The Ukraine Crisis and Soft Power
For some analysts, the current crisis in Ukraine is a death knell for the concept of soft power, the idea that a crucial aspect of a country’s power is the ability to get its way through common values, attractive ideas, and ideological affinities. “Realists” see a return to power in its raw forms.
This crisis is a reminder that it is still dangerous to discount armed force, but declarations of the death of soft power are off-base, as the crisis itself demonstrates.
Soft power helped kick these events off. The trigger for the overthrow of the pro-Russian Yanukovich government was his swerve away from the European Union and its values, when he declined to sign an agreement with that bloc. Demonstrators were attracted by the EU’s way of life, not its military strength. They saw EU norms as a way to free themselves from corrupt autocracy and build a “normal” country.
Lack of soft power seems to have made Russia desperate. Rather than trying to protect its interests and assuage its concerns by going to the Ukrainian people and the international community, Russia had so little confidence in its soft power that it turned to clumsy armed bluster, sounding alarms in every neighbor, even the friendly autocracies sympathetic to Putin’s Eurasian Union project.
Russia lacks the soft power even to tell its version of events successfully. Despite numerous gray areas to work with, Russia can neither find an audience, nor deploy the soft power skills to put forward its storyline adeptly. Indeed, its heavy reliance on hard power in the past has left it saddled with images of aggression and conquest, and almost devoid of real friends in the world. The Crimea imbroglio is not going to help.
Countries are much better served if they can deploy a full suite of the components of power, and this is being reinforced by the rising role of public opinion, which now affects policy even in non-democratic states such as China. For lack of soft power, Russia has hurt its own interests.