The BBC World Service is often seen as one of the UK’s great soft power assets. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan agrees, describing the world’s largest international broadcaster as “perhaps Britain’s greatest gift to the world”.
Tomorrow will see Tony Hall, BBC Director-General, set out the first of a series of responses to the government’s green paper on the future of the broadcaster – a “passionate defence of the important role the BBC plays at home and abroad”. The green paper opened up plenty of issues for discussion (aims, funding, license fee, digital approach etc.), but tomorrow’s response is expected to focus on some rather bold expansion proposals for the World Service. Bold because the BBC has already been asked to make cuts and shoulder the £750m burden of paying free licence fees for the over-75s. And also bold because they are explicit in seeking to counter the challenge of state-sponsored rivals, such as Qatar’s Al-Jazeera, Russia’s RT and China’s CCTV.
“This is about Britain’s place in the world… …It is above the politics of the debates about the BBC’s future. It has to be a national priority. Other news outlets are growing globally and many do not share our traditions and values. We have a strong commitment to uphold global democracy through accurate, impartial and independent news.”
A cursory glance at the expansion plans give a good indication of priorities / challenges:
- satellite TV service or YouTube channel for Russian speakers
- daily news programme for North Korea
- expansion of the BBC Arabic Service (with increased MENA coverage)
- increased digital and mobile offerings in India and Nigeria
But how real are these challenges? Very, actually, especially if you, like 68% of opinion formers, consider the World Service to be one of the UK’s most important foreign policy assets, or are concerned about the strategic decline of the UK’s soft power.
Firstly, the World Service faces a legacy of underinvestment. With a budget less than half that of BBC2, FCO funding was cut by 16% in 2010, leading to the departure of about a fifth of its staff. This has had an impact – in 2005 the organisation provided services in 43 languages, now down to 28. Some services have been ceased, and at one stage, audiences of 10 million in India were under threat for the sake of £900,000.
Secondly, and more importantly, the organisation faces increased competition with the news / information arena seeing increased investment by state-sponsored broadcasters – a “soft power battle”. The BBC sounded the alarm bell in January with its Future of News report highlighting the disparity in investment seen elsewhere – “China, Russia and Qatar are investing in their international channels in ways that we cannot match, but none has our values and our ability to investigate any story no matter how difficult.” Compared to the World Service’s £245m budget (2014), both competitor investment and aspiration levels are high. China’s CCTC received nearly $7bn to expand global operations and both RT (previously named Russia Today, the Kremlin-backed news service, $300m budget), and Qatar’s Al Jazeera ($100m budget) recently launched channels targeting UK / English-language audiences. Before being named UK Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale said it was “frightening” that the World Service was being “outgunned massively by the Russians and the Chinese”.
The report also warned of ‘dangerous and disparate’ threats to independent and reliable world news from other well-funded state broadcasters, arguing that cuts would reduce the UK’s influence, “The World Service faces a choice between decline and growth… …If the UK wants the BBC to remain valued and respected, an ambassador of Britain’s values and an agent of soft power in the world, then the BBC is going to have to commit to growing the World Service and the government will have to recognise this.”
With ministerial discussions on the Autumn spending review already well underway, we can expect further lobbying and positioning in advance of the November announcement on departmental settlements. More on this in my forthcoming Chatham House article on how Britain maximises its influence across the world at a time of declining resources.
Today, President Petro Poroshenko signed the EU Association Agreement and Russia has warned of grave consequences. Of course, it was the refusal of Poroshenko’s predeccesor Victor Yanukovich to sign this Agreement last November that triggered the protests that led to his overthrow and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in February.
Since then, the veering from angry stand-off to telephone diplomacy and back again between the West and Russia over the future of Ukraine resembles a dialogue of the deaf.
This was underlined this week at an on-the-record debate on the Ukraine dispute at the foreign affairs think tank, Chatham House, in London.
The Russian strategic analyst and former Red Army Colonel, Dmitri Trenin – with more than a hint of irony – bemoaned a surfeit of ideology in western foreign policy. He made this observation in relation to a discussion over whether Russia would ‘allow’ Ukraine to join the EU and/or NATO.
The Canadian Liberal MP, Chrystia Feeland, had argued that Ukraine is in the throes of a democratic revolution and the Ukrainian people have the right to decide if they want to join either of the western clubs. The American Realist international relations professor, John Mearsheimer, insisted, bluntly, rights don’t come into it – Russia is the great power in the region and will wreck Ukraine rather than allow it to make that choice.
The former US Ambassador to Russia, Mike McFaul, the other participant in the debate, and Ms Freeland were visibly bemused by this argument which was indicative of what I think Trenin was getting at.
Western foreign policy makers seem to be prone to wishful thinking – that the rest of the international community shares their worldview and that values should outweigh core national interests.
This means, for instance, that what Washington sees as its ‘rebalance’ or ‘pivot’ to Asia, which, it asserts, will benefit Asia and the US economically and help ensure peace and stability in the region, is seen very differently in Beijing. It is clear that China is suspicious of the ‘pivot’ and many there regard it as an attempt to contain them and stifle growing Chinese power and influence in its own backyard. American policymakers insist this is not the case and express surprise their Chinese counterparts could possibly think such a thing.
