Globalist Paper

Soft Power Doesn’t Exist

A decade after “soft power” came to the fore, it is time to assess its effectiveness.

Negotiations on Iran's nuclear program, Nov 2013. (Credit: U.S. State Dept.)


  • We have all become too enamored with the concept of soft power.
  • The diplomats are back and we need them more than ever before.
  • 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.
  • The endless recent interventions by Christian powers in majority Muslim states will be harshly judged by history.
  • If soft power actually existed, it would surely by now be showing results.
  • The EU got a Nobel Peace Prize but is unable to secure peace in the fullest sense within Europe’s own borders.
  • Hard diplomacy, with the carrot of economic and political inclusion and the stick of exclusion, is needed.
  • Hard diplomacy is about arriving in capitals and saying to political leaders what needs to be done.

This is the first part of a two-part Globalist Paper on Soft Power and diplomacy. Part II is here.

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.

Continue to part II.

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About Denis MacShane

Denis MacShane is a former UK Minister for Europe, a Contributing Editor at The Globalist -- and author of “Brexiternity: The Uncertain Fate of Britain”.

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