In this piece Alex Penler explores the role played by royals in the exercise of Britains soft power. She argues that the royal family has been and can continue to be an asset to the British government in their pursuit of their foreign policy objectives provided the family grapple with difficult aspects of their own and Britain’s past with regards to colonialism, gender, and race.
With Queen Elizabeth II’s recent jubilee, a number of articles have recently focused on the her “masterful” use of soft power. In some ways, the Queen and her family can be seen as the ultimate public diplomats for the United Kingdom, its people, and its culture. Americans particularly have a love for the British royals; President Obama once quipped, “The American people are quite fond of the royal family. They like them much better than their own politicians.” Opinion polls have shown the relative popularity of the Queen from Romania to Saudi Arabia. While it’s easy to assess the Queen’s popularity, it’s important to understand exactly how the British royal family use soft power to accomplish their and Britain’s foreign policy objectives.
There are five categories of public diplomacy: advocacy, listening, cultural exchange/ diplomacy, exchange and education diplomacy, and informational broadcasting.  As head of state, the Queen and her family makes and receives state and diplomatic visits, at the request of the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office. The royals are required to be apolitical, so they must use more nuanced and subtle techniques to accomplish their goals.
Any diplomatic tour by the royals can be categorized as advocacy. While physical representation is part of the job description, it’s not the only form of advocacy they utilize. It’s important to understand that every single small thing they do is scrutinized, from who they talk to what activities they participate, and even what brands of clothes they wear- they are considered to be total representatives of their nation. This is particularly true for royal women, whose fashion choices are watched worldwide. For example, the Duchess of Cambridge is fond of the brand Sézane, which recently faced controversy for a campaign seen as exploitative of indigenous women, causing many royal watchers to criticize her. At the other end of the spectrum, due to their extensive media presence, they are promoting British style, goods, and trade to the outside world. Brands like Barbour, Land Rover, and Jaguar have become synonymous with the royal family. A British CEO said, “The arrival of the Young Royals has renewed the world’s enthusiasm for all things British.”
Home or abroad, the British royals represent British culture, or “Brand UK”. Their association with different British cultural icons, often increase their popularity abroad. Welsh corgis, for instance, are now the 11th most popular dog in the United States. Through the royals, foreign audiences see a very particular subsection of British culture- one the British government likes to project internationally. The royal family represents both surface culture, like food and drink (i.e. tea and scones) or sports (i.e. cricket, rugby, and polo) and deep culture, like their accents and vernacular, and politeness. At home, when hosting foreign dignitaries, they can demonstrate British cultural norms and deep culture, such as in 2003 when the Queen drove the then Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia who did not approve of women driving. Despite her duty to remain above politics this was one of the few subtle ways she made a political statement.
Throughout her reign, the Queen been one of the many instruments through which Great Britain exercises its soft power. The British Foreign Office has often used the royals as a promotional tool for the country and even considers them a “major national asset” as one journalist categorised it. The queen has visited over 100 countries, including all of the Commonwealth, and hosted many more heads of state on official visits. Professor Philip Murphy has argued that the royal family can execute a greater number of overseas visits and foreign engagements than is possible for an elected head of state that also has to run the government, As a recent BBC documentary argued that “there are countless times when Her Majesty’s ability to build relationships, to charm, to step in at the right moment or offer gentle guidance have changed the course of history”. The documentary gives examples of the Queen’s diplomatic successes, including preventing a foreign policy crisis in Zambia in the late 1970s. One of the more successful cases was the Queen’s role in supporting Nelson Mandela and the end of the apartheid. She invited him to join a dinner of world leaders before he was head of state, recognizing his importance in South African politics, and impressed him with her knowledge of politics in southern Africa. The first year that Mandela became President, South Africa joined the Commonwealth and invited the Queen for a state visit. Other examples include her visits with Ronald Reagan, which helped Margaret Thatcher gain U.S. support for the Falklands War. Her diplomatic skill relies on her ability to influence, attract attention, and persuade others, through both public and private actions. This also depends on her ability to stay apolitical, retain her image as a unifier of both the UK and the Commonwealth, and ensure that the royal family does not become an embarrassment to the British people. This is especially important post-Brexit, where the UK’s influence, status, and respect has decreased again, as illustrated by the lack of a trade deal with the United States. She must project stability, and balance being strong with being reserved. The Queen and her successors cannot have opinions or mention anything divisive. Instead they focus on general subjects, like celebrating historical ties and championing human rights, except when they are restricted from doing so by the British government. In this new position Britain finds itself in the world, it needs the royal family and soft power to retain its relevance and its influence.
