Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Culture Of Soft Power

Published in Forbes on August 18, 2014



Leaders of the European Union, and the German political class in particular, have constantly expressed their commitment to the doctrine of soft power. Unlike those trigger-happy Americans, they argue, who treat every conflict as a confrontation, to be settled in the last instance by military force, we Europeans believe in negotiation, compromise, and the humanity of our opponent. We settle disputes gently, by offering reasons and incentives, rather than threats. We don’t use armaments – indeed, we have fewer and fewer armaments to use – but quiet diplomacy, accompanied in the worst case by sanctions.

That is one reason why Britain sits so uncomfortably in the European Union. The British, like the Americans, do not believe that this ‘soft power’ is worth anything, without the hard power to back it up. They see conflicts as arising, in all serious and difficult cases, from intransigence. In the presence of a party with non-negotiable demands, determined to advance by force or stealth towards a conclusion favourable only to itself, you must show determination not to yield. If you are not prepared, in the last instance, to fight, your gentle persuasion is going to persuade no one except yourself, and the façade of gentleness will move only the self-congratulatory person who stares at you from the mirror. This is the lesson that we should draw from the history of the 20th century, in which tyrants and totalitarians confronted ‘soft power’ with a simple response: submit or die. And it is a lesson that we should be applying now, not only in the Middle East, but in Europe too.

The nature of this soft power has seldom been more poignantly expressed than in the recent visit of the German Minister of Foreign Affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier to Iraq, there to give public expression to his concern for the displaced and tormented victims of the new Islamic State. The photographs show this well-fed German in his grey suit, looking decidedly uncomfortable among the thin bodies and lined faces of bereavedYazidis, as he explains that Germany must, of course, provide help, but that it is illegal for the Germans to use force. Who made that law? Who is preventing the Germans from tearing it up? And what is the purpose of travelling at great expense to the place of conflict, in order to display your moral superiority and to wash your hands in public?

Of course, there is a real question who is ultimately to blame for the present situation – maybe it has to be laid at the door of the Americans and the British, or at least, at the door of Bush and Blair. That does not alter the fact that soft power is as likely to save the Iraqi minorities from massacre as offering your sandwich to a tiger is likely to save your arm. There is a time to act, and that time is now. The European elite is unable to act, since soft power requires placing military action so far down the agenda that it will always be too little too late. An Islamic Caliphate at the gates of Europe, growing like Pakistan into a country riven with internal conflict and armed to the teeth, swallowing one by one the disintegrated fragments of the Ottoman Empire, and creating a continuous flood of refugees into a continent already unable to cope with the influx – this, you might think, is a prospect that requires something more radical than flying in an ineffectual politician to explain that, for him at least, fighting is out of the question.

Exactly the same effect of soft power can be witnessed in Europe itself. Naughty, naughty, the European leaders say, as Putin seizes, first parts of Georgia, and then parts of Ukraine. The disgraceful crime of shooting down a civilian airliner, ignored by Putin as merely collateral damage, is ignored also by the Germans, who continue to make their special arrangements with the Russians, so as to be supplied with the energy that they will always need, since soft power runs on hot air. The very real dangers that now confront Eastern Europe require a system of strong deterrence. But soft power deters no one. It is the soft power of the European elite that persuaded President Obama to concede Putin’s demand not to install a missile defence system in the Czech lands and Poland. The same soft power has led to the rapid decline of armies and air-forces all across Europe, and the down-grading of NATO to a merely diplomatic body.

Provoked at last into doing something to help Ukraine, the EU has put in place a system of sanctions that mean absolutely nothing to Putin, and which will have the effect – as sanctions generally do – of encouraging Russia to be more autarkic, both economically and politically. As for the very real dangers now facing the Baltic states, has anyone in Brussels even noticed them? The Poles, it is true, have become a bit jittery. But soft power tells them that nationalism is the real cause of wars, that they must stop putting the love of country above ‘European ideals’, and that the whole point of the European Union is to get rid of borders, not to defend them.

It is therefore significant that the only European leader to have publicly declared the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq to be a military problem has been David Cameron. Although Obama has been weak and hesitant in his response, he at least took the initiative in this direction, and Cameron followed him. Thus it will always be – and thus it has been in all recent conflicts. Something in the Anglophone culture leads us to be sceptical of the idea of soft power, and to recognise that, in the last analysis, things are kept in place not by floppy elastic but by strong lines of force. The mistakes made in 1917, when the Bolsheviks were allowed to take power in Russia and the Ottoman Empire was condemned to destruction, have led to conflict after conflict. It is pointless assigning blame for this. But it is surely important to recognise that conflicts need policing, and that policing needs force. Only a culture that acknowledges this, and that duly honours both military action and the men and women who carry it out, can bring order to the world. By contrast, a culture of soft power, accompanied by the wealth, luxury and materialism so wondrously displayed in the awkward face of Frank-Walter Steinmeier as he sat among those pain-ridden Yazidis, will simply offer the world to the one most determined to grab it.

— Roger Scruton is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center

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