Soft Power on the March
Is there a difference between US and European foreign policy?
The good intentions guiding Europe’s external action reflect a messianic inspiration. What the fight for democracy is to US foreign policy, is the engagement for human rights in Europe’s case.
In both cases, these evangelical aspirations are well translated by the concept of ‘soft power’, meaning the “ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments ... The good intentions guiding Europe’s external action reflect a messianic inspiration. What the fight for democracy is to US foreign policy, is the engagement for human rights in Europe’s case.
In both cases, these evangelical aspirations are well translated by the concept of ‘soft power’, meaning the “ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments”1, introduced by Joe Nye in the early Nineties. Ultimately, the concept “rests on the ability to set the political agenda in a way that shapes the preferences of others.” This ability is governed by “intangible power resources such as an attractive culture, ideology and institutions.” Nye’s concept, originally meant to address the increasing difficulties encountered by the United States in wielding hard power, has proven extraordinarily popular outside the US. In his latest contribution, the Harvard Professor rebranded the concept into ‘smart power’, inspired by the awareness that the United States can influence, but not any longer control other parts of the world – hence an attractive mix of hard and soft power. This had become the official line of the US State Department under the Obama Administration, when Secretary of State Hilary Clinton em- braced smart power in 2010. These ideas have been eagerly adopted in Europe as a token or catch word of how the EU and its Member States are supposed to conduct their foreign relations, especially by those who tend to view Europe as a benign actor2. It has become a convenient way to deflect the attention from the difficulties with hard power and it is a kind of fig leaf to distract from the obvious difficulties and the many shortcom- ings in developing a convincing Common Security and Defence Policy. The former French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hubert Védrine, referred to soft power recently as a “mask” or substitute for the obvious lack of power of Europe in its classical acceptance3. Leading by example What has been a constant preoccupation in the discussion on the nature of EU external action, is the obsession to be perceived as a ‘civilian’ or ‘normative’ actor, eschewing deliberately coercive means of pursuing one’s interests. Instead, the EU likes to present itself as an actor relying on the ‘domestication’ of relations between sovereign states through contractual politics, multilateralism and the promotion of international legal norms4. Europe likes to exert its influence by example, convinced that it does not need to use force nor even the threat of force to encourage change because it is in the business of offering the “incentive of opportunities”5, such as membership or privileged relations. The concept of ‘normative power’ describes the EU’s capacity in propagating ‘norms’ in international relations through disseminat- ing its own values and norms among partners and the countries it interacts with. A good example would be the campaign for the abolition of capital punishment, which owes quite a lot to EU influence and is a constant source of friction with the USA: “…the most important [about] the EU is not what it does or what it says, but what it is.”6 These enthusiastic views about the civilizational mission of Europe found an early echo right at the launch of “European Political Cooperation” in 1970, underlin- ing the potential of a united Europe to promote international relations “on a basis of trust”. The Copenhagen Declaration on European Identity in Foreign Relations (14 December 1973) had the same inspiration: “European unification is not directed against anyone, nor is it inspired by a desire for power. On the contrary, the Nine are convinced that their union will benefit the whole international community. They want to play an active role in world af- fairs, so that they have a more just basis.” The EU commitment to certain values and its relentless determination to incorporate these, under the code word “conditional- ity”, in many of its policies with external bearings (development aid, enlargement, neighbourhood and partnership or association policies) is indeed a trade mark of EU external relations whose achievements can hardly be questioned. Milieu shaping Thus, in accession negotiations, candidate states must accept the acquis commu- nautaire in full, including its norms and values. More recently (2004), the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) is a further example of the EU attempting to spread its norms and values to the countries in its immediate vicinity.The ENP policy document repeats the rhetoric of the EU being a force for good in spreading universal values, offering a closer relationship in exchange for the “effective sharing of values”. Through such policies the EU engages in what can be called milieu shaping by trying to alter its immediate international environment in ways more amenable to its interests. It attempts to actively engage with neighbouring