The Limits of Soft Power

Crimea is a reminder that strength, not attraction, remains the coin of the realm in international politics.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has already punctured much of the prevailing foreign-policy thinking that had become pro forma in Washington and Europe. In particular, the notion that Western unilateral disarmament can somehow be balanced or compensated for with less tangible forms of influence—soft power—has much to answer for in this ongoing crisis. By now, it is clear that Moscow’s actions in Crimea strongly demonstrate the sharp limits of soft power, especially one that appears to have been decoupled from hard power, the traditional final arbiter of interstate relations. Ukraine is not merely a geopolitical setback, but a symptom of a misplaced faith in the potency of postmodern soft power as foreign policy plan A through Z.

Ukraine’s rapid transformation from homo Sovieticus–ruled kleptocracy to inspiring popular revolution to the latest victim of Russian imperialism has been astonishing. In the span of mere weeks, Ukraine’s political cleavages have been magnified as the faultline of a tense geopolitical contest between the Euro-Atlantic community and a revanchist, increasingly militant Russia. In the Western scramble to come to terms with the new threat landscape—let alone formulating an effective, unified response—Crimea has almost certainly already been lost. Meanwhile, Russia seems poised to expand its writ into other areas of eastern Ukraine just as it aggressively probes Euro-Atlantic readiness in the Baltic, Turkey, and the Caucasus. In Washington, defense and administration officials appear resigned—if only unofficially—to Russian control over Crimea (if not eastern Ukraine) and are digging in for the long haul.

How did we get here? Among the ideologues, the answer lies in the foreign policies of the current or previous administrations. On the right, President Obama’s “reset” and subordination of foreign policy to domestic issues is the obvious cause. And on the left, President Bush’s wars have given the Kremlin the perfect moral justification. But the reality, like many things, is hardly one sided. Partisans decrying President Obama’s “weakness” appear to ignore that the administration's response to Russia’s occupation of Crimea is already far more muscular than President Bush’s reaction to the Russian invasion of Georgia 2008. And conversely, some of the left’s bizarre use of a war they supposedly opposed to equivocate on the invasion of a sovereign state by corrupt autocracy is as self-contradictory as it is troubling.

The likelier culprit is not so intimately tethered to the tribalisms of American politics, though ideology inevitably has played a role. Instead, the Western political class has become intoxicated with the notion that soft power, now the highly fashionable foreign-policy instrument of first resort, can compensate for—or in some ways replace altogether—diminished hard power. If the late 1990s was the heyday for liberal internationalism by airpower, the late 2000s saw an analogous consensus congregate around soft power.

Soft power is supposed to describe the latent factors—values, economy, culture and the like—of a state, entity or idea to persuade or attract. This contrasts with its more recognizable counterpart, hard power, which is based on the more traditional principle of coercion. There is little doubt that soft power is a real and fundamentally important phenomenon in the conduct of international relations. Contributions from scholars like Joseph Nye and Giulio Gallarotti have made a compelling case that soft power is a powerful geopolitical signifier; but what began as a keen observation had morphed into a cottage industry looking to leverage soft power into a foreign-policy panacea.

In an illuminating 2011 paper published by the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College, University of Reading (U.K.) political scientist Colin S. Gray rightly acknowledges the merits of the soft-power thesis while articulating its practical limitations, particularly in the policy arena.

“While it is sensible to seek influence abroad as cost-effectively as possible, it is only prudent to be modest in one's expectations of the soft power to be secured by cultural influence,” cautions Gray. Indeed, soft power’s attraction and subsequent embrace by the foreign policy elite had as much to do with its usefulness as a substitute for “hard power” as its salience as an idea. But while hard and soft power can be complementary, Gray observes that soft power can in no way compensate for military power. “Sad to say,” laments Gray, “there is no convincing evidence suggesting an absence of demand for the threat and use of military force.” Sad, indeed.