Monday 23 November 2015


British Council Chief Executive speaks on smart power, Syria, the refugee crisis and the importance of culture in world crises at GWU

In his first visit to the United States as British Council’s Chief Executive, George Washington University alumnus, Sir Ciarán Devane, gave a keynote lecture on Monday night on ‘A World in Crisis – How can Smart Power Make a Difference’ in partnership with the George Washington University and Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. A crowd of over 75 students, academics, NGO representatives and other Washington players heard the head of the UK’s official cultural organization speak to a definition of smart power, the British Council’s approach to cultural relations, extremism, the Syrian and refugee crisis and recommendations for organizations and universities on how to practice smart power.

Sir Ciarán took questions from the audience and attended a reception hosted by the George Washington University and a dinner hosted by Dr. and Mrs. Steven Knapp, President of the George Washington University.

The following are excerpts from the speech on these issues:

On smart power: ‘Smart power is all about integration; it is about thinking through all possible interventions, looking at things through all lenses.’ ‘It is not about response, but about anticipation of events.’ ‘It is about forward engagement.’ ‘It is about perseverance, longevity, consistency and staying around for ‘20 years’.’ ‘We have to think about the way smart power is values driven.’ ‘You have to do smart power at scale and consistently; if we’re going to play this long-term game around values, you have to play at scale. If it is at sufficient scale, we have time to do work with sophistication.’

On the British Council’s role: ‘In our 1940 annual report, it says that the goal of the British Council is to create a basis of friendly knowledge and understanding. What it was saying is if you create connections, then the world will be a better place. It is much harder to fear the ‘other’ if you know them and get on with them.’

On the importance of culture in smart power: ‘How do we combine maintaining and promoting stability and providing people with hope?’ ‘Our world is a battle of ideas, beliefs and values. It is about education.’ ‘We must take a holistic approach. It is about being coherent.’

On Syria and refugees: ‘Syrian migrants are not only losing their homes and livelihoods; they are also losing their chance for an education. An entire generation of displaced people are losing their chance to discuss issues they face in the world.’ ‘Migrants are moving because of survival; it is about being autonomous human beings.’

On creating understanding and debate: ‘If we are going to change society, we need to create spaces for people to hold conversations and debate and realize the other person is not bad, or, evil.’

On extremism: ‘It is important to remember why we, the British Council, were created: to counter extremism.’ ‘We need to stop the transmission [of extremism]. Offering education at a population level is only part of the solution. On an individual level, more is needed.’