This essay was published by The Globalist in December 2103. I think as we look at Ukraine it is worth putting up
Soft Power Doesn’t Exist
A decade after “soft power” came to the fore, it is time to assess its effectiveness.
By Denis MacShane, December 11, 2013
The diplomats are back. After a decade of warfare by the United States, its allies and proxies against various foes and their external supporters, the Iran accord shows that jaw-jaw remains more than ever necessary.
Things may go awry in the U.S. Congress and it far from clear if the Ayatollahs will truly renounce nukes but for the time being John Kerry, the EU’s Catherine Ashton, and Iran’s Mohammed Javad Zarif have shown that hard diplomacy makes a difference. They do the press conferences but no one should undervalue the gold quality diplomacy that went into the Geneva accord.
Yet, the theory and practice of diplomacy is under-valued. We have all become too enamored with the concept of soft power which displaces trained diplomats and expert foreign policy practitioners.
The end of diplomacy?
The two great 20th century lies of world diplomacy came first from Trotsky after the Russian revolution, when he announced the Soviet Union would abolish diplomacy. Instead, he said, the revolution-born country would simply publish all foreign ministry documents and agreements.
Trotsky’s position was an early precursor of the ideology of Wikileaks – that total transparency is enough to secure a better world.
The second lie came 80 years later, when Francis Fukayama who announced the ultimate victory of western liberal ideology. He saw the birth of a new era of world togetherness, in which diplomatic deals would be history.
Both Trotsky and Fukayama were wrong. Diplomacy and the rough edges of international relations continue to be present. In fact, we need more diplomacy than ever before.
Ahead of the 100th anniversary of the greatest diplomatic disaster in European history it is time to insist on the primacy of diplomacy. Next summer we will mark 100 years since the drift, day-by-day, toward the outbreak of the First World War because European diplomacy misread or misunderstood what was happening.
And while there is no third world war on the horizon, the long peace in mainland Europe may be lulling us into a false sense of security.
Europe: In a sea of conflict
Europe is a field of peace surrounded by a sea of conflict. The southern and eastern flanks of Europe, from Tripoli to Teheran, are sources of instability and often violent conflict.
There is no doubt in my mind that the endless armed interventions by northern Christian powers in majority Muslim countries in recent decades, beginning with the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, will be harshly judged by history.
As Edward Gibbon, the 18th century author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, noted: “In the prosecution of remote wars, the undertaking became every day more difficult, the event more doubtful, and the possession more precarious, and less beneficial”
Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and now Syria surely prove that Gibbon’s observations on Ancient Rome as valid for modern Europe, Russia and America.
The fallacy of soft power
One of the stock beliefs in debate over 21st century diplomacy is the division between so-called hard power and soft power – first announced by Joseph Nye.
But if soft power actually existed, it would surely by now be showing results. Instead, we see around Europe either actual war or deep civil violence (as in Syria and Libya) or a comprehensive absence of peace, open borders or strong civil society.
Israel-Palestine, Tunisia, the closed border between Algeria and Morocco, as well as the Western Sahara are all examples of unceasing conflict within the broader Euro-Mediterranean space.
In 2007, Mark Leonard of the European Council on Foreign Relations and Ivan Krastev, Chairman of the Sofia based Centre for Liberal Strategies, wrote a paper entitled ‘New World Order: the Balance of Soft Power and the Rise of Herbivorous Powers.’ They argued that ‘herbivorous’ powers (like India, South Africa and Brazil) would rise at the expense of hard powers with real military capability such as the US, Russia or China.
This optimism has turned out to be unfounded. In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia by land, sea and air and still occupies large regions of Georgian territory. Russia has used hard economic power – cutting off exports or threatening gas supplies – to bully Ukraine, Armenia and Georgia into accepting subordinate status within the greater Russian Eurasian space.
Little power of persuasion?
Soft power theorists say Europe proves it can work. Tell that to the Ukrainians beaten up in Kyiv as they demonstrate in favor of the Europe and against the re-Russification of their homeland.
Meanwhile, India, South Africa and Brazil are seen as states with poor internal governance, endemic corruption and grotesque inequalities.
Turkey grandly announced in 2002 its foreign policy would be based on ‘zero problems’ and good relations with all neighbors. Now Turkey is in conflict with Syria, Israel, Egypt and – at least for now – has been loudly distancing itself from the EU.
Soft power advocates also like to claim disaster relief as an example of soft power. In fact, it is just charity writ large. Nations have rightly been moved to send help to the Philippines.
But we know from the help sent to starving children in Somalia or to earthquake victims in Pakistan, generosity from the United States or the EU produces no change in those countries’ political line or support for enemies of the West.
