SOFT POWER: UNRELIABLE, DIFFICULT TO MANAGE – AND MASSIVELY OVER-SOLD

Until the end of the Cold War it was largely taken for granted that an effective foreign policy depended crucially on the possession of military power. While diplomacy and other forms of what has become known as “soft power” had a role, it was generally assumed that in the absence of robust defences and military alliances that were kept in good repair vital national interests could not be safeguarded. This assumption went hand in hand with another assumption, namely that while peaceful means to limit the possibility of conflict should be pursued war should be regarded as a permanent feature of the human condition.

The EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy is built on rather different assumptions. The architects of a unitary European state have supported the goal of a common European defence, which is listed as a key objective in the Lisbon Treaty, but they have given the impression they did so because this was one of the few remaining building blocks that had to be put in place before the grand European project was complete, rather than as the means to project power or enhance security. In any event, for reasons beyond the scope of this essay they have not got very far and their attempts have coincided with a period in which the defence budget of almost every European state has fallen – to the evident dismay of their American allies. During the Cold War Americans often complained that Western Europeans were spending insufficient on defence and that a more equitable form of burden sharing would have to be devised if the Western Alliance was to survive. Now, having apparently found themselves free of major security problems thanks to the massive hard power of the United States, many Western Europeans have concluded that there is no burden to carry, war and even the possibility of war having been conveniently banished.(1)

The British defence analyst Colin S. Gray has aptly described this cultural shift:

For the people of EU-Europe in particular, war is not merely old-fashioned, indeed obsolete, it is wholly uninteresting except as a non-participatory recreational diversion… The European aversion to military solutions is not simply an opinion of the moment but is now sufficiently deeply rooted to warrant description as cultural; it is an attitude.

As Gray noted this is good news for peace campaigners but bad news for the cause of international peace with security if a profound aversion to military issues is concentrated overwhelmingly in the societies of the West, as indeed it appears to be the case.

In the new post-Cold War order it was inevitable that the claim that something called “soft power” could be used as a means of achieving desired policy outcomes would come as music to the ears of many in the US and an even greater number in Western Europe. The term “soft power” was devised by Joseph Nye of Harvard University in Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power published in 1990 in which he described it as the ability to achieve policy outcomes through attraction and cooperation rather than coercion or force. He responded to growing interest in his ideas in a further book, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics published in 2004 in which he wrote:

A country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries – admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its levels of prosperity and openness want to follow it. In this sense it is also important to set the agenda and attract others in world politics, and not only to force them to change by threatening force.

Nye acknowledged that soft power was a difficult instrument for governments to use because many of its most important assets lay outside their control, but he was in no doubt about its ability to influence hearts and minds:

Seduction is always more effective than coercion, and many values like democracy, human rights and individual opportunities are deeply seductive.

Always more effective? If Vladimir Putin is admired by many Russians as well as by many in Central Asia it is not due to the seductive power of his ideas.

In any event, there can be doubt about the increasing popularity of soft power in the 1990s and during the first decade of the present century.

In 2007 the US Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates spoke of the need to enhance American soft power by “a dramatic increase in spending on the civilian instruments of national security – diplomacy, strategic communications, foreign assistance, civic action and economic reconstruction and development”. In the same year Hu Jintao, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party joined the growing list of international figures who declared themselves to be fans of soft power and pledged additional resources for this purposes, although unlike Western states China has also increased military spending year on year since that time.

As EU Commissioner for External Affairs from 1999–2004, Chris Patten, a British politician who throughout his career has been as quick as any to alight on modish ideas, promised to make the promotion of soft power a key EU policy, arguing that this was an area where Europe was superior to the jejune American pattern. Had the US taken soft power more seriously, he argued, it would have obviated the need to use of its hard power – to the great advantage of mankind.(2)

The appeal of soft power was bound to resonate in a country such as the US which believes as an article of faith that it is model for others, and that the world would be a more civilised and more harmonious place if developing countries gained a deeper insight into its achievements. In the case of Europe, the enthusiasm for soft power sprang from other factors, not least the belief that they now inhabited a post-military universe. As Gray noted:

Not only do these societies think of war among themselves impossible and unthinkable, they appear to have become disdainful and intolerant of war conducted by anyone. It is an agreeable flattering illusion that you live in a post-modern society that has outgrown war and has discovered better ways of resolving inter-societal disputes.

Nye, the market leader in the promotion of soft power, had always insisted that soft power was not a substitute for hard power, and appears to have become alarmed by the claims made on its behalf. In 2003 he coined a new phrase – “smart power” – which he said he had developed in order to counter the misperception that soft power alone could produce an effective foreign policy. Smart power – a concept enthusiastically embraced by Hillary Clinton in her confirmation speech – would combine elements of both hard and soft power.

