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The Soft Power of Elizabeth II

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Queen Elizabeth II was an important part of Britain’s ‘soft power’, and her death symbolised and contributed to its decline. James Farrugia is a Maltese diplomat and UM PhD student. He speaks with Jonathan Firbank on the subject, its relevance to Malta, and his professional experience of Queen Elizabeth II’s state visits.

Defining Soft Power

When we think of a powerful country, we often think about its military. The United States, for example, has the most powerful army by a giant margin, as well funded as the next nine armies put together. The US can and does impose its will on other countries with force, violently reshaping nations in both hemispheres.

But the ‘hard power’ of the US’s military pales in comparison to a subtler, ‘softer’ influence. If our children go to the movies, they’ll find iconic American superheroes. Maybe they’ll want iconic American-style popcorn. If they want a drink to wash it down, it probably has an iconic American Coca-Cola logo. They might get bored and turn on a phone made by one iconic American tech giant, then browse a site from one of its rival iconic American tech giants. A foreign nation influences us throughout our lives without needing a single soldier. This influence may, however, need to be actively nurtured through celebrity, diplomacy and other persuasive means. The importance of this is not lost on world leaders (many of whom are influentially iconic themselves). One popular theory was that no two countries with a McDonald’s would ever be at war. The iconic American burger chain was thought crucial to world peace.

This is ‘soft power’, the non-coercive influence of one country upon another. James Farrugia is a Maltese Diplomat and PhD student at UM, studying Modern History under Prof. John Chircop. He defines soft power as being ‘embodied in the concept of persuasion, personality, and positive relationships and reputations’ which enables nation-states to ‘maintain a reputable place in the world of international relations.’ It is an important means of keeping international peace ‘without resorting to coercive or belligerent attitudes to maintain global influence.’

Soft power isn’t unique to the US. South Korea has exploded into the global consciousness thanks to its popular media. Perceptions of Germany have improved due to dependable, exported technology. Japan’s reputation has been similarly rehabilitated by a combination of both. Just decades ago, Japan was vilified across both hemispheres due to the violence of its ‘hard power’. Now, every country Japan has warred with is home to people who regard it fondly. 

Soft power is even important to the most brutal dictators. They spend hundreds of billions on ‘sports-washing’ to make their countries synonymous with the Olympics or football instead of atrocity. And a single person can project national soft power, intentionally or otherwise. Perceptions of India and South Africa are inextricable from perceptions of Gandhi and Mandela, who liberated their nations from the British Empire. In turn, it is hard to think of Britain without thinking of Queen Elizabeth II.

Malta and Elizabeth II

Throughout its history, Malta has been influenced by more nations than most. It lies at the intersection between three continents and has succumbed to or defied great empires since the Bronze Age. But as for soft power, aside from the US’ cultural juggernaut, it’s hard to think of a bigger influence on Malta than Great Britain. Britain doesn’t have the exports of Germany or Japan. It’s a service economy and hasn’t been the ‘workshop of the world’ since it controlled the largest (and last) global empire. Instead, Britain’s reputation stems from three things. First there are memories of that empire. As James Farrugia points out, Britain’s ‘decolonisation process saw less bloodshed’ than others. Instead, ‘ironically, bloodshed ensued in some former colonies once the British left, giving the impression that law and order was due to British guarantors.’ Fortunately, any Maltese nostalgia for the empire comes from a less troubled source; Malta was unusual in both joining the British Empire willingly and parting amicably. Britain’s second source of soft power is its famous citizens, from Shakespeare to the Beatles to Beckham. The  third element is Britain’s prominent place in global diplomacy. Elizabeth II combined all three of these things.

It is hard to think of Britain without thinking of Queen Elizabeth II. For editorial use only. Credit: Shaun Jeffers / Shutterstock.com

Farrugia has been employed with the Foreign Ministry since 1995. During this time, his responsibilities have included organisational roles in two Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings (CHOGM). The two most recent state visits of Queen Elizabeth II to Malta occurred in unison. Farrugia describes assisting Elizabeth II’s advance party as an ‘honour and a privilege’ and has a strong memory of Elizabeth II’s emotional connection to the Maltese. The Queen consciously made time for members of the public, despite a schedule that incorporated meetings with over 50 world leaders. These public interactions were personal rather than political. Farrugia ‘couldn’t help but notice the Queen’s eyes and smiles whenever met with the warmth of the affection of the Maltese people. She wholeheartedly reciprocated that affection.’

Malta is the perfect place to examine Elizabeth II’s soft power. Farrugia draws attention to Elizabeth II living in Malta as a newlywed, developing a relationship with the country prior to her coronation. She returned to Malta on official visits five times during her reign (including her last official foreign visit). These visits integrated her with key moments in Maltese history. These included ‘the official opening of Parliament (the first post Independence), visiting the University of Malta’s new campus in Tal-Qroqq, and a visit coinciding with the 50th Anniversary of the Award of the George Cross by her father King George VI. That had been the first time the Cross was awarded to a group rather than an individual’, in this case to the people of Malta for their bravery during World War II. The George Cross is present on the Maltese flag, firmly a part of Maltese identity. Elizabeth II’s visit cemented her relevance to that identity, consciously or otherwise. ‘During this visit, Queen Elizabeth also inaugurated the Siege Bell Memorial, commemorating all the fallen during the second siege of Malta during WW2.’ Her final two visits were linked to aforementioned CHOGM meetings, an overt effort to maintain soft power links between Commonwealth nations. But if these visits had been purely strategic, they would not have endeared the Maltese as effectively.