Britain has given billions in aid to India without obtaining any support from India at the UN or in global disputes. The Indian prime minister has just boycotted the Commonwealth Heads of Government conference in Sir Lanka leaving Britain’s prime minister Cameron having to explain on the BBC why he appears to endorsing the hardliners in Colombo.
Aid may be a good and worthy in itself but it is non-power, neither soft nor hard.
A long list of open items
The arrival of soft power theory has paralyzed Europe. As a result, it has been unable to move forward on a number of frozen conflicts. These include:
the failure to get Cyprus and Turkey to move on the occupied north of the island;
the inability to help Moldova and end the Russian occupation of Transnistria;
the Russian occupation of Georgia;
Kosovo, where five EU member states still refuse diplomatic recognition;
Greece’s refusal to work with Macedonia unless the country accepts some humiliating name decided in Athens;
the impasse in Bosnia-Herzegovina;
the Armenian enclave of Ngorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan;
Hungarian irredentism with claims over Slovakian and Romanian citizens;
continuing terrorist threats in the Basque country, Corsica and Northern Ireland;
the Lilliputian dispute between Madrid and London over Gibraltar.
So while the EU gets a Nobel Peace Prize it is unable to secure peace in the fullest sense within Europe’s own borders.
Nor has the EU much of a soft power answer to its near abroad along the southern and eastern Euro-Mediterranean region, including:
the Israel-Palestine dispute;
the Western Sahara question which poisons relations between Algeria and Morocco
the collapse of the Arab Spring into civil disorder;
the rise of authoritarian Islamist or secular but militarist rule along the southern Mediterranean coast.
Enter hard diplomacy
Hard diplomacy is needed, with the backup of either the carrot of economic and political inclusion from the EU or the stick of economic-political exclusion. Hard diplomacy is also needed to insist on the primacy of diplomatic relations.
During the long German occupation of eastern France after 1870, Paris and Berlin still maintained diplomatic relations. America’s counter-productive refusal to recognize Iran or the refusal of Arab countries to open embassies in Israel makes inter-state relations worse, not better.
Hard diplomacy is about arriving in capitals and saying to political leaders what needs to be done – something that activist foreign ministers like Sweden’s Carl Bildt has elevated, to his nation’s and Europe’s benefit.
The twin sides of hard diplomacy can be seen in the Iran talks at the UN and in Geneva. A willingness first to sit down and negotiate paired with a determination to walk away if Iran insists on keeping open its nuclear bomb option. Hard diplomacy means no deal is better than a bad deal.
Is DevCult diplomacy useful?
Instead of ramping up hard diplomacy, an ever-increasing amount of money is poured into Development and Cultural diplomacy. DevCult diplomacy is the classical expression of soft power. But has it produced any real benefits in the 21st century?
Development diplomacy has not stopped the mass migration of people searching for a better economic future. International aid budgets run by aid ministries or agencies now dwarf the spending of classic Ministries of Foreign Affairs. In Britain, the overseas aid budget keep going up, while the Foreign Office budget keep going down.
But the countries that have left behind or are leaving behind poverty are those that have embraced hard policy of reforming the state or unleashing market energy and accepting that trade is better than protectionism. Countries that receive massive amounts of aid allow their rulers to avoid reform.
No movement toward democracy
Cultural diplomacy is feel-good international relations. Ballet and books are better than bullets and bombs. But there is no evidence, for example, that the proliferation of American or British university campuses in Asia is helping move China or “the Stans” to democracy.
Europe has poured development and cultural aid managed by the DevCult dips into Palestine, for example. But this has not brought any notable result in terms of producing peace instead of conflict. Nor has it persuaded Islamist forces like Hamas or Hezbollah to alter their fundamental ideological demands for the elimination of Israel.
A more important diplomatic development would be the full recognition of Israel as a state, just as the United States finally had to admit in 1973 that the Chinese communist state existed and would not go away.
Social media were meant to be the arm of soft power. But all the tweets and Facebooking in the world has not installed democracy in Egypt, Iran, China or Saudi Arabia.
This is reminiscent of the belief of English writer Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008) that satellite television broadcasts, live from war zones, would stop conflicts when the world saw the horrors of war.
Each era thinks a new communications technology – whether printing, telephones, emails – will transform the world for the better. Only politics and hard diplomacy does that.
Effective diplomacy is not the exclusive property of big nations with big foreign ministries. In today’s Europe, foreign ministers like Poland’s Radek Sikorski or Sweden’s Carl Bildt are seen as more interesting international politicians than their counterparts from bigger countries.
EU foreign policy: No continuity
Finally, we come to Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign affairs chief. After a more than bumpy start, she is getting recognition for the hard work she puts in and for her achievements in the Balkans.
