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Power Play

west indiaThe West India Committee Project Manager Andy Persson explains how this centuries-old public diplomacy organisation, and other organisations like it, can be effective vehicles to deliver a strong dose of soft power

A century on from the start of World War I, Europe finds itself in the most peaceful state that it has perhaps ever been in. A strange statement considering the recent crisis in Greece, the influx of refugees into Europe fleeing conflict, and on-going anti-EU sentiment. But there has been peace in Europe for generations. This shift can be attributed to greater cooperation between nations, and in part to the expansion of public diplomacy and a shift of focus to the concept of soft power. A unique example from the centuries-old West India Committee can help shed light on how organisations in the past helped forge and sustain links between cultures, and how when transforming into NGOs in the twentieth century, these public diplomacy organisations have proved they can be effective vehicles to deliver a strong dose of soft power. However, exercises in soft power can be challenging for governments, and as we shall see, decisions made by policymakers can have a litany of unintended consequences for the future.

To maintain and promote links between Britain and her colonies around the world in the early twentieth century, the British often employed tactics that today could be seen as exercises in soft power. This was used extensively in India and across the British Empire to maintain reverence from locals who often vastly outnumbered the British. The famous slogans and propaganda campaigns which cried The Empire needs men! Enlist now! were designed to appeal to vast audiences. Ironically, those posters were enticing men to participate in a definitively hard power act: war. However, the method used to attract support was undeniably ‘soft.’ Britain persuaded rather than forced people to come and fight for the nation that ruled over them.

Public diplomacy played an important role in preserving and strengthening links globally; those connections can allow some nations to exercise soft power. Public diplomacy in international politics is the promotion of dialogue between governments and people to persuade and influence. Governments across developed countries have been speaking about the need to expand soft power in their respective nations; British Prime Minister David Cameron stressed the importance of soft power to Britain since arriving in office. The UK is now listed first according to The Soft Power 30 2015 – a global index from strategic communications consultancy Portland. Today, the values and ideas of the West are in a struggle with radicalised individuals at home and abroad, and many argue that hard power alone will not defeat the scourge of extremism. Our example can demonstrate the ability of organisations in democracies to inform policy and impact lives in real terms.

When war broke out in Europe in 1914, Britain saw an overwhelming outpouring of enthusiasm from the general public; millions enlisted in the recruitment campaigns across the country. That enthusiasm was mirrored on Britain’s Caribbean islands. As the war progressed, Governors in the West Indies became acutely aware that patriotic feeling on the islands would not subside. But the then Secretary of State for War, Lord Horatio Kitchener and the Army Council saw the colonies’ participation as a potential threat to colonial order: putting weapons in the hands of West Indians to kill Europeans was far too symbolic for their liking.  The West India Committee in London privately noted that the War Office’s reasoning that West Indians are best at use protecting Britain “at home” was only half-true, as threats to the region were minimal, and it was suspected that reservations arose due to pride rather than pragmatism.

The Committee’s public diplomats, with their links to government and close ties to the West Indies, sought to challenge the guiding policy. They were sympathetic to West Indian patriotism, which they saw as a good thing and something to be respected. But after the deployment of Indian troops in Europe, Lewis Harcourt, the then Secretary of State for the Colonies, approached the War Office on 28 August 1915 stressing that to deny involvement would undermine the region’s loyalty and could have severe consequences for the future of Empire in the Americas. In an archetypal act of soft power, King George V called upon his colonial subjects to defend Britain, overruling the War Office’s policy of non-enlistment for Caribbean men. In 1915, the British Government approved the raising of a West Indian.

Today, there is often a desperate need for public bodies to pressure governments, hold them to account and have the bravery to speak out when disagreement arises. The West India Committee warned the government that their refusal to allow the West Indians to enlist could result in a diminishing of British power in the region that was under threat from an expanding United States. A report from 1914 describes the Committee’s frustration with the policy of non-involvement: “we gather that the announcement that no contingents from the West Indies can be accepted for service in Europe during the war has caused bitter disappointment.” The duplicity of allowing Indian troops to fight furthered these frustrations.

Much of the Empire’s power was kept by maintaining an order based on ideas of supremacy, and so perceptions mattered as they do today. The West Indian involvement was that one exercise in soft power, the call for imperial unity, actually sounded in contradiction to ideas of British invincibility that had partly been established through centuries of ‘hard’ power play. Use of soft power has often been met with dismissal. A senior official during the Presidency of John F. Kennedy, John J. McCloy, is reputed to have said in reaction to being encouraged to focus on attractiveness and popularity in world politics: “‘World opinion’? I don’t believe in world opinion. The only thing that matters is power!” Thankfully, Kennedy was not entirely responsive to McCloy’s philosophy and recognised the importance of American appeal.

World War I was a time where European governments expanded and hastened their deployment of soft power. Before the US entered the conflict in 1917, Britain and Germany made significant efforts to sway the Americans to join their side, each using culture and their political values to entice the surprisingly divided nation. In the end it was Britain who persuaded the Americans to help them, but they could not undo the trouble created in the West Indies.

Ultimately, the British West Indies Regiment mutinied in 1918 in Taranto, Italy. They faced discrimination in promotions and pay, but again, the West India Committee determined to challenge policy, acting to protect British power against a potential policy failure. Pay discrimination was overturned, due in no small part to the Committee, and again British soft power was protected in the Caribbean. This exercise was ultimately unsuccessful in the main, however, because the seeds of independence had been planted long before the sprouting of the arguments discussed here. The Empire that all parties aimed to protect was eventually dismantled, and as there was no strong moral basis for colonialism – the moral upper hand – a crucial element of the soft power paradigm was not in place.

Today, those links of Empire on which so many people traversed through the ages somehow survived the turbulence of the twentieth century. While organisations like the West India Committee are now rare, they were the first in what is now a long line of organisations promoting better understanding, change and progress for important causes like poverty and international development. The current Chief Executive describes the West India Committee’s work as providing a “much needed interface by soft power, which augments the effectiveness of interface between the British government and the region.” Still much espoused to public diplomacy, the Committee now works to keep links between Britain and the Caribbean strong and free flowing. Successful exercises in soft power can be elusive, but in order for governments around the world to unlock their energy, and avoid unintended negative consequences, listening to and learning from public diplomats (and therefore listening to the people) is essential to the well-being of a nation’s standing in the world.


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