Influence has become a fashionable concept in British defence circles, and it is easy to see why. Influence fits with a powerful globalist zeitgeist focused on the power of networks and ideas. Moreover, with its focus on the logic of persuasion rather than physical force, influence seems an intelligent way of getting what Britain wants in the world: it represents the smart exercise of power. In fact, influence seems an especially relevant concept for Britain, giving it the ability to leverage the benefits of British cultural attraction, and historical connections with other parts of the globe. In straitened times, influence promises to be an important force multiplier, sustaining the British military’s ability to ‘punch above its weight’ in the world.
But the importance attached in Britain’s defence policy to influence carries with it an important risk: that, seduced by the apparent advantages of the influence tool, we fail to understand just how difficult it can be to wield influence effectively. Influence is fundamentally about power: it is about achieving desired outcomes. In consequence, British culture, history, and global connections are not influence: they only become influence if those things can be translated into instruments that allow Britain to get more of what it wants. But creating these instruments isn’t easy.
Indeed, far from constituting the foundations of success upon which the British military can build, Britain’s colonial past has been littered with influence failures. Britain often failed in its past influence campaigns despite what would be considered today some compelling advantages: for example, a long history of engagement in regions around the world; and a cadre of officials with detailed local knowledge, including language skills. Nor did British influence campaigns fail because they were always badly handled, because they often weren’t – they regularly displayed an understanding of how to harness local actors to the British effort; embraced new media; and demonstrated a grasp of the local difficulties in influencing populations that were often disparate and illiterate.
Instead, what past British failures suggest is that there are five related recurring difficulties with attempts to use influence as a central tool of policy:
First, influence requires investment. Presence in a region, and a history of engagement, does not translate necessarily into a deep understanding of how propaganda, information operations, and political warfare should be conducted. During the Confrontation with Indonesia (1963-66), for example, British efforts for much of the conflict lacked any decisive effect because those efforts were underfunded, understaffed, and wracked by the perennial problems of inter-agency conflicts. Influence does not derive simply from being British.
Second, reading other cultures is crucial if one is to construct, direct, target and transmit influence effectively. But it is difficult genuinely to understand other cultures. This has been the case even where Britain has had a long history of presence and engagement, and so is likely to be even less easy to do now. Cultures are complex, disparate, contested, and often imagined. Attempts to understand the ‘other’ often simply become an exercise in cultural stereotyping. In the ‘battle of the narratives’ in India, in the lead up to independence in 1947, British influence efforts were hamstrung amongst other things by romantic sentimentality and a failure to understand just how much had changed since the heydays of the Raj.
Third, the influence audience is complex. Actually, there are usually multiple audiences, and often these have opposed view points making it difficult to target messages effectively. These audiences may include multiple conflicting local groups, allies, the international community. In Palestine (1945-48), Britain had Jewish, Arab, American, domestic British, and international audiences to consider, and the messages suitable for one audience often had an entirely undesirable effect on another.
Fourth, influence targets are not infinitely malleable: they are not blank sheets of paper waiting to be written on. Targets have predispositions, views and beliefs all of which influence the credibility of an influencer’s message and the receptiveness of the audience to it. In Egypt (1945-55), Britain was trying spin messages that couldn’t be made popular to ordinary Egyptians because of the British ‘image problem’ that was a legacy from the colonial period. Aldous Huxley wrote of the importance in influencing others of the ability to ‘canalize an existing stream’, noting that ‘in a land where there is no water, he digs in vain.’
Fifth, in general, there is likely to be a competition for influence, with adversaries attempting to delegitimize our messages and legitimise theirs. In such places as South Arabia in the first half of the 1960s, the problem often for Britain was that it was struggling with anti-colonial groups whose message had an intrinsic power because it spoke to the indigenous population’s perceptions of material reality and their experience on the ground and who, because they came from the indigenous population, often understood local society better.
Last, and crucially, influence is not an independent variable: influence is an adjunct to material strength and not a replacement for it. In 1954, an inquiry into the British Overseas Information Service concluded that ‘propaganda is no substitute for policy; nor should it be regarded as a substitute for military strength, economic efficiency or financial stability. Propaganda may disguise weakness, but the assertion of strength will deceive nobody unless the strength is there.’ For example, British influence in colonial Africa was built on a background of actual or threatened violence expressed through a conservative and authoritarian colonial political structure.
The risk in privileging influence too much as a concept is that we may come to believe that it can substitute reliably for other forms of power. In doing so, the danger is that the target most influenced by influence is actually Britain itself, and that we are contributing to the delusion that we can continue to pursue ambitious foreign policy goals without the material strength to meet them.
Image: “Unity of Strength Together (British Empire servicemen)” by William Little – This file is from the collections of The National Archives (United Kingdom), catalogued under document record INF3/318. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.