British Council Chief Executive: It’s about Anticipation, Not Response

Elliott School alumnus Sir Ciarán Devane hosts timely discussion on using smart power in times of global crisis.

November 20, 2015

Ciarán Devane

Speaking on campus Monday night, Ciarán Devane emphasized the need to take a total approach in creating international stability. (William Atkins/GW Today)

By James Irwin

Sir Ciarán Devane recently posed an unusual question to a British counterterrorism professional regarding extremism in the Middle East. He wanted to know if they had talked to epidemiologists involved in the Ebola crisis.

“He said, ‘Why would I do that?’” Mr. Devane said Monday at the George Washington University. “And the answer is because it’s all about transmission factors. If we can create an environment where the transmission of [extremist] ideology is less than one, it will fade away. If it’s greater than one, it will increase.”

Speaking at an event kicking off International Education Week on campus—and only three days after a series of terrorist attacks killed at least 129 people in Paris—Mr. Devane, the chief executive of the British Council, emphasized the need to take a total approach in creating international stability, one that uses “all the tools available” to combat extremism.

The normal, disconnected methods are not working, he said.

“This is not about economics alone, not about security alone,” he said. “The issue with the way we deal with a crisis in the traditional model is we all fall back to what we learned in political science class—there are people who believe we need a strong military response, people who believe we need to get organized and talk to governments and people who believe we need to understand the history. We have these three separate conversations, and then the person making the policy decision will pick A, B or C.

“The response actually needs to be all three.”

His presentation—followed by a question-and-answer session facilitated by Elliott School of International Affairs Dean Reuben E. Brigety II—focused on “smart power,” which Mr. Devane described as a strategy that employs cultural diplomacy, public diplomacy and forward engagement. The latter he described as “the things we need to do now in order to address problems we anticipate facing” 10 and 20 years into the future.

Connecting with the most vulnerable

Tactically, smart power solutions often run the spectrum of foreign affairs from aid development, language education, cultural exchange, trade promotion and social enterprise to the fringes of “hard power” that include sanctions and military strategy.

“It’s about integration and building all of these concepts into one coherent plan,” he said. “And ideally, you are building a response before you need the answer. It’s not about response, it’s about anticipation.”

A key part of that integration is about connecting with those most vulnerable to the ideology of extremism, he said. Displaced Syrians, especially young men, fit that criteria. They are prime recruiting targets for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

“When you talk to the young people in the camps in Turkey, they say they are not going to stay there,” Mr. Devane said. “So there are only two available pathways—one is to go west, the other is to go back to Syria to fight. Why go back to fight? Because they get paid. It’s not necessarily clear which side they’ll fight for, but if they want to survive, they will go and do that.”

Fully combatting ISIS, he said, must include efforts to connect with displaced Muslims and Arabs. Among other things, it disturbs the ability of ISIS to connect with them first. That’s a tactic that goes back to the British Council’s founding. Established in 1934 to counter Nazi propaganda, the organization had evolved by 1940 into one that aimed to create connections of knowledge and cultural understanding between nations—the building blocks of smart power.

“There was a pragmatism to that,” Mr. Devane said. “The first countries we operated in were Spain, Egypt and Turkey—all non-aligned countries. If they had a connection to us then they were less likely to believe this evil ideology and extremism from [the Nazis].”

Rebuilding displaced communities

Today, the British Council supports many variations of smart power—in arts and cultural exchange, governance and English language expansion. In Lebanon and Jordan, the organization is working to create and sustain education systems in refugee camps. It is a single, but important, step in creating stability.

“A community tends to move together—the teacher is there, the bank manager is there, the plumber is there, the baker is there,” Mr. Devane said. “If we reconstitute the infrastructure, we’re helping to prevent having a lost generation. A nightmare scenario is we have a generation of people who lose their education and are all the more prone to being picked up by the extremists.”

He looks at the early years of the British Council as an example of why smart power is necessary today.

“An interchange of knowledge, ideas and discovery—if you can create these connections, then the world will be a better place,” he said. “And if they could say that, quite literally, when the bombs were falling, then surely that needs to be part of our thinking now.”