THERE’S been a bit of hullabaloo of late over First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s visit to the United States. Much of the criticism of her visit surrounds claims she should be getting on the with the “day job”, instead of swanning around California and New York talking about Scotland’s place in the world.
Frankly, I’m a little tired of those compatriots who take such a myopic view. Such criticisms have an increasingly hollow ring to them, not least in these unpredictable global times and given the way some would like to drag Scotland towards political places not of its choosing.
These criticisms not only fail to grasp the importance of wooing trading partners and promoting Scotland, they also completely miss the significant role Scotland has played and must continue to play in its deployment of soft power and diplomacy. As Kenny MacAskill rightly pointed out in this newspaper on Wednedsay, talking is a big part of the day job for someone like the Scottish First Minister. I realise that foreign affairs remain a reserved political issue. This does not mean, however, that the Scottish Government and Scottish representatives at Westminster should bow to UK Government foreign policy moves based on principles Scots clearly feel are at odds with their own.
Lately there has been a whole raft of foreign policy issues on which many of Scotland’s MPs have rightly taken the UK Government to task. An arms deals with Saudi Arabia and its impact on civilians in the civil war in Yemen being one, and the Dubs amendment over the issue of child refugees being another.
Scotland has a proven track record on issues like defending human rights or engaging with environmental concerns that people across the world are increasingly taking notice of. Most importantly, though, they are also noticing how often Scotland’s position is different from that of the UK government.
Just last week while in Iraqi Kurdistan I listened as Falah Mustafa Bakir, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Foreign Relations Minister, talked about Scotland’s current political situation regarding Brexit and the possibility of another independence referendum.
Scotland’s relations with the UK Government, he said, were very reminiscent of his own KRG’s relations with the Iraqi government in Baghdad, especially when it came to the Kurds’ desire for self-determination. Indeed one of the things that intrigued him was what lessons the Kurds might learn from Scotland’s referendum experience as his own country now looks set to have a poll of its own on independence in the not too distant future. Mr Bakir spoke with an evidently intimate knowledge of Scottish political affairs, born out of the fact that Scotland is now registering on the minds of so many diplomats around the world like never before.
Last year in this column I wrote about how Scotland’s track record on human rights and the rights of women resonated in the distant corridors of power at the United Nations. Staffan de Mistura, UN Special Envoy for Syria has been called the man with the toughest job in the world. A vastly experienced and respected diplomat steeped in the bear pit of power politics and negotiations to find an elusive peace deal to end the war in Syria, he does not suffer fools or timewasters gladly.
Scotland should take pride, then, in the fact that Mr de Mistura has paid homage to the Scottish Government’s role in taking forward the creation of the Syrian Women’s Advisory Board, a peace initiative to support the role of Syrian women in the peace process. The creation of the board, consisting of 12 women from across all factions of Syrian society, is the first of its kind to be established through UN-led peace talks.
It will, in effect, offer a platform for Syrian women to voice their concerns and ideas on all issues discussed throughout the peace negotiations. Indeed, so successful has the initiative been that similar schemes are being rolled out in places like Yemen and Libya.
This is soft power and diplomacy at work. Measures that might seem slight but can make an incredible impact often away from the headlines.
At its best Scotland is well placed to play an even greater part in such a role. Across the world Scotland’s progressive values are recognised for the genuine attributes that they are. We are a nation, too, that carries less of the colonial baggage so associated with a British imperialism of the past.
In that past so often this involved adopting at best a patronising or at worst coercive attitude towards other nations and peoples. This is not the way of soft power and diplomacy. By its very nature it is the opposite of coercive, requiring qualities arguably more needed now than they have been for some time.
No one is being naive here. Of course there are times when any country has to stand its ground using hard power when necessary. But such moves should be a last resort.
Currently we live in a world that is facing complex strategic issues that are inextricably connected, and involve among other things a growth of violent extremism and mass movements of people. These cannot be dealt with in the same way that other issues have been in the past.
Today too often the UK Government reverts to a bygone mindset, a knee-jerk, near-gunboat style of diplomacy, at best misguided and at worst downright antagonistic.
Always the inclination is towards using hard power first, throwing weight around rather than engaging in dialogue. The farce that is the ridiculous belligerent posturing over Gibraltar, Spain and Brexit these past few weeks is a point in case.
Soft power and diplomacy is a country’s ability to make friends and influence people, not by threatening military action or sending the Navy. Instead, soft power relies on our most attractive assets, using education, culture, dialogue and above all a set of values that embrace openness.
In a nutshell, it is things that might make a people love us rather than loathe us. I’d like to think Scotland has such things in abundance, and if you’ve got such qualities then why not use them?
I’d like to think Nicola Sturgeon knows this too. That’s why the soft power and diplomacy approach she’s currently engaged with in the US is the right thing to do, whatever her critics might say.
Loading article content