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Soft power after Ukraine

May 08,2022 - Last updated at May 08,2022

CAMBRIDGE  —   As Russian missiles pound Ukrainian cities, and as Ukrainians fight to defend their country, some avowed realists might say, “So much for soft power.” But such a response betrays a shallow analysis. Power is the ability to affect others to get the outcomes you want. A smart realist understands that you can do this in three ways: by coercion, by payment, or by attraction, in other words, the proverbial “sticks, carrots and honey”.

In the short run, sticks are more effective than honey and hard power trumps soft power. If I want to steal your money using hard power, I can threaten to shoot you and take your wallet. It does not matter what you think, and I get your money right away. To take your money using soft power, I would need to persuade you to give me your money. That takes time, and it does not always work. Everything depends on what you think. But if I can attract you, soft power may prove a far less costly way to get your money. In the long term, honey sometimes trumps sticks.

Likewise, in international politics, the effects of soft power tend to be slow and indirect. We can see the effects of bombs and bullets right away, whereas the attraction of values and culture may be visible only in the long run. But to ignore or neglect these effects would be a serious mistake. Smart political leaders have long understood that values can create power. If I can get you to want what I want, I will not have to force you to do what you do not want to do. If a country represents values that others find attractive, it can economise on the use of sticks and carrots.

The war in Ukraine is bearing out these lessons. The short-run battle has of course been dominated by hard military power. Russian troops swept into the country from Belarus in the north and from Crimea in the south. Ukraine’s ability to protect its capital, Kyiv, and to thwart the invasion from the north was determined by its military effectiveness and by the invader’s mistakes.

Russia is now seeking to take Ukraine’s south and east, and it remains to be seen how events will play out in this phase of the war. In the near term, the outcome will be determined by military force, including the equipment being supplied by the United States and other NATO countries, and by the exercise of hard, coercive economic power. While threats of trade and financial sanctions did not dissuade President Vladimir Putin from launching his military invasion, the sanctions that have been imposed have had a damaging impact on the Russian economy, and the threat of secondary sanctions has deterred countries like China from assisting Russia militarily.

But more to the point, soft power, too, has already played a role in the conflict. For years, US officials had pressed Germany to abandon the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, warning that it would make Europe more dependent on Russian natural gas, and that its route under the Baltic Sea would weaken Ukraine. Germany refused. But then came the shock of the Russian invasion. Atrocities against civilians have made Russia so unattractive to German public opinion that the government suspended the pipeline.

Similarly, the US had long pressed Germany to honour a NATO commitment to increase its annual defence expenditures to 2 per cent of GDP. Again, Germany had been dragging its heels until the invasion, which forced it to reverse its position almost overnight.

Moreover, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has proved especially adept at wielding soft power. When the US offered to spirit him out of the country, he famously replied that he needed ammunition, not a ride.

Zelensky’s prior experience as a television actor has served him well. With his informal attire and constant communication with Western media and parliaments, he has succeeded in representing Ukraine as an attractive and heroic country. The result was not just Western sympathy but a substantial increase in deliveries of the military equipment that Ukraine needed for the hard-power task at hand.

In addition, the disclosure of Russian atrocities against civilians in places like Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv, has reduced Russia’s soft power and reinforced Western sympathies for Ukraine. The longer-term effects on Russian soft power remain to be seen. UN member states have already voted to condemn Russia’s actions and to expel it from the UN Human Rights Council, though nearly one-third, including many African countries, abstained.

Notably, India, the world’s largest democracy, has refrained from criticising Russia. It does not want to jeopardise its supply of Russian-made military equipment, nor does it want to reinforce Russia’s ties with China, which it sees as its major geopolitical threat. As for China, while it abstained from the UN vote condemning the invasion, it voted against Russia’s removal from the Human Rights Council, and it has lent its formidable media resources to supporting Russia’s propaganda campaign.

How this will play out in the long term will depend in part on the outcome of the war. Sometimes, memories are short. For now, however, Russia and China seem to have suffered a loss of soft power. In the months prior to the invasion, the two countries solidified their axis of authoritarianism, and China proclaimed that the East Wind was prevailing over the West Wind. Today, that slogan has become much less attractive.


Joseph S. Nye, Jr. is a professor at Harvard University and the author, most recently, of “Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump” (Oxford University Press, 2020). Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.

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