A few years ago, in a book called Winners and How They Succeed, I told the story of G20 summit in Brisbane in 2014, and a remarkable outburst by Russian president Vladimir Putin, who told other leaders he was the only one in the room with a strategy, and that they were all tactical, adding ‘you think your tactics will bring me to my knees but you will be on your knees first.’ Almost a decade ago.
The other leaders have gone. He is still there, and has been for the whole of this century. I also reported exchanges from another summit, this time NATO, where a Polish minister echoed Putin’s point, saying to the Americans and others that ‘nobody knows what your strategy is, everyone knows what his is. Yours seems to be weakness. His is strength.’
Certainly, with Russian aggression in Ukraine so dominant in international debate right now, there is currently more focus on hard power than soft. Military force with the threat of more to come, with unsubtle hints about the use of nuclear arms too, is perhaps the hardest of hard power. And Putin having moved into Ukraine, President Xi of China will be watching how the world reacts, with one eye on Taiwan.
Putin knew he would attract widespread opprobrium around the world for his actions; he knew too that whereas he could lie about his own intentions, Western leaders were likely telling the truth in repeatedly ruling out military engagement with Russia, even if they invaded. Hard power has thus far been limited to supply of military aid, but many soft power weapons have been used, most notably economic sanctions, but also sporting measures like FIFA expelling Russia from the World Cup.
As the missiles fly, it would be easy to assume that Putin has no interest in soft power, that he sees it as an obsession of weakened liberal democracies, yet another symptom of the ‘decadent’ West. Yet he exploited it aplenty in his 22-year journey from West-leaning, reform-speaking new President to global pariah status today. Why else the obsession with landing major sporting events like World Cups and Winter Olympics? Why else the targeting of London’s sporting, cultural and business life by those he had helped to make rich?
Looking at the world through Western eyes, we might think Putin commands respect at home and considerable revulsion abroad. In truth, it is impossible to be sure exactly what Russians really think because of his strict and repressive controls of the media, political and legal institutions. However, in Winners I quoted Simon Anholt, who has worked with Brand Finance in tracking how countries are seen around the world, who said that whenever Putin makes what the West sees as an illiberal move, his standing rises in public opinion globally, not just at home. ‘Even if people don’t agree with them, they respect leaders who stand up for what they believe,’ he said. ‘People see a leader exercising his authority.’
That would seem to have been tested beyond breaking point by his actions in Ukraine, with many a hard right and hard left political figure busy deleting their positive comments about their favourite strongman leader. Yet his actions in Ukraine, albeit cruel in the extreme, follow a pattern he has been allowed to follow for too long, and he exploited soft power to get away with the use of hard. Crimea, Georgia, Syria, Salisbury …
President Xi, as viewed by the advanced democracies, is also invariably seen as a dictator. Yet, because of China’s new-found economic power, he has plenty of soft power to match and indeed complement the Strongman image. Even when I left Number 10, less than two decades ago, the UK economy was bigger than China’s. That position has been reversed seven times over. The investment into other countries around the world has reshaped those countries, but also reshaped China’s image for them.
So we should be far from complacent about the geostrategic trends in the world. I grew up in a world where the geostrategic dividing line was East v West, the political dividing line left v right. Might it now be democracy v authoritarianism, and within democracies, not least our own, a tendency to populism v serious, stable government? It certainly feels like the Chinese and the Russians, though Putin may well have over-reached, are exploiting what they see as the weakness of democracies.
Nor should we feel at all complacent about our own standing. The UK regularly features at or close to the top of most soft power indexes. History, culture, Shakespeare and The Beatles, our universities, our great cities and landscapes, our innovators, the BBC, the Premier League, the Queen, we have so much going for us. Yet I worry that many of the less tangible soft power assets are being undermined by Boris Johnson and his Vote Leave Cabinet.
If a government in the developing world was bringing in new laws to curb the role of the judiciary, and the right to protest, to limit protection of whistle-blowers and journalists, to curb the power of the Electoral Commission to investigate wrongdoing by parties, to limit academic freedoms, to make it harder for poorer people to vote, I know what Tory MPs would call it. Yet they have recently voted for all of those things. Equally, Johnson has normalised lying, including in the Commons, where it was once a resigning offence, normalised corruption in contracting, normalised the breach of the ministerial code and the seven principles underpinning public life, which I call HOOSIAL – Honesty, Openness, Objectivity, Selflessness, Integrity, Accountability and Leadership (by example).
I guess we could give him Number 7, in that other MPs and ministers follow his lead, for example in defending the breach of his own Covid laws.
Before anyone dismisses all this as the rage of a Labour-supporting anti-Brexiteer, I suggest you dig out the speech in February by former Tory Prime Minister John Major. Every word!
As a French and German speaker, I regularly channel surf around foreign media, especially when an international story is involved. On Ukraine, by contrast with domestic coverage, you quickly get a very clear sense of how, post-Brexit, and now with a Prime Minister widely seen as untrustworthy, untruthful and unserious, the UK matters a lot less than it did.
For now, we have enough enduring strengths to keep us high in the soft power rankings. But a decade of austerity-led defence cuts has weakened our hard power, as the senior military will admit privately, while the Brexit-Johnson combination is weakening our soft power too. Attacking the BBC, the judiciary, the civil service, putting strategic alliances at risk, the hard rhetoric on foreigners, the constant boasting of being world-beating in areas where we are not, defending the breach of international law in relation to post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland, and of the law on Covid parties … I think we underestimate the damage being done, and the impact this all has for the long-term, by the steady flow of normalisatiom of previously abnormal events and trends in our body politic.
We are almost a decade on from London 2012. That was a great time to be British, a great time to be living in London, a great time to be alive. We have somehow managed to create the polar opposite of the Olympic spirit. If things can change that much for the worse in one decade, they can get a whole lot worse in the next one, unless we face up to the damage being done.
There are times in some countries’ history when for whatever reasons they choose their own decline. I worry that in going for Brexit, in installing Johnson as Prime Minister, and in the Tory Party continuing to support him despite all they now know about his unsuitability, his lying, gaslighting, and moral vacuity, that is what we are doing. I hope I am wrong. But both among enemies and friends abroad, plenty of heads are being scratched as people wonder, how did this happen to such a great country, just as many of us scratched our heads when Donald Trump was in the White House.
Dangerous times. We need a serious, principled government to guide us through them. In not having one, we risk paying a heavy price, even after Johnson has gone.