In his renowned article from 1990, Joseph Nye hoped to conceptualize how America would exercise power following the Cold War. Power, asserted Nye, rests on the ability to change the behavior of other states. This can be achieved through co-opetive, or Soft Power, or coercive Hard Power. Nye therefore distinguished between two policies that could guide America’s ascent as a global hegemon- unilateralism and sticks, or multi-literalism and carrots. Nye formulated Soft Power in a clear context- how can a hegemon rule without appearing to be a hegemon? This was a unique challenge for the US in the early 90s, a time of structural change across the globe as the USSR faded into history.
Nye’s thesis rests on three foundational claims. First, in the 21st century military power will be less transferable as such power cannot reverse the effects of climate change or halt the spread of pandemics. These challenges require global collaborations. Second, the use of financial leverages would soon be limited given greater economic integration. Third, new non-state actors will shape the international environment, including multinational corporations that render borders meaningless.
It is important to keep in mind that Nye created an American Policy tailored to America’s unique situation. As such, this American concept loses meaning when we discuss Jordanian Soft Power, or French Soft Power or even Ukrainian Soft Power. For none of these are hegemons fearing the trappings of hegemony. When we use the words Soft Power in this way we invalidate Nye’s foundational claims. We use this term because Nye offered a clear metaphor through which the world can be understood. Like the concept of “imagined communities” or “the risk society”, Nye offered sensemaking to academics and policy makers alike as the world could be run through carrots or sticks.
But Nye’s concept suffers from three important limitations. First, Nye’s concept obfuscated the true nature of American power. For be it Soft or Hard, power is power. Power lies in the ability to change the behavior of other states. Power lies in the ability to alter the ideals of other societies and power lies in shaping the world in accordance with one’s own preferences. Nye called on America to use global institutions and make the world American.
In so doing, Nye sugar coated American power. And while sugar coated power may be more palatable, it is power nonetheless.
Second, Nye’s world of Soft Power never fully materialized. Two decades into the 21st Century it seems that crisis is the norm, not collaboration. The War on Terror was followed by the financial crisis, the Syrian Civil War, the Crimean Crisis, the crisis surrounding Iran’s nuclear weapons, and more recently, the Ukrainian Crisis. The blasé mindset of the 1990s has given way to rising tensions across the globe. Third, and most importantly, as was the case in 1990, the world is undergoing another process of structural change, leading nations to adopt new behaviours.
We cannot understand the role of Soft Power without understanding hegemony or hierarchies of power. Nye was correct that military power is less transferable but wrong about the interconnected world. Nye forgot that for every action in the universe there is an equal and opposite reaction. Digital technologies that blur borders and make the world more global have brought about a mass rebuke of globalization and a surge in nationalism. This is the “great digital paradox”- the more technology blurs borders the more people become obsessed with strong borders. Nationalism undermines the very precepts of Soft Power as governments pursue narrow national interest as opposed to a global common good. Moreover, nationalism rejects compromise and multilateralism.
Like Frank Sinatra, nationalists want all or nothing at all.
Finally, the world is slowly transitioning towards a modern day triumvirate ruled not by Julius Caesar, Pompei Magnus and Crassus but by the US, China and India (see my work with Guy Golan). This global reordering breeds conflict as nations adopt expansionist foreign policies. Many nations are scrambling to re-draw their borders before the Triumvirate begins its rule. This is the logic guiding Russia and Putin in Ukraine. The goal is not to conquer Ukraine but to draw the borders of Russia’s sphere of influence before the Triumvirate takes shape. Putin is not thinking in outdated terms. On the contrary, in times of strong borders and new balances of power actors traditionally obtain change through military force.
So what is the role of Soft Power in the Ukraine War? As written above the term does not apply. Yet if forced to use it, I would say that once again Soft Power obfuscates power. Russia is using “Soft Power” rhetoric to market the War. Russia uses norms, values and ideals to lie and spread propaganda. To depict a heroic battle against neo-Nazi invaders. But, this act of abstraction is not contrary to Soft Power. It is the essence of Soft Power a term that, like the USSR must now join the ash heap of history.