But, next summer, just as the time arrives when she gets on top of the job – having built the required networks, having gained the confidence of key parties, understanding the long and short-term synergies of foreign affairs – she will be replaced.
We can hope that her successor can do the job effectively. However, the appointment of the EU’s chief executive officials hitherto has been based on sordid political trades and cynical deal in the corridors of Brussels. They make the election of a Pope or the emergence of a new leader in China look like a model of democratic transparency.
If EU leaders fail to appoint an effective foreign affairs supremo next summer, the European Union will shrink still further as a power in world affairs.
A good energetic ideas producing foreign minister or an energetic ambassador who gets out and networks with political, business or civil society in the country where he or she serves can make a big difference.
But the best diplomacy whether at the political ministerial level or the diplomatic ambassadorial level depends on team work and on being able to link up with other ministers and ambassadors.
Can Europe get tough?
This is more and more important at EU level. When the EU speaks as one – not just in terms of a statement from Brussels or the EEAS – but with every one of 28 foreign ministers and 28 national diplomatic services all acting as relays and supporters of a common EU position, then the multiplier effect is significant.
Combine this with effective trade policy and a clear commitment to seek military enforcement, if necessary – and then you will see diplomacy beginning to resonate. Europe failed to send signals en clair to prevent the descent into the war, torture and mass murder of the Balkan conflicts in the 1990s.
Hard diplomacy at an earlier stage might have prevented the descent into Europe’s worst armed conflicts since 1945 and the quasi-genocidal assault by Serb leaders on the people of Bosnia and Kosovo.
The need for traditional or hard diplomacy cannot be wished away. Hard diplomacy requires hard diplomats to tell political leaders that at times military force is required to produce desired outcomes but it also requires hard diplomats to tell politicians that military force may be counter-productive.
Hard diplomacy: Not a panacea
The United States developed the hard diplomacy of containment after 1945, with wise presidents like Eisenhower and Kennedy resisting use of force when deployed by Britain, France and Israel at Suez and when advised by generals to attack Cuba in 1962.
Later American presidents turned from containment to confrontation in the Middle East and Afghanistan, after the Islamist attack in New York.
This was a major failure of “hard” diplomacy. No serving member of the diplomatic corps told President Bush or Prime Minister Blair that launching a series of military assaults on majority Muslim countries would be as disastrous as the Russian invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in 1979. We now know it was.
Although plenty of senior British diplomats, for example, now deplore and criticize the Iraq invasion, not one of them protested, resigned or raised any objection that might have made Blair pause during the long drumbeat to war.
The Russians felt they were justified in preventing Afghanistan falling under the control of the “wrong people.” Bush and Blair (and many other European leaders who signed off on the attack on Iraq in 2003) believed the same – and felt that action had to be taken to overthrow tyrants like Saddam.
France and Britain believed the same when they supported the overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya. President Hollande of France, Prime Minister Cameron in Britain and many in Washington were ready to again use military force in support of jihadi Islamist fundamentalists in Syria earlier this year – until a wiser public opinion rose up in opposition.
The road ahead
So diplomacy – in the sense of a cadre of professional practitioners who think and analyze, but also act and network effectively in foreign countries – has never been more necessary.
Nations that do not learn will be stunted in their growth and ability to serve their people. Diplomats still are drawn from too narrow a class, from elites formed by restricted systems of education.
One of the best things Ronald Reagan did was to send an African-American diplomat, Edward Perkins, to be the U.S. Ambassador in South Africa in the 1980s. At that time, black South Africa was developing a peaceful resistance to apartheid, based on trade union organization, legal challenges and civil society resistance.
These tools were far more effective in ending apartheid than the previous strategy of terror attacks organized from abroad.
At a time when British diplomacy was rolling out the red carpet for apartheid rulers, wiser American diplomacy was sending a different signal with a black U.S. Ambassador using his embassy as a safe haven for the future leaders of a post-apartheid South Africa.
The United States did also use soft power against apartheid in South Africa – offering black students scholarships in America, Hollywood making a film on the killing of the black South African leader Steve Biko, etc.
But sending a black diplomat to be U.S. ambassador in South Africa was a diplomatic signal of a different order. It challenged the very culture and ideology of apartheid – not in faraway America where it would have no effect on the supporters of apartheid, but in the twin citadels of white supremacy itself, Pretoria and Cape Town.
The advocates of the status quo were confronted by that everything they feared and hated – in the form of a highly visible and untouchable foreign diplomat – and could do nothing to prevent it.
In the end, hard diplomacy sends out stronger signals than the soft power of scholarships or movies ever can.