What was new in this was simply the terminology; smart power was what statesmen, smart or otherwise had been trying to doing for centuries. Nye’s purpose was to show how hard and soft power could be combined in prevailing circumstances and to prevent enthusiasm for the latter obscuring important truths about the need for the former. But that enthusiasm was difficult to curb and plainly did not encourage much in the way of intellectual rigour. Here, for example, is a former diplomat turned academic(3) describing the differences between hard power and soft power:

* Definitions: Hard power is about compelling your adversary to comply with your will through the threat or use of force. Soft power is about attracting your partner to share your goals through dialogue and exchange.

* Objectives: Hard power seeks to kill, capture or defeat an enemy. Soft power seeks to influence through understanding and the identification of common ground.

* Techniques: Hard power relies ultimately on sanctions and flows from the barrel of a gun. Soft power is rooted in meaningful exchange and the art of persuasion.

* Values: Hard power is macho, absolute and zero sum. Soft power is supple, subtle and win/win.

* Ethos: Hard power engenders fear, anguish and suspicion. Soft power flourishes in an atmosphere of confidence, trust and respect.

Echoes of the sentiments and opinions expressed above can be found in innumerable speeches and leader page articles. Once accepted it is easy to forget concerns about the dwindling defence expenditures of Western European countries and indeed their failure to imbue NATO with a new sense of purpose and direction in the post-Cold War period. Even if the attempt is overdue there, there are good reasons for taking issue with the combination of wish-fulfilment, sentimentality and semantic sloppiness displayed by the author.

Contrary to views implied, soft power is not more moral than hard power; if it is to be taken seriously it should be regarded as descriptive rather than a normative concept. It makes no more sense to ascribe moral qualities to soft power than it does to the instruments of war (as members of the Western unilateral disarmament movement were apt to do in the 1970s and 1980s).(4) To be sure, soft power was used with great effectiveness by Pope Paul II, by Ghandi and Martin Luther King. But it was also used by Hitler, Stalin and Mao. As Nye acknowledged: “It is not necessarily better to twist minds than to twist arms.”

What should concern us about new accretions of power, soft or hard, is who has them and what they intend doing with them.

While modern weaponry is more discriminating than previous generations of armaments, it is still immensely destructive and warfare is unavoidably bloody, violent and terrible. But it still needs to be remembered that hard power can be used to stabilise an inherently unstable strategic balance as well as to destabilise, to defend as well as to attack, to keep the peace as well as to violate it.

The contribution of soft power in these regards is slight to non-existent. Quite obviously, it cannot be regarded as a substitute for hard power. Indeed, it is most likely to flourish in non-urgent situations where there is a measure of mutual sympathy or understanding. However, the over-selling of soft power, and the receptiveness to the intellectual hype surrounding its promotion, has created the illusion that the two have roughly the same utility.

It also needs to be remembered that the effect of cultural diplomacy, one of the most valuable tools of soft power, depends ultimately on the reactions of those in different cultures to our own of which we have only an inadequate understanding. Those responses may be favourable but this cannot be relied upon. Ideas, symbols and messages may repel rather than attract. It is possible that different sections of the population will respond differently to them in which case the task of soft power becomes ever more complex. Even where these are found to be attractive this may not lead to emulation. The political leadership of North Korea has long been addicted to Hollywood movies, but this has not so far made it fall in love with the American way of life.

However unwelcome, the events in Ukraine are likely to provide the opportunity for a more hard-headed appraisal of the means to ensure security in the post- Cold War era than has recently been possible. They will have certainly shaken confidence in the belief that Europeans can safely regard themselves as the happy inhabitants of a post-military universe and that soft power is all we need to secure the policy outcomes that we seek; for that, at least, we should be grateful. Such a realisation is likely not only to have an impact on the defence planning, budgets and procurement programmes of individual European states, but also a profound influence on the pattern of Europe’s future political development.

1 Britain is a partial exception to the trends described in this essay. In his first six years in office the Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair ordered British troops into battle five times, more than any other prime minister in British history. However, during the same period the strength of Britain’s armed forces was cut back and defence spending fell as a proportion of GDP. This pattern has continued under the present Conservative–Liberal Democrat government despite repeated US warnings that the cut-backs could destroy the “special relationship” between the two countries. Polling data suggests that because of the human cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined with the failure to achieve the stated objectives public support for military contributions to “coalitions of the willing” is likely to be less than formerly.

2 Ironically, later, as chairman of the BBC, Patten was to preside over swingeing cuts to its external

broadcasting, one of the most effective items in the soft power tool box. RL/RFE has suffered similar cutbacks.

3 Daryl Copeland, Research Associate, Centre for International Policy Studies, Ottawa University;

visiting professor, London Academy of Diplomacy, author and former diplomat.

4 Prominent unilateral disarmers such as the historian E. P. Thompson frequently described nuclear weapons as “evil” and argued that their accumulation had escaped human control.

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