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Sensemaker: Soft power, hard power

Sensemaker: Soft power, hard power

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Zelensky told the defenders of Mariupol they could withdraw to save their lives.
  • Roman Abramovich flew to Moscow as a go-between in Ukrainian-Russian peace talks, according to The Times, only to have a handwritten offer from Zelensky rejected by Putin.
  • Will Smith hit Chris Rock at the Oscars after Rock made a joke about Smith’s wife’s hair loss (more below).

Invaded: Voicemails from Ukraine

“​​During the last few days, I made maybe the hardest decision in my life. To leave my native country because of the war. I truly hope it’s not forever, but it is still frustrating. I have been abroad plenty of times as a tourist, as a guest or as a business traveller. But I never could imagine I might ever become a refugee.” Listen to Nina and others today and every day in Invaded: Voicemails from Ukraine

Soft power, hard power

You don’t have to be a republican to see that last week’s tour of the Caribbean by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, second in line to the role of Britain’s honorary first couple, did not go well. They were warmly received by crowds at most of their stops, but local, national and international media dumped on the trip as misconceived, badly organised and altogether retro.

To recap:

  • Andrew Holness, the Jamaican prime minister, surprised Prince William on live TV by telling him Jamaica wanted to “move on” without the Queen as head of state.
  • A routine photo call turned into a public relations fiasco when the Cambridges were photographed touching the hands of Jamaican children reaching through a wire fence.
  • A speech in which William expressed his “sorrow” for slavery was reported as one in which he failed to apologise for Britain’s role in it.

The feedback:

  • “It was dubbed in [the UK] media as a charm offensive, but I’m not quite so sure it came off that way.” Tyrone Reid of the Jamaica Gleaner, quoted in the Guardian.
  • “This year marks the 70th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne, and looking at the images out of Belize and Jamaica, well… William and Kate are definitely touring like it’s 1952.” Karen Attiah in the WaPo
  • “For all the smiles, the glamour, the pomp and ceremony, it was impossible to avoid the undercurrent of discontent, the feeling that this may well be the last Royal tour of its kind…” Victoria Ward in the Telegraph

Does it matter? Not if the tour is seen only as a measure of the royals’ standing in the region, or the Commonwealth, or of the standing of the Commonwealth itself, which has long since floundered as a club in search of a role. But it does matter if the royals’ real role is to project soft British power, and they’ve lost the knack. Especially since British hard power in the form of anti-tank weapons shipped briskly to Ukraine is working well and much appreciated.

A world away from the Caribbean, Volodymyr Zelensky has been taking notes. In an interview with the Economist the Ukrainian president – amiable, thoughtful and plainly weary – divided Nato powers into five groups:

  1. Those that want the war to exhaust Russia even if it means “the demise of Ukraine”.
  2. Those that want a quick end to the fighting for the sake of their own economies.
  3. Those that “recognise Nazism in Russia” and want Ukraine to win.
  4. Small, liberal countries that want the war to end soon to limit human suffering.
  5. Those that can be considered “the offices of the Russian Federation in Europe”.

Zelensky did not explicitly attach countries to categories but he seemed to put the UK in group 3 (“Johnson is a leader who is helping more”), Germany in 2 and France (“they are afraid of Russia, and that’s it”) in 5. 

It would be a shame if soft power took a beating in Westminster because of this stark contrast. The impact of a generous international aid programme is hard to overstate. The impact of British leadership within Europe, especially at times like this, would be immeasurable. These are the real vectors of soft power. Get them right, and the royals could take a holiday.


Brexit and trade
If the point of Brexit was to force British businesses to source goods locally, it’s working. More than half of those that have made changes to their supply chains since January last year have sourced more supplies domestically, according to the Office for National Statistics. But the net effect so far is negative for the economy. The total volume of UK imports and exports shrank 14 per cent in the three months to January, compared with an 8 per cent rise in the global average for the same period. And the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts a 4 per cent hit to productivity over the next 15 years compared with a non-Brexit alternative scenario. The point of Brexit, of course, was not to force British businesses to source goods locally, but to open them to the world beyond the EU. It turns out the world of the EU was a decent springboard to the world beyond it. The FT has the story


Last night’s Academy Awards were the first at which a queer woman of colour won an Oscar (Ariana DeBose for West Side Story); the first at which a deaf male actor won an Oscar (Troy Kotsur for Coda), and only the third in which a woman won for Best Director (Jane Campion for The Power of the Dog). But Will Smith smacked them all off the front page by striding onstage and hitting Chris Rock, the host, in the face for joking that he was looking forward to seeing Smith’s wife, Jada Pinckett-Smith, in GI Jane 2. GI Jane is shaven-headed. So is Pinckett-Smith, because she has alopecia. Her husband didn’t find it funny and didn’t apologise to Rock – although he did to the Academy – when presented with the Best Actor Oscar later last night for his role as Venus and Serena Williams’ father in King William. The LAPD says he won’t face charges. Smith wrote in his autobiography that he witnessed his father beating his mother and never forgave himself for not standing up to him.