In the case of Russia, the Americans and Europeans insist Russia has nothing to fear from a Ukraine that chooses to be in the western camp and that it can be a win-win for all, and this is sometimes expressed as incredulity that Moscow can’t see this.
Cynics may argue that this attitude is feigned given the Americans know they would not accept a country like Mexico allying itself with another great power, but in many cases it isn’t – reflecting what appears to be an assumption in US circles, perhaps resulting from the post-Cold War period of American global dominance, that what is in its national interests is in everyone else’s too.
If you add to this that Washington is also having to adjust to the shift in the global balance of power, which has seen the return of what commentators like Professor Mearsheimer see as great power politics, when countries like Russia and China assert their interests, it often meets with incomprehension in the US.
As for the Europeans who have spent the last sixty years trying to shed the great power mindset that fuelled two world wars which killed tens of millions, and have concentrated on enlarging the EU by acquiring new members by using the attraction of its economic and democratic values, they are also finding it difficult to adapt to the return to a world of competing powers.
On the Russian side, Moscow doesn’t see the current situation in Ukraine as a potential win-win; in the eyes of the Kremlin it is a zero-sum game. For Russia, a neighbouring Ukraine in the western camp would be a threat, hence its destabilisation of the country since the overthrow of the pro-Russian President Yanukovich.
Given all this, as long as the two sides remain unable and apparently unwilling to see the world from each other’s perspective, whatever resolution is reached in Ukraine, further confrontation between the West and Russia is almost inevitable.
Latest of our #progressivedilemmas is on what we might expect from a future Labour Russia policy.
Britain’s political class did not distinguish itself in its immediate response to the Crimean crisis. A zoom lens outside Downing Street which captured Cabinet Office papers in the hands of an unguarded official seemed to reveal yet more evidence that the protection of the City trumps any other strategic instincts for this government. Labour, meanwhile, appeared to be more rattled by Tory Twitter jibes than by Vladimir Putin’s machinations. But the challenge posed by Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine will outlast any initial inclinations to see it through the prism of the Square Mile or the Westminster bubble. From the future of the European Union to UK defence priorities, Russia now presents a number of long-term dilemmas for progressives, regardless of how the events of the next few months play out.
Much western commentary about the Ukraine crisis has asserted that Russian intervention in Crimea has undermined the post-Cold War order based on the inviolability of borders and respect for the rules-based international system developed after the world wars of the last century and founded on respect for the United Nations’ Charter and other international agreements.
But if this order is being undermined, critics would argue the rot set in some years ago and the hypocrisy of both the western powers and Russia, which has been on full display in recent days, has played a role in its decline.
Since the occupation of Crimea by thinly disguised Russian forces began, the American Secretary of State, John Kerry, has declared publicly on several occasions that in the 21st century countries should not invade others for trumped up reasons and dictate what should happen from the barrel of a gun. In late 2002, John Kerry was a senior United States’ Senator and he voted for the invasion of Iraq, which after the failure to find any chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, was justified post-facto by the US administration as a war to bring democracy to the country.
In another critique of Russia’s actions, President Obama, echoing comments by leading European Union politicians, said countries should not be dismembered over the heads of their elected leaders. Yet, in 2008, in a choreographed sequence of events, the US, Germany, Britain, France and Italy first encouraged Kosovo to unilaterally secede from a Serbia, which had been democratic since the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, and then recognised its independence. Of course, the context is different from what is happening in Ukraine today, but the principles of the inviolability of borders in Europe agreed between the West and the old Soviet Union at Helsinki in 1975, part of the rules based international order, was breached.
Russia refused to recognise Kosovo’s independence. At the time, Moscow argued it was a violation of Serbia’s territorial integrity, which it clearly was, and that other states should not recognise a secession that was not mutually agreed – as for example the split between the Slovaks and Czechs in 1993 had been. The Russians also argued it would open Pandora’s Box by setting a precedent that other separatists would follow. The western countries that recognised Kosovo – and not all did – argued Kosovo was unique, sui generis.
Since then, Russia has changed its tune and ensured the precedent it warned of then was followed – by Moscow.
Crimea is internationally recognised as part of Ukraine and Russia specifically guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial integrity in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, but Foreign Minister Lavrov is now indicating that if Crimea wants to secede from Ukraine and even become part of Russia that is fine, showing Moscow’s commitment to its publicly stated principles can be as elastic as that of its western critics.
Russia had already shown its less than firm commitment to the principle it stood by over Kosovo when it recognised the declarations of independence by South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia, after the short military conflict between Tbilisi and Moscow which broke out when Georgia took military action against separatist Ossetians in August 2008.
Some commentators shrug this off. They say what do you expect? Might is right and ‘twas ever thus with the way great powers behave.
But if the world’s leading states, some of which have permanent seats on the UN Security Council, which is the body meant to ensure global peace and stability, come to be widely perceived as cynically using and discarding the principles of a rules-based international system when it suits them, then that system, which is intended to protect both the strong and the weak, will be eroded further, and that is not in anybody’s interest in an increasingly contested and unstable world.
It may be that Russia would have intervened in Ukraine anyway given what it sees as its key national interest there, but the shifting standards of those western powers opposing its actions means diplomatic efforts to contain the crisis have been made more difficult and the case against Moscow in the court of global public opinion weakened.