Originally posted on Phil Vernon's blog:
I was giving evidence to a UK House of Lords select committee on aid as an instrument of soft power yesterday, so spent a bit of time researching what “soft power” actually means. It turns out it’s not just a fancy word for “influence” – though you probably knew that already – but rather Joseph Nye’s rather precise definition of how to achieve one’s objectives through attraction and co-option, alongside or instead of other means such as coercion and purchase. For Nye, foreign aid is purchase power, and as such not strictly a soft power tool. Was he right?
It’s rather hard to examine power in the abstract, as it can only really be measured in relation to a specific policy goal or objective. The UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) is mandated to reduce poverty overseas – a difficult but relatively narrow purpose. But if you look at the work of DFID, other UK government departments, the EU of which the UK is a leading member state, other international organisations of which it’s a member, and other UK-based organs such as NGOs and businesses, it is not a great stretch to argue that one of the UK’s international policy goals is an increasingly and sustainably prosperous, peaceful and liberal world. If such an unwritten goal does exist for the UK – and I believe it does – then it would ultimately be good for business, good for reduced defence spending, good for the achievement of globally shared public goods such as atmospheric carbon reduction, and good from a moral perspective as well.
So the debate about whether aid is an effective soft power instrument comes down ultimately to a debate about whether aid can legitimately be seen as soft power (rather than “purchasing” power as Nye would have it), and whether it actually does help create a better world.