Smart power in defence

Speech by Gerald Howarth, Minister for International Security Strategy.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Gerald Howarth


In January this year, a carrier group, led by the USS Abraham Lincoln, with escorts from the UK and France, sailed through the Strait of Hormuz in the Gulf.

It sailed quietly and at night, but its passage was noted.

That was the point.

In the wake of Iranian threats to close the Strait to shipping, a powerful message was being sent.

Was this merely a 21st century display of 19th century gunboat diplomacy?

Well it certainly was a show of formidable military force.

Carrying a big stick has an effect all of its own.

So yes, it was the use of hard power assets, warships, to deter Iran and to reassure allies in the region that the international community would not allow the Strait to be closed.

But in reality, it was just one more turn of the screw by the International Community to put pressure on Iran over its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

And this is a struggle where we are deploying all the clubs in the golf bag, economic, diplomatic, military, political, legal, and cultural.

What ‘smart power’ is about is picking the right club, or the right combination of clubs, for the right occasion.

It is about forging traditional soft and hard power assets, from development aid to defence diplomacy, from sanctions to airstrikes, into a comprehensive strategy focussed on the fulfilment of national objectives.

Smart power

There have always been intrinsic connections between the levers of power.

This government has recognised, much more so than its predecessor, the inextricable link between economic strength and national security.

Economic clout is the number 1 weapon in the smart power arsenal.

Because from economic strength flows our ability to influence the global environment in which we operate, our standing with our allies, and the calculations of our adversaries.

It provides us with a powerful voice in international institutions.

It provides the long term investment required to maintain modern, high tech military forces.

And it provides the funds for diplomatic reach and depth.

Dealing with this country’s fiscal difficulties, the deficit, the national debt, and economic growth, has to underpin any realistic national security strategy and has to be the basis for the UK’s application of ‘smart power’.

As Paul Cornish defined it for us earlier, power is: “the ability to get what is wanted, or to produce desired change”.

Power is, of course, relative not absolute.

The end of the Cold War and the rise of globalisation have unleashed the dynamism of capitalism in countries like China, India, Brazil, galvanising whole regions.

Inevitably, relative power is shifting from mature economies in the west towards the swiftly growing south and east.

Britain does continue to have a large economy and a high tech military, we are unique in our historic ties, the talents of our people and our geopolitical position, but we are not omnipotent.

In this multipolar world, we are one of a number of influential global powers at different stages of development and maturity.

But the fact that power is more dispersed does not mean that Britain has to accept strategic shrinkage.

Indeed the Foreign Secretary has made just that point on a number of occasions, while in opposition and now in government.

It means we have to use our power wisely, to adapt and operate differently.

To be more canny, to use a Scottish expression, which translated into English means, of course, smart.

And that is what we are doing, using all the levers of power to leverage influence in a world of multiple power centres and multiple tensions.

Building stability overseas

Key to this is a proper cross-government strategy for building stability overseas, helping to prevent conflicts and building international, regional and local capacity to deal with problems as they emerge.

We are improving our ability to anticipate conflict, to act rapidly when a crisis emerges to prevent escalation, and, most importantly to build up in susceptible countries strong, legitimate institutions to manage tensions peacefully.

Take the example of Afghanistan, we are not in Afghanistan to create a perfectly functioning western liberal democracy.

We are there to prevent the return of the terrorist threat operating with impunity from Afghan territory as it did before 9/11.

But to limit the ungoverned space terrorists can exploit requires a government able to manage inter-ethnic and tribal tensions without recourse to civil war, that means it has to have the legitimacy and capacity to act on behalf of all the people.

Having visited Afghanistan a few weeks ago, I am encouraged by the progress being made by ISAF in training the Afghan National Security Forces.

And I am encouraged by the fact that the Karzai government recognise that success will be achieved by good governance and political effect too.

So the integrated approach which we are applying in Afghanistan, marrying security with development, governance and political efforts, is a model from which we are learning.

The ‘conflict pool’, jointly managed by DfID, the MOD and the FCO, provides us with the resources to take strong and well funded conflict prevention actions.

These can be long term, like the rebuilding of national security structures in Sierra Leone through an International Military Advisory and Training Team, or immediate, like building up the training for the African Union forces in Somalia.

But conflict prevention in far away places can only be successful if we are engaged in the world, we have strong ties with allies and partners and understand the very complex issues which spark bloody violence in the first place.

That is why our ‘Building stability overseas’ strategy is supported by cross-government activity which deepens our ties with existing allies and forges new links with new partners.