countries, promoting reforms, in order precisely to prevent the sort of problems requiring more forceful responses. This is all the more interesting as the countries covered by ENP, stretch- ing from Morocco to the Caucasus, have no real membership perspective for the time being. It is an interesting example of the charms of the soft power démarche of the EU, because it illustrates very well that the attractiveness works even short of immediate membership perspectives. How- ever, ENP has lost its momentum and its stamina as of late, even though it remains in the best interest of the EU to continue stabilizing its “near abroad”. The limits of Soft Power There is a capability-expectations gap between the EU’s means and the increasing expectations of third countries. The reliance on soft power as a foreign policy instrument reaches its limits outside the European zone of influence where common values, norms and standards regarding human rights and democracy are far from being evident. Even within the ENP area the EU had to suffer many setbacks. Take the erratic behaviour of Belarus and to a lesser extent Ukraine, not to mention the situation in Moldova. But outside Europe, the situation is even more problematic in the Caucasus, the Middle East or North Africa. Joseph Nye has made himself a caveat regarding the operational use of his soft power concept by noting that soft power should never replace hard power, but supplement it so as to make the cost of ap- plying hard power less demanding. Military power does have its time and place, according to Nye, but soft power can do much to address the causes of conflict: “Smart power is neither hard nor soft. It is both”. For the EU this presents a problem. While its soft power strategies have developed over many years, the same is not true regarding traditional wielding of power. Despite progress since the Maastricht Treaty and the creation of the Common Foreign and Security Policy in 1991, the EU has a long way to go before it can assert itself in the muscle flexing exercise of power politics. Its only consolation is, that since the end of the Bush era military prowess has reached its limits, as evidenced by the protracted and probably futile military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Cache-sexe for the EU’s military impotence The Brookings scholar Robert Kagan has argued provocatively that the EU’s prefer- ence for softer milieu shaping stems primarily from its general weakness in traditional terms of power politics and that its actions have therefore been an attempt to rationalize its military impotence. Rather than engaging in power politics, it has sought to emphasize the areas where its strengths lie: commercial interactions, economic carrots, state-building, normative issues, governance etc. Although Kagan deliberately meant to provoke, he did high- light a very real problem for the EU if it ever wants to be taken seriously as a global actor. The 2003 European Security Strategy (ESS) was an attempt at defining the European interest in international affairs, the threats facing the Union and the means to respond adequately. It looks like a grand strategy, but critics have been quick to point out that it is rather muted regarding priorities for developing military force. It is a rhetoric exercise, an excuse for not promoting military capabilities. Thus, it refers to “a mixture of instruments”, arguing that “none of the threats is purely military, nor can any be tackled by purely military means”. It tries to accommodate all the member states, while not upsetting relations with NATO. Other than references to military force possibly being necessary for restoring order in conflict zones, the strategy says relatively little about the circumstances in which the EU might consider military force. The preference is therefore not pre-emption à la G.W. Bush, but at best ‘preventive engagement’. But the reliance on soft power is not only a matter of paying lip service to certain principles. One must also live by them and be prepared to uphold them in action. In other words, be prepared to defend them by all means, including military power. Hard or coercive power does not necessar- ily mean military means. The EU disposes of a vast arsenal and has considerable experience with economic sanctions when and if confronted with behaviour violating its norms and values. It can of course be argued that the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo belonged to a category where more than soft or normative power was and is required. In both cases the conflict was only temporarily resolved by the massive US intervention. On the other hand, the EU’s subsequent efforts at stabilizing the successor states of the former Yugoslavia are a good illustration of the attractiveness of its soft power: all the states plus Albania have expressed the aspiration to integrate further and eventually become full members. Moving beyond the immediate neighbourhood, the EU is becoming more closely involved, much to its dislike, in regions, where its traditional tools and its secular values will be tested severely. Even if ESS primarily focuses on threats close to Europe, extending ENP into the Middle East or North Africa entails that the kinds of threats outlined in the security strategy will become more pressing. That in turn will increase