Europe’s “Soft Power” and the Georgia Crisis

WASHINGTON– The way Europe is handling the Russian invasion of Georgia, (including the disturbing corollary of a possible unilateral recognition of the independence of South Ossetia nd Abkhazia by Moscow), invites some reflections about the merit of “soft” versus “hard” power as primary international relations tools. Has Europe’s soft power succeeded in persuading Russia to desist from its design to reassert its influence on one of pieces of the former Soviet Union and change course in this crisis? It would appear that this is not the case. It would appear that Moscow has established who is the boss in the Caucasus, while actual or potential European reactions played almost no role in the way in which the Kremlin managed this operation. European verbal reactions, so far at least, have been treated as inconsequential noise.

Yet, in foreign policy debates, it was and it is still quite fashionable and “progressive” to compare Europe’s enlightened policy of engagement, founded on its soft power tools, to America’s indiscriminate and rough use of raw military power. According to this well meaning conventional wisdom, soft power suggests dialogue, persuasion and the ability to engage others through agreements, trade and cultural exchanges. The second one suggests a somewhat tyrannical, unilateral approach. “Do as I say, or the marines will be following shortly”. Europe is about multilateralism, engagement. America is about coercion (whatever the political purposes).


Of course, this whole idea that raw power does not succeed; whereas soft power yields better fruits, better relations and a smoother world has had its best moments in the early phases of Washington’s Iraq’s adventure. When America’s ill advised (according to most) or even criminal (according to some) Iraq enterprise seemed to be pretty close to ending in failure, (“debacle” was the preferred way to describe it), the whole story seemed to present conclusive evidence that military power is a thing of the past. “There are no military solutions to essentially political problems”. The morale was the following: “You (primitive) Americans want to use brute force to impose your own idea of change on people who not only disagree with you but who fiercely resist this imposition. Raw power, military power, therefore is not only horrible in terms of the destruction and the casualties that it creates, but it also futile. It just does not work.” Thus, better to forget about military options and convert to soft power. Via engagement and dialogue, with the added spice of commerce and thus enhanced prosperity for all as the clear end game, we have a better chance to resolve the issues that the deployment of military force can only exacerbate.


Easy enough to criticize the modalities in which American raw, military power has been used in Iraq. Trigger happy America has made many egregious mistakes. No point enumerating all them here. However, any dispassionate analysis of the wrong and ill advised use of military power, in Iraq or elsewhere, is not a valid argument to proclaim that military power is a relic of a brutal past to be discarded by enlightened people. And the current Georgia crisis, cum Russian invasion, illustrates this point.

Commenting on the rather meek EU reaction to this significant crisis showing Russian unilateral action (even if provoked) via military power in Georgia, while Europe watches helplessly, EU spokesman Martin Selmayr commented: “We can’t send storm troopers, but we have a trade and economic policy we can discuss [with Russia]. We are an economic force”. (Emphasis added). Now let us analyze this statement, painfully true in the first part (the storm troopers, or lack thereof), and questionable in its second part (the option of successfully bargaining with Moscow pressing the Russians on economic issues). Martin Selmayr did not say “Under the circumstances, we think it would be a bad idea to send in our storm troopers. Still, in any event, our military, is prudently standing by”. He said “We can’t send storm troopers…”. He did not say: “We would rather not send them”. “He said “We can’t  send them”. This suggests a categoric impossibility: it cannot be done. And why is it that wealthy Europe, with its strong Euro cannot send anybody? Well, because, in its pursuit of soft power, Europe these days does not have much in terms of military muscle readily available. Simply stated: there are no storm troopers to be sent. And certainly not because Europe is helpless and poor, just like Georgia. There are 27 countries and close to 500 million people in the European Union. Europe has an aggregate GDP equal to if not greater than America’s. There are plenty of industrial resources. But, confronted with a significant crisis with a clear neo-imperial flavor at its doorstep, caused by unilateral use of military power by Russia, Europe’s first assessment is “We can only use diplomacy and economic bargaining, because we have nothing else. There are no other options”. Is Moscow going to be impressed with the EU idea to force change on the ground in Georgia via economic bargaining with Russia? Probably not. 

In fact, in the specific case of Russia, Europe’s soft power based on economic prssures may not work well either. Europe’s acute dependence on Russia’s oil and gas does not do much to improve its bargaining power. While Russia certainly needs the cash coming from these sales, Europe would be crushed in a very short time without Russia’s energy supplies. In this context, sadly, Europe is militarily irrelevant and economically dependent. Thus Moscow simply ignores it. Which is to say that soft power alone, when dealing with a rather rough neighbor, may not do the trick. 

The awareness of the absence of real means to counter Russia’s aggression may be the reason behind a rather resigned European approach to the crisis. “Oh well, this is how the Russians are, you know. When provoked, they jump. Therefore, in order to stay out of trouble, given what happened in Georgia, in the future let’s try and avoid other actions that may be interpreted by Moscow as provocations”. During the old Cold War there was a term to describe this accomodating approach towards the old Soviet Union. It was called: “Self-finlandization”, that is censoring one’s own behavior, preventing thus possible negative repercussions from a powerful neighbour. It is impossible to say how widespread this attitude may be in Europe today. (And certainly, today’s Russia is not the old Soviet Union). But it is out there.

Certainly the Europeans are not sounding an alarm. “Somebody help us. We only have soft power. The other side knows that we cannot oppose them; thus they behave badly, being fully cognizant of the fact that we cannot oppose them”. Instead, they say that the situation in Georgia is regrettable; but somehow unavoidable. Nobody in Europe is saying to Russia: “Get out of Georgia, or else”. The painful truth is that there is no “else” in Europe’s arsenal.

Well, this is what soft power alone gets you. You are weak and everybody knows it. If someone out there is willing to act aggressively counting on zero reaction from you, as you have no tools, then bad behavior is not discouraged. If word gets around that the local police force is now disarmed, some criminals may take notice of this strategic change.

As the new post surge situation in Iraq is showing, there is a positive, productive use of military power as a key ingredient in the new mix of a better planned counterinsurgency strategy that is beginning to succeed. The fact that shooting indiscriminately is a bad idea does not automatically exclude that shooting discriminately, along with sound engagement policies, may be productive.

The trick is in creating the proper mix. In a word, it is not an either or proposition: “either raw power or soft power”. It is about having both and managing skillfully both. If it is true that raw power alone may not get results, the reverse is also true.

Teddy Roosevelt famously embraced the approach of speaking softly, while carrying a big stick, as the most prudent way to move forward. The preferred approach should always be to resolve issues by speaking softly. But all those concerned should see the big stick and –most importantly– they should be absolutely convinced that one will use it –without hesitation– if all else fails.

America should improve its talking skills, while also devising a more judicious and nuanced use of its stick. But the critical point is that America has a stick. Europe has the much more difficult challenge of finding the will to get a stick and to create a policy consensus that would convince the rest of the world that Europe is prepared to use it –and not just in third world countries police operations of little or no consequence. But this may be asking too much of a loose coalition of countries whose main aspiration is to do their best to stay out of trouble.

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