Expeditionary diplomacy

Just as our military posture is expeditionary, so must be our diplomacy and other tools of soft power.

You would have thought that by definition, diplomacy is expeditionary.

But, over the years, we have allowed some relationships to wilt through a lack of attention, and we have not explored fully the benefits of deeper relations with countries rising in global importance.

So we do need to rediscover Britain’s expeditionary zeal.

It is not only in the physical world we need to be expeditionary.

We need to have the capacity to take action in cyberspace to protect and promote our interests.

And it is not only government which needs to be more expeditionary, power is not just wielded by government, that is one of the many lessons of globalisation.

It is wielded by civil society too, from universities attracting the best candidates, to businesses exporting the best products.

They are all representing the United Kingdom and benefiting from Britain’s reputation abroad.

With globalisation, more than ever before civil society has to think and act globally too.

In government the integrated strategies we have for key countries are a classic example of smart power thinking.

We are linking the work of DfID, the FCO, the MOD and our intelligence and security agencies with other organs of state who deal with issues such as energy and exports to produce a framework of mutually supporting action in each country and each region.

This is about drawing together all the instruments of national power, so that the sum of the British effort is much bigger than its component parts.

I think we can all agree that Tom Croft scything through the French line, provoking a stern look on the face of the French President, was a pretty powerful strike for English esteem.

Defence engagement is an absolutely critical part of these strategies because defence can leverage disproportionate influence.

The skill, professionalism and reputation of our military, the quality of British equipment, and the links we have through Nato, makes us a partner of choice for many countries around the world.

I have myself visited 17 countries in all quarters of the globe since taking on the role of Minister for International Security Strategy, building defence ties, promoting exports and spreading the message that Britain is back and interested in strong bilateral relations.

Over the 18 months since the publication of the SDSR, we have signed 3 defence treaties and 33 Memoranda of Understanding, including with Nato members like France and Turkey, and emerging powers such as Brazil and India.

Other soft power defence tools, such as training, visits, defence attaches, and technology sharing contribute to the generation of significant influence.

I am a huge supporter of the work of our defence attaches.

There is no substitute for having someone on the ground who knows the people and knows the politics.

But it is very important that he or she must be equipped with the language skills necessary to engage.

Equally important is a network of people who know Britain, who perhaps studied at Sandhurst, Cranwell or Dartmouth.

In these places, and others such as Shrivenham and here at RCDS, we have strategic assets whose value to the UK extends far beyond the education they provide for our own armed forces.

The application of soft power to build good relations is complementary to the application of hard power.

We cannot operate mine counter-measures vessels in the Gulf without a port to base them in.

You can’t fly a military aircraft over another country’s territory without seeking its permission or ‘diplomatic clearance’.

We can’t maintain troops on operations in Afghanistan without ground lines of communications through neighbouring countries.

That is why defence diplomacy isn’t just an add on.

It forms one of the 7 military tasks of the armed forces, the key activities which the government asks our armed forces to fulfil and plan for.

A modest investment in defence diplomacy provides disproportionate advantage for the country as a whole.

And at a time when money is tight, being focussed and targeted is a must.

A specific UK defence engagement strategy, complementary to cross government efforts, is in the final stages of preparation and will guide our future efforts and resource commitment.


So, in conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, let me leave you with this thought.

It is made abundantly clear to me, time and again, by our allies, by our partners and potential friends, that the might of our military forces matters.

We can talk as much as we want, but the power of our military means we are listened too.

The Strategic Defence and Security Review sets out the vision of formidable, flexible and adaptable armed forces; equipped with some of the best and most advanced technology in the world; and able to project significant power to almost any part of the world.

The continuing ability of UK forces to apply that formidable hard power if required, within international law and alongside allies wherever possible, makes defence assets ideally suited to the application of smart power in support of expeditionary diplomacy.

After all, defence is as much about preventing wars as it is about winning them, that surely is the message of the Cold War and, indeed, our ultimate hard power weapon, the nuclear deterrent.

I see a world in which we will need to rely on these assts more, not less.

I am not advocating a return to the gunboat diplomacy of the 19th century.

But I think we all need to recognise that the world we inhabit has much more of a 19th century feeling to it, competitive, multi-polar, and in a state of flux.

In this new era, Britain remains a force to be reckoned with, supported by the 4th largest defence budget in the world and possessing a history and knowledge bank to which others cannot hold a candle and which also commands respect.

We can, and will, use all our unique assets, welded together as smart power, to ensure that our citizens are secure and prosperous in this new era, and we continue to play an influential role on the world stage.

Updates to this page

Published 13 March 2012