the strains on CFSP and necessitate enhanced resources. The point is that if the EU wants to make its influence felt in regions that are experiencing problems, especially of a violent nature, soft power alone will not suffice. It will have to be backed up by more than idealistic rhetoric.7 This is all the more true, when looking at how the EU can deal with countries seeking to move closer to its norms and values. That is especially the case, if these countries are at the same time trying to move out of the orbit of another actor, and are thus vulnerable to a violent backlash, as is the case with most of the Western and Caucasian CIS countries. In such cases it is not enough for the EU to be a distant friend. If soft power is to work in those regions, there needs to be a firm commitment to the countries seeking partnership. This cannot take the shape of security guarantees, but Europe would be more convincing by stating firmly, that the full range of power tools will be avail- able, should a crisis occur. In that respect, hard power tools can in some cases induce an increase in soft power, by prov- ing that certain fundamental values are non-negotiable. Conversely, a perceived lack of willingness to take coercive action will send the signal that the values one claims to hold up and defend are clearly negotiable. The Georgia crisis is in a way an illustration of the ambiguities confront- ing Europe, because it is still disputed whether diplomatic pressures by President Sarkozy really made a difference in Moscow and its aggressive posture. In its response, the EU seemed to be as concerned with Russian sensitivities as with upholding its own principles when they were challenged. Will the Centre hold? There is a famous line in a poem by W.B. Yeats (The Second Coming): “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold”. This is precisely today’s predicament of the European project. Its soft power appeal has a direct bearing on Europe’s role in world affairs. Four years of economic and financial crisis have led to a major social crisis. The attractiveness of the European model, based on solidarity, has suffered badly. It has become clear that the EU faces three main challenges, which all affect its image and its attractiveness, hence its soft power appeal: the euro crisis, the public’s diminishing trust in the EU, and the ineffectiveness of its institutions or its governance. The longer the EU offers its citizens only economic austerity and welfare cuts, but no inspiring political project, the bleaker its future will become. Europe’s decline has become a major concern, confronted as it is with haunt- ing challenges: a looming demographic crunch, a surge in non-European immigration and feeble growth rates that, even if there were no Eurozone crisis, would threaten the affordability and sustainabil- ity of its state-funded welfare systems. What is at stake is the serene future of the EU as a prosperous, postmodern, semi-demilitarised entity whose main functions would be to save its social model, fight climate change, assist economic progress in developing countries and preach morality in international relations.8 u Joseph S. Nye Jr., Soft Power. The Means to Succeed in World Politics (New York, Public Affairs, 2004). The concept was first introduced in his Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power (New York, Basic Books, 1990). Many other publications fol- lowed, notably The Paradox of American Power: Why the World’s only Superpower can’t go it alone (New York, Oxford University Press, 2002). His most recent contribution is The Future of Power (New York, Public Affairs, 2011). See for instance Eneko Landaburu, ‘Hard Facts About Europe’s Soft Power’, Europe’s World, Summer 2006. Speech at the conference ‘Diplomatie culturelle’, organised by the Institut français at the Collège de France, Paris, 12-13 December 2011. It took more than 20 years to see the optimism expressed by François Duchêne come to fruition. Cf. François Duchêne, ‘The European Community and the Uncertainties of Interdependence’, in: Wolfang Hager and Max Kohnstamm (Eds.), A Nation Writ Large? Foreign Policy Problems Before the Community (London, Macmillan, 1973). This was criticized by Hedley Bull, ‘Civilian Power: A Contradiction in Terms’, Journal of Common Market Studies, Volume 21, Number 2 (1982), remembered for a resounding dismissal of Europe’s ambitions: “ ‘Europe’ is not an actor in interna- tional affairs, and does not seem likely to become one.” John McCormick, The European Superpower (Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). Arguing that Pax Bruxellana was at the core of the European Project, Johan Galtung was one of the first to understand the potential of Europe as a global actor: The European Community. A Superpower in the Making (London, George Allen & Unwin, 1973). Ian Manners ‘Normative Power Europe: A Contradiction in Terms?’, Journal of Common Market Studies, Volume 40, Number 2 (2002). Robert Kagan, ’Power and Weakness’, Policy Review, June (2002). The essay was published one year later in an expanded form under the title Of Paradise and Power. America and Europe in the New World Order (New York, Random House, 2003). This article sums up the author's work, that will lead to a Chaillot Paper, the well-known publication series of the EUISS, in Fall 2012.