Is soft power freeriding?


The EU is proud that it is a ‘soft power’ (when you make others what you want through attraction, rather than coercion). It also thinks this is the most sophisticated and benefic way to exercise power (‘post-modern’ in other words). It might be true, but seen from the outside the logic of soft power might not be that appealing for others. In fact if you sit in Dushanbe, Caracas or Karachi why would you care for someone’s soft power?

Basically the logic of soft power is the following: ‘I am attractive, prosperous, nice, friendly, make good movies, have good schools etc and that is others you should do and want what I want’. This is a bit of a free-ride. Firts of all, soft power is not even designed as a foreign policy tool or an instrument of power. It is simply a useful potential side-effect of (EU and US, mainly) politicians responding to their voters’ needs. And one can be both attractive, and irrelevant in international politics. Second, when you try to use soft power, you basically expect others to do something not because you exchanged concessions, but just because you invest in making yourself nice. But being attractive and being able to achieve your goals are different things (think of Switzerland – attractive but bullied around by the likes of Gaddafi).

Today’s international politics are increasingly like a market-place where states trade concessions. This has been the case for most of history. States want to trade concessions and do deals with each other, not adapt unilaterally to whatever some country that is a source of soft power wants (be it the EU, US, China or Russia – and all of them have some soft power ambitions and ‘assets’). As a wikileaks cable put it ‘Africans don’t want conditions, they want options’. Now, you do not go to a market and expect that sellers will give you fruits just because you are nice and polite (ie have ‘soft power’). They might give you a discount or an extra apple for being polite, friendly and a constant client. But they still want something palpable from you (ie money). International politics is increasingly like that. (Increasingly – because during the Cold War the states that were members of NATO and the Warsaw Pact were not on the open market of trading concessions and basically had some degree of group solidarity – imposed or voluntary – that pre-determined many foreign policy outcomes. Though the ‘third world’ has been in the market place of international politics for decades.)

So going to the market with ‘soft power’ alone is not enough. This is why there is so much frustration with EU’s foreign policy performance (since the Balkans wars when each and every time the EU seemed like it finally said enough is enough and by the next crisis we will have hard power to back up our words/soft power. Still has not happened. I am not sure the lesson is internalised either).

I am not arguing soft power does not work. It does. And it does work in amazing ways when the recipients want to join or become like the EU (Central Europe, the Balkans and to a smaller extent, Moldova and Georgia). But then the effectiveness of that power has its source not in the EU, but with the publics of the states concerned. Moreover, the absolute majority of states not just in the world, but also in EU’s neighbourhood do not want to join the EU and do not want to become like the EU.

In other words, a state or a union of states, can have some soft power, but not be a soft power. Consequently soft power can and will only work on the margins and in support of other types of power – hard, military or economic. It is an enabling factor for the effective use of other types of foreign policy tools, but not a replacement for them.