What Accounts for Britain’s Soft-Power Superpower Status?

Featured imageAmerica may be the world’s sole military superpower, but Britain is distinguished as the world’s preeminent soft-power superpower.

What exactly is meant by soft power?  According to the people who conceived this ranking, soft power means the acquisition of influence through the exercise of more subtle forms of power: network building, communicating compelling narratives, establishing international rules, and drawing on the resources that make a country naturally attractive to the world.

How did Britain attain this exalted status?  Geography was a critical factor, a point deftly argued by Stanford University scholar Ian Morris in “Why the West Rules — For Now.”

But other factors influenced Britain’s assent too.  Harvard University historian Niall Ferguson attributes the rise of Britain and Western civilization in general to what he deftly characterizes as six killer apps — six cultural, technological and political practices that vaulted the West far past the world’s other civilizations.  These include: competition, science, the rule of law, medicine, consumerism and the work ethic.

Yet, I wonder: Would this potent cocktail of killer apps have developed without  the third killer app — the rule of law?

All of these apps essentially grew out of a culture of openness, and none of this openness would have been possible without the requisite legal structure.

Remarkably, though, like so much of what we equate with progress, Britain’s legal structure was not consciously planned but grew out of a series of random events, much of which can be traced to the unique ways in which the Protestant Reformation unfolded on English soil.

What emerged ultimately provided a kind of open-source platform on which was built much of the cultural, social and political success that we equate not only with Britain but also with the English-speaking world.

The uniqueness of the English Reformation is too complicated to be related here.  Suffice it to say that the growing strains imposed by this Reformation were fully exposed in the English Civil War.  But it took another 40 years following the expulsion of King James II in what is now remembered as the Glorious Revolution for the Protestant interests in England to lay out the constitutional arrangements that sharply delineated the powers of Parliament vis-à-vis the monarch. These arrangements, embodied in the Bill of Rights of 1689, provided the means by which Parliament ultimately became paramount within the British constitutional system, while the monarchy, over time, was rendered largely ceremonial.

Indeed, one really gets a distinct impression of how all of this coalesced reading McCauley’s History of England, for many years, the definitive book on the Glorious Revolution and the role played by King William III.

And speaking of the immense soft power of England, the constitutional precedents established by the Glorious Revolution formed the bedrock of the American constitutional system and also provided the basis for governing Britain’s far-flung dominions and colonies.   And, incidentally, two of Britain’s former dominions — Canada and Australia — rank in the top ten soft powers, while tiny New Zealand ranks in the top twenty.

Yes, Britain owes much its soft power preeminence to the cultural legacy — Shakespeare, the Beatles, Harry Potter, David Beckham, the Royal Family and the English Premier League.  But I don’t think the cultural diversity that distinguishes modern Britain would have been possible without the openness that was secured over centuries through the constitutional struggles sparked by the English Reformation.

Simply put, I would argue that the Glorious Revolution, by establishing the rule of law in England, provided the platform on which all the sundry cultural, social, political and technological achievements  associated with Britain could be built.


About Jim Langcuster

A Southern late-Baby Boomer whose post-retirement focus is on building a post-racial, post-Confederate Southern regional identity. If the election of 2016 underscored one thing, it is that this country is intractably divided and that radical devolution of power to localities and states is the only way to save the American Union.
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