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.

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.