The Limits of Soft Power

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

However, events in Ukraine have exposed the stark limits of soft power in a way that no analysis ever could. There is no small irony in the fact that Russia’s forceful military intervention into Ukraine was preceded by a grinding, if superficially velveted, tug of war between Moscow and the West over Ukraine’s integration with two competing soft-power “vehicles”—the EU and the Moscow-led Customs Union-cum-Eurasian Union. It was Yanukovych’s abandonment of Ukraine’s pledge to sign an Association Agreement with the EU—following intense Russian coercion—that protests began again in earnest. Yanukovych’s turn to brutality eventually precipitated his toppling, Russia’s military intervention, and now Crimea’s annexation.

The idea of soft power as operational policy should be buried. While there is some government role in propagating and wielding soft power—public affairs, policy making, and, yes, sometimes psychological operations—the real business of soft power is exists well outside of the domain of the state. In reality, the track record of operationalizing soft power has been, to date, abysmal. Russia is a case in point. Moscow repeatedly sought to revise the post-Cold War order through a variety of projects that might normally be filed as soft-power initiatives: then president Dmitry Medvedev’s repeated attempts to reorient the European security architecture; the Kremlin obsession with making the ruble an international reserve currency; the formation of the Russia-led Customs Union in 2010; and the (now likely stillborn) plans to establish the Eurasian Union. And yet, in the end, Crimea was forcibly seized by men with guns.

Indeed, the truer currency of power remains the ability to coerce. Fatigue from disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan elevated expectations that soft power could supplant a beleaguered and overstretched U.S. military. Why, indeed, would the U.S. opt for coercion when civilizational persuasion could do the trick? Pro-West people power in Eurasia seemed to bolster the case for operationalized soft power after the “color revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. Yet the longer-term results were unpredictable at best and disastrous at worst. Over time, it has become increasingly apparent that soft power is perhaps less an instrument to wield than a favorable wind at our backs.

The crisis with Russia has laid bare the limits of soft power as well as the continued relevance of hard power—even in “postmodern” Europe. While the Obama administration should be credited with being among the few Western governments to offer a relatively serious response to the Ukraine crisis, the White House overall still seems uncomfortable with the difficult but very real role that hard power necessarily plays in establishing and policing a U.S.-led, liberal normative order. This must change with the new circumstances established by Russian revanchism. Western values can only be propagated and upheld with the ultimate guarantee of hard power. And if the West is not prepared to enforce its values with tangible consequences, then perhaps we should abandon the pretense of a rules-based international system and cease the cruel practice of giving hope where there is none to be had.

Soft power is here to stay, but its moment as a diplomatic instrument has long since gone. Because, in reality, it was never really much more than an illusion of what we wished the world to be rather than the one that exists.

Michael Cecire is an independent Caucasus analyst and an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Anton Holoborodko. CC BY-SA 3.0.