‘Queen Elizabeth always considered Malta as her second home. She always recalled with nostalgia her time in Malta, which she stated was the happiest time of her life.’ She made an impromptu visit to celebrate her 60th wedding anniversary. ‘Local couples also celebrating their diamond wedding anniversary were in for a surprise at the Upper Barrakka Gardens when the Queen and Prince Philip joined them. This was another sign of how Malta was close to her heart.’ The Queen’s visits to Malta were mutually beneficial; Farrugia notes how the CHOGM meetings in particular improved the profile and diplomatic networks of participating nations.

‘Undoubtedly Queen Elizabeth has left a profound impact on the Maltese. She was the Queen prior to our independence, through the process of independence, and also was the Queen of Malta between 1964-1974 in post independence Malta: its Head of State until it became a Republic in 1974. Whole generations remember her and solely her on the throne. A lot of ex-servicemen still receive British pensions for their service to Britain, either in the Navy, Army, or Air Force and still considered her their Queen.’

‘For Malta, the Queen’s close ties projected her as a prominent and influential figure that used her persuasion and influence when needed.’ By maintaining a close relationship with Malta, ‘while she did not remain Head of State, she was still looked upon with affection by the Maltese.’ These strong associations improved relationships with and perceptions of Britain in general, working in tandem with more formal diplomatic ties. ‘Maltese Governments always worked closely with Her Majesty’s Governments, particularly after Malta became a full EU member in 2004 and prior to Brexit.’ Farrugia believes that this, at least in part, could ‘be attributed to the personality and leadership qualities of the Queen, which undoubtedly contributed to her soft power policy.’ Queen Elizabeth was surely the glue of the Commonwealth, apart from the UK of course, and it takes a strong personality to keep them both united and relevant on the World stage.

While Britain is no longer the seat of an Empire, it still exerts political influence through soft power. For editorial use only. Credit: Steve Heap / Shutterstock.com

Soft Power Lost

There was a resurgence of this personal attachment when news of her death broke. ‘It impacted a lot of people in Malta, demonstrated by the extremely high number of tributes following her death on local newspapers and social media.’ It’s hard to imagine there was another attendee at CHOGM whose death could spark a similar response. For example, Farrugia’s first CHOGM was attended by Tony Blair. Blair’s use of military hard power utterly reshaped the modern world. Under his watch, British intelligence fabricated pretext for America’s invasion of Iraq, then the British military contributed 25% of the invasion force. Elizabeth II, occupying an essentially symbolic role of constitutional monarch, had no influence over this decision. Even expressing an opinion would have been highly controversial. 

However, Blair’s hard power backfired. It undermined Britain’s national security by destabilising the Middle East and incentivising terrorism. Blair’s death will likely echo that of Thatcher’s. Politicians may pay lip service to him, but the public, even Britain’s public, might be ambivalent at best. Despite her symbolic role (or perhaps, because her role was symbolic) the Queen actively protected British interests far more than military invasions could. She was a clear example of soft power’s vital function.

Therefore her death, though inevitable, weakens Britain. A new king has been crowned, but Britain can’t truly replace Elizabeth II. Its leaders are, more often than not, unelected Prime Ministers who leave in disgrace. There is no modern David Bowie or Princess Diana who can redefine Britain to the world. Farrugia notes King Charles II’s ‘less strong personality’. While Elizabeth II reigned for 70 years, Charles reigns from over the age of 70. He simply doesn’t have time to amass the staggering amount of symbolism and association that Elizabeth II developed. 

While Elizabeth II reigned for 70 years, Charles reigns from over the age of 70. He simply doesn’t have time to amass the staggering amount of symbolism and association that Elizabeth II developed. For editorial use only. Credit: Lwsi Cox / Shutterstock.com

The generation of monarchs below him are hamstrung in other ways. Charles II’s sons are unremarkable; however, their wives once seemed destined for Diana-esque cults of personality. But Catherine, Princess of Wales, hasn’t inspired global discourse, and the British press relentlessly undermine Meghan, Duchess of Sussex (this is certainly racially motivated; Prince Andrew was criticized with far less frequency despite a sex trafficking scandal). All quite the contrast to Elizabeth II, who seemed comparatively beyond reproach. Her soft power was ‘surely strengthened by her strong personality, great leadership, and persuasive character’, consciously committing ‘hard work and enthusiasm’ to soft power projection in a way other British figures don’t replicate.

As Farrugia says, ‘the demise of Queen Elizabeth II symbolises the decline of British influence on the world stage. The absence of Britain’s champion for the last seven decades will be strongly felt. We have seen the modern world transform itself with Queen Elizabeth II being one of the protagonists of change during these years. It is not easy for Britain to compose itself after the loss of its figurehead in world politics.’ And Britain must compose itself in the face of other crises in the same instant. Leaving the EU has deflated its diplomatic influence and damaged its economy. These problems have been compounded by ineffective governance through periods of global disaster. If Elizabeth II’s presence benefited Britain, which it certainly did, then her absence will damage Britain in equal measure. 

In Malta’s case, it is hard to imagine that another person from overseas could influence the country so deeply. As memories of her diminish, so too will the perception of Britain. When Elizabeth II died, a sour discomfort descended on many British citizens. It felt like they’d lost the last part of Britain they could rely on.

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