relations. The uncertainty is palpable. Meanwhile the new administration has made news headlines of stricter visa requirements and questioning the motives and integrity of non-U.S. citizens. A measure of pro-U.S. sentiment has cooled. Both the uncertainty and the wavering sentiment create an opportunity for Britain to step in as a reliable friend and commercial trading partner.

It is an auspicious time for the ground game, and the FCO is not dragging its feet.

In an excellent example of soft power deployment, the British Embassy in Manila has taken the initiative to promote UK Higher Education in the Philippines together with UKEAS and the Education is GREAT Britain campaign by sponsoring the inaugural Great Lecture Series Nov 2016 – March 2017. This series is showcasing UK HE research and teaching for students at The University of the Philippines, Ateneo De Manila University, and De La Salle University. Thematically the series is designed to be highly relevant to the Philippine students, focussing on approaches to resolving pressing issues faced in the Philippines: how private business practices can help to improve badly-stretched and inefficient public services; transport solutions to ameliorate strangulating congestion; and approaches to address sustainability and urban planning challenges.

Yet there is one more propitious silver lining. Gone are the days when we offered theory- or ideology-based solutions for developing countries. Data- and experiment-driven policy development offers a way to avoid the fundamental mistake of applying developed-country solutions to the – culturally, socially, institutionally, politically, and juridically – very different developing-country context. Instead, UK HE is offering the tools of statistics, data science, and experimental science with which developing-country citizens can develop and refine their own policy solutions – as they should.

 Images Chatham House | CC BY 2.0