Soft Power in International Military Relations: A UK–Pakistan Case Study

Courtesy of Ahmed Sajjad Kayani/Pakistan Military Academy Kakul.

Soft power is persuasive rather than aggressive. It is about influence through means of attraction rather than coercion. A country with soft power can influence others with appeals to ‘shared values’ and the ‘justness’ of those ideals.

As Colin Gray acknowledged, the hard power of the military can no longer be as easily employed given ‘the relatively recent growth in popular respect for universal humanitarian values’. Whether they like it or not, the world’s armies have had to adapt and change their image. This means that developing their soft power approaches is key to being seen as a legitimate actor in an increasingly scrutinised world.

A History of Engagement

UK–Pakistan military relations are an interesting case study in how soft power may be employed by the armed forces. The cooperation between the British Army and the Pakistan Army began in the 1950s when the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (RMAS) started to accept overseas cadets. Pakistan was allocated 39% of funding from the 1959 Commonwealth Military Training Assistance Scheme to secure the UK’s influence in the emerging country. This is a soft power approach because, by funding the training of Pakistani soldiers, the British Army could assert influence through dependency on its training.

Though, at that time, the influence of soft power in UK–Pakistan military relations may have been largely one-way, this is no longer the case. Since 2015, there have been no less than three Pakistani Army officer instructors at the RMAS. Through their leadership and instruction, they will shape the competencies and attitudes of future British Army officers.

They are required to instil the values and standards of the British Army, which are enshrined in its Leadership Doctrine. These include moral courage, discipline, integrity and meeting the standards of appropriate, lawful and professional behaviour. The Pakistan Military Academy certainly shares these values, as specified in its Educational Philosophy, which has similarly high expectations of its officer cadets as future representatives of the country. Thus, the UK–Pakistan military relationship is, in part, a mutual soft power appeal to their shared values.

Not only do the Pakistani officers encourage these values and standards, but they and the Pakistani cadets trained at RMAS are expected to live and work by them. In theory, these shared values, alongside the camaraderie that would be fostered during their tenure at RMAS, could have the effect of securing close ties between the two countries. As potential leaders of their respective armies, concern for the maintenance of those shared values between the British and Pakistani cadets could encourage greater cooperation in the future in matters of global politics.

Unique Experience

On a human level, the experience at RMAS is a relatively unique one given the diversity of countries, ethnicities and religions represented at the institution. The power of human interaction as a means of emphasising our shared humanity and values should not be downplayed.

The question over whether this soft power approach in UK–Pakistan military relations will reap its rewards will only be answered with time, but the bringing together of their officers has the potential to foster relations and encourage international cooperation rather than conflict. Conflict is the very thing that most officers who have experienced war wish to avoid.

The achievements of the UK’s soft power strategies have been celebrated as it was ranked second globally for soft power in the USC Center on Public Diplomacy’s 2019 report. It detailed the successes of the UK’s soft power through education, entertainment, culture and business, but it does not account for the contribution of the British Army. The report notes the increase in the UK’s diplomatic posts worldwide but does not mention the role of defence diplomacy embodied in the work of military attachés and advisers.

The UK’s 1998 Strategic Review was among the first documents to mention ‘defence diplomacy’ designed ‘to dispel hostility, build trust, and take part in developing armed forces under democratic control (thus helping conflict prevention and resolution)’. There has been an increasing connection between defence and other forms of diplomacy since 9/11. Indeed, this is why the Pakistan Army has an ever more important role in defence diplomacy, given that its proximity to the War on Terror.

While the British Army is acknowledged for its international outreach, Pakistan has fostered an increasingly internationalised army in a relatively short period of time. The Pakistan Army has developed into a global source of ‘conflict resolution expertise’, education and defence diplomacy. Just as the British Army has extended the UK’s influence through its ties to foreign armies, so has the Pakistan Army, including through joint exercises with the Russian military.

Both the British and Pakistan armies have developed their soft power by providing humanitarian aid overseas. For example, the British Army deployed Army Commando Engineers to the Turks and Caicos Islands in the wake of Hurricane Irma in 2017 to support the safe transportation of people, aid and freight. Since then, there have been discussions held between the UK and the Turks and Caicos Islands about creating a defence force, with UK support, for the purposes of security and disaster management. This exemplifies how the UK can attract others to develop defence forces based on its values and standards through the soft power of humanitarian aid. Pakistan’s military has also demonstrated its soft power through humanitarian missions. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Pakistan Air Force transported 100,000 masks and 25,000 coveralls to the US.

So, notwithstanding the traditional assumption that the military and soft power are mutually exclusive, the humanitarian work of the British and Pakistan armies and their training relationship exemplify military soft power. The establishment of close ties between the two countries through joint training and defence diplomacy affirm their shared values and thus has the potential to encourage future cooperation to maintain those shared values. The question then is not whether militaries can engage in soft power but, rather, to what extent will these approaches be successful and where will they be acknowledged if they are?

Mary Hunter is a postgraduate research fellow at the Centre for Army Leadership, Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


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