Microsoft whistle blown
A former Microsoft employee who helped build the company’s business in the Middle East and North Africa claims colleagues engaged in “rampant bribery practices” over many years, and that US authorities are turning a blind eye. Yasser Elabd worked for Microsoft from 1998 to 2018, when he says he was fired after refusing to cooperate with a “performance improvement plan”. He writes in an essay published on Friday that he couldn’t explain at first why junior colleagues on lower salaries than his were buying homes and cars worth millions of dollars. He says he later discovered they were getting kickbacks in return for discounts. Microsoft says it was embarrassed, fired those involved and reached a settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2019. Elabd is vexed the SEC hasn’t investigated his claims itself. Maybe it will now. 

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Covid numbers
The Office for National Statistics reported on Friday that about one in every 16 of the UK population had Covid – just shy of last Christmas’s Omicron peak. Reasons include the increase in potential contacts as many return to offices, people enjoying something approaching a pre-pandemic social life, and waning immunity from vaccinations. Most of the 4.3 million in the UK who currently have Covid have the Omicron subvariant, BA.2, which is similar enough to Omicron to not be a named new variant but more infectious. The evidence so far suggests it doesn’t lead to higher rates of hospitalisation and death. The number in hospital with Covid rose 17.4 per cent in the third week of March, but roughly half will have been admitted for other reasons and then tested positive. More worrying for managers are staff absences in healthcare settings, which are also rising, because BA.2 can still make you sick enough to stay at home. Free tests end this Friday, which will make the number of people testing positive a less helpful measure of Covid’s continuing impact on the UK.  

world by numbers

90percentage of children leaving primary school who ministers want to reach new literary and numeracy standards by 2030, up from 65 per cent in 2019. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Manchin’s gob
The senator from West Virginia who effectively controls US climate policy has profited for 35 years from his part-ownership of a power plant that burns a mixture of coal, rock and clay, called gob. It’s well-known that Joe Manchin’s defence of his state’s coal sector is rooted in personal business interests, but the NYT has gone to town on them and produced an extraordinary account of stubborn self-dealing that includes using his elected office to approve an air pollution permit, pressuring fellow politicians to back a tax credit for the plant and working to push up rates paid for its electricity – rates ultimately paid by his constituents. Manchin’s net worth is estimated at between $4.5 and $12.8 million, which is a lot by most standards but not by those of energy tycoons. You have to ask if it’s really money that drives him, or just bloody-mindedness.

The week ahead


28/3 – Schools white paper published; NUS national conference begins in Liverpool; treasury committee questions Rishi Sunak and Office for Budget Responsibility on spring statement; most of Wales’s last Covid restrictions scrapped, 29/3 – Five years since UK triggered Article 50 process; thanksgiving service for Duke of Edinburgh at Westminster Abbey, 30/3 – Bafta television awards nominations announced; new refugees minister gives evidence to leveling-up committee on Ukrainian refugee support; Office for National Statistics report on increased cost of living impact, 31/3 – Deadline for abortion services to become available in Northern Ireland; latest GDP figures published by ONS; House of Commons recess until April 19; 1/4 – End of free lateral flow and PCR tests; energy bill price cap rise comes into effect; national minimum and living wage increase; temporary VAT reduction for tourism and hospitality ends; Scottish government takes over ScotRail from Dutch firm Abellio


 – EU interior ministers meet to discuss refugee crisis; administrator Bill Nelson gives state of Nasa annual address; Shanghai begins mass testing during five-day lockdown; 29/3 – Biden budget submission due for fiscal year 2023, 30/3 – Memorial service for cricketer Shane Warne at Melbourne Cricket Ground; United Nations Population Fund launches world population report; no-confidence vote in Cyril Ramaphosa held in South African parliament; world bipolar day, 31/3 – annual Fifa congress held in Doha ahead of World Cup; Nato annual report released, 1/4 – Iran holds republic day on anniversary of 1979 revolution; EU-China summit held virtually; Hong Kong flight ban and quarantine measures eased; April fools’ day, 2/4 – Ramadan begins 

Thanks for reading. Please share this around and tell us what we’ve missed. News tips and story ideas are welcome. Email them to sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Giles Whittell

With additional reporting by Phoebe Davis.

Photographs Getty Images

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