After cultural diplomacy and exchange, one of the most useful public diplomacy and soft power tools the royal family uses is listening. When done expertly, this can further British foreign relations, but when done incorrectly, can damage or destroy them. Two examples in the last decade would be the Queen’s 2011 trip to Ireland and the more recent royal tour of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in March 2022. The most important part of listening in public diplomacy is that you are seen listening and learning from foreign audiences. This might include appreciating local culture and history, meeting with local government, and learning from everyday citizens about the community visited.
The Queen’s historic trip to Ireland in 2011, the first by a British monarch since Irish independence, was monumental for many reasons. It was also a skillful public diplomacy and soft power case study. Many of her gestures advocated for new British-Irish relations and demonstrated British remorse, such as her visit to Croke Park, the site of Bloody Sunday, and the laying of a wreath at the Garden of Remembrance. She was also seen learning about Irish culture by learning how to pour a pint of Guinness beer and visiting the Book of Kells. Most pointedly though was her use of Gaelic in her final speech. The Gaelic language had long been suppressed by British imperialism and was a rallying point for Irish independence. For her to use the language indicated that she understood the history of the language, including her own government’s role, and that she respected and appreciated the language today. Her speech and the success of her visit, even led to a meeting between Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein and the Prince of Wales in 2015.
The recent royal visit to the Caribbean by the Duke and the Duchess of Cambridge was much less successful, primarily due to the lack of preparation and listening. Many Caribbean countries have recently moved towards full independence from the British and the royal family, such as Barbados. There have also been campaigns for the British to apologize and pay reparations for their role in the slave trade and centuries of colonization, galvanized by the current attention on race relations worldwide. Royal tours are dying vestiges of imperialism, but they’re also diplomatic visits, where the royals seek to gain support from the country they’re visiting. Since the Commonwealth is voluntary, there is great fear by British ministers that this soft power benefit will collapse after the Queen’s death. Many viewed the marriage of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex as a boon for the Commonwealth, as they would be ideal ambassadors of a modern and diverse Britain. Their departure meant that the tour fell to the Cambridges instead. The tour itself was marked by many PR and communications failures in Jamaica particularly, from the imagery of them wearing white in the back of a Land Rover in a throwback to the Queen’s early, more imperial, rule, to the pictures of the couple greeting children behind wire fences.
The primary role of the FCDO office is to have their ear to the ground in the country before a visit to understand local sentiment and “listen” to the government and population. This was clearly not done, or at least not articulated back to London, or else the trip would not have been planned with the tone it was. Nostalgia and history are an important part of listening, deep culture, and public diplomacy, but it has to be used very carefully or else fails. Like in Ireland, when the Queen could not apologize for the brutal colonization and treatment of the Irish people by the British, the royal family could not apologize for slavery in the Caribbean or announce reparations without the support of the government. As a constitutional monarchy, they can represent the state, but not government policy, under which both apologies and reparations fall under. In many ways, it was evident to see the Cambridges listen on the tour itself- from meeting with local charities to William’s rewritten speech condemning slavery and their look of discomfort during the parade. Listening before, during, and after any public diplomacy interaction is vital to positive relations and increase soft power. While the trip was considered either a charm offensive or a failure by different wings of the British press, the Jamaican media was more muted, with one Jamaican journalist describing it as not a failure but “a royal failure, but “not a regal success either.”
As the royal family is learning, lessons about colonialism, racism, and gender, play a huge role in public diplomacy relations moving forward. In all the jubilee joy, Historians, journalists, and royal watchers cannot forget though that the royal family’s role is intertwined with colonialism, and that Britain and the royals must fully decolonize to survive. It is vital to recognize the past to understand the present as the Queen demonstrated in Ireland. By relying on listening and other public diplomacy tools, the royal family has the opportunity continue to wield soft power in the future, long past the platinum jubilee.
Alex Penler is a PhD candidate in the Department of International History at the LSE, where she works on diplomatic wives’ contributions to public diplomacy during the Cold War. She also received her Master’s in Empires, Colonialism, and Globalisation with distinction from the LSE, writing her thesis on American heiresses who married into the British aristocracy. She has worked for the past 8 years in communications with U.S. government public diplomacy and foreign aid programs.
Featured Image: The royal family watch a flypast on 15th June 2013. Taken from Wikimedia Commons.
 Cull, Nicholas J. “Public Diplomacy: Taxonomies and Histories.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 616 (2008): 31–54. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25097993.