Soft and hard power, while millenia-old means deployed to achieve an end, were only distinguished comparatively recently; military force largely associated with the latter, diplomacy with the former. I suppose this is a development which reflected on the decreasing popularity of military interventionism that formerly governed interactions between countries. World-building depended on conquering areas and declaring them yours, but this fell out of fashion eventually. The last new country to emerge on Earth was South Sudan, a fragile, still war-fraught nation founded in 2011.
Instead of fighting over where to draw the line that separates one part of the world from another, and one people from another, we now use diplomacy to get along with another. This lays the basis for trade negotiations, pacts, and on the punishment side, sanctions.
Living in the UK, but not coming from it, I have no ties to the colonial history and those instincts. Germany’s forays into that department were largely unsuccessful when not tied to the ambition of a Master Race (something I would have laughably never been a part of). But last June a vote was cast to separate from the European Union – in some small part associated with that colonial past, and the hard power that was associated with the Great British Empire. It was a behemoth that influenced day-to-day habits such as tea-time being the height of sophistication; spread a language that rules the globe; and influenced where those lines were drawn that separate countries.