Going soft?


By Richard T. Griffiths (Associate Editor Diplomat Magazine and Professor International  Studies, LeidenUniversity).

In 1990 the American political economist Joseph Nye coined the term ‘soft power’ to describe the ability of a state to attain its goals through diplomacy and persuasion rather than coercion or bribery. The European political scientists have enthusiastically embraced this concept to analyse European foreign policy and the European Union, itself, has persistently employed the concept  to describe and legitimise its approach to the rest of  the World. For the European Union (as an institution and as a collection of separate states) the operationalization of this concept has rested on several supports and we will deal with three of them:

          The preference for dialogue and diplomacy over force,

          The ‘ownership’ of a successful integration model which inspires other nations,

          The propagation of a set of values that promoted democracy and that eschews discrimination and the abuse of human rights,

Over the past several months, I have spoken in three conferences dedicated to  Europe – one in Macao and in Beijing, from where I am writing this contribution. Looking at Europe, and hearing others speaking of Europe, from a distance of thousands of kilometres lends a different perspective from that gathered from reading the (academic) literature.

The decision by the EU to prefer for dialogue over force would indeed be respected in Asia had it been made by choice. However, the experience of the intervention in Libya and non-intervention in Syria has made manifest two things. First, that  the EU is incapable of making a prompt and united response to crises on its doorstep and that when some countries did intervene militarily, as in the case of Libya, they were incapable of doing so without US strategic and logistical support. In fact the critical dependence on the United States calls into question the ability of  the EU to mount an independent military campaign, even if it chose to do so.

The integration model, whereby countries gradually together moved through trade integration to economic  and monetary union, while pooling ever more areas of their sovereignty, has lost much of its gloss sincet the EU has lain in the grips of its currency crisis. The failure to take prompt and effective measures to solve the initial crisis and the deep divisions over longer-term policy have undermined the idea that Europeans controlled their own destiny. Meanwhile the persistence of the crisis and failure of economic recovery has led many to question Europe’s  future position in a dynamic world economy.

These two factors have undeniably diminished Europe’s standing in Asia and reduced its moral authority. However, the moral high-ground claimed by Europe always looked higher in Europe that it did in Asia. Europeans may have forgiven themselves their imperial  pasts, and many Asians have forgiven them too, but  that does not mean that they have forgotten. It does not play well in Asia that those who preach democracy and human rights to foreign governments had for centuries blatantly infringed them themselves.  

Since Europe’s problems are coinciding with the growing self-confidence in the region, the ‘soft power’ model is starting to lose some of its shine.

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