Hard Power/Soft Power

The Economist’s EU-Affairs columnist Charlemagne has a post up about the future of Europe in world affairs, which I would like to suggest to you. Charlemagne notes the concern of Brussels policy-makers over European states still not being able to ‘speak in one voice’, but wonders if such unity would be enough to make Europe relevant in a fundamentally altered international landscape. Referring to recent ‘snubs’ to US Diplomacy by China, Iran and Israel, Charlemagne writes :

But here is the question that I am starting to turn over in my mind. If our big bet in Europe is that speaking with one voice will make our norms-based, soft power approach work, what lessons should we draw when Mr Obama’s outstretched hand of friendship is smacked away? Because even in a perfect, parallel universe, in which the EU magically falls in line behind Catherine Ashton and the new EU diplomatic service, we will struggle to become one half as united as the American government is. Our 27 countries will always find it hard to match America when it comes to identifying and defending our interests. And though there can of course be differences in the messages sent out by the White House, the State Department, Congress and so on, in general America speaks with one voice to the outside world, in a way that the EU can barely hope to match.

And yet all that speaking with one voice, in defence of agreed, common interests, does not seem to shield the Obama administration from snubs.

The columnist then goes on to wonder if in this new world it would benefit Europe more to stick closer to the US in international affairs. The simple answer would be no. Europe and US indeed have strong historical ties, and have benefited greatly from this transatlantic relationship. And after the crazy Bush years, their diplomatic strategies also seem to be on a similar wavelength with an emphasis on dialogue and engagement.

However, it would certainly not be in a nascent EU’s interest to follow the American line in foreign policy. Surely, America with it’s greater foreign commitments would exert great pressure on Europe to fall behind it. Also, such bandying together on foreign policy issues would not send positive signals from the west to the rest of the world. Europe establishing its own place in the world, separate from the US, is necessary both for Europe and multi-lateralism.

Americas diplomatic failures are not the result of its soft approach, but a combination of factors that involves miscalculations on Obamas part, as well as the newly emergent powers feeling a need to assert themselves. There is no reason to believe that multilateralism would be a bed of roses, and even lesser reason for US/EU abandoning it for a ‘hard’ approach.

Europe’s best bet is to try and be an independent foreign player. Its  failure to show any sort of leadership on the international stage, an opportunity that it so gloriously squandered at Copenhagen, is more of a reason for its international stature than it’s competitive advantages. The big European powers that brought it together are now reluctant to see Europe forward. This is crucial for Europe, as Ashton recognized in her speech, to have a say in its own affairs on the international stage.

Lastly, despite the paranoia about decline that seems to be sweeping the western world, Europe certainly has the potential to be a powerful actor with great resonance in foreign affairs. Its social welfare system is the envy of  powers like China, its universities are host to millions of Asian students, its a great patron of artists, its leadership in infrastructure and R&D recognized world-over. Most importantly, its model for regional governance is one that would serve as an example for non-western powers as they try to achieve stability, security and economic prosperity in their own regions. Its internal diversity, enhanced by its assimilation of immigrants, would ensure that it has influence beyond its borers. The columnist misuses the term soft power, which refers to the influence that societies and cultures have on each other, and something that Europe has bucket-loads of.

It needs to organize itself and pull its weight as a hard power, capable of  protecting its interests and pushing its agenda based on the norms of social-democracy, welfare and respect of civil liberties. Speaking in one,independent, voice, Europe has a lot to gain, and I believe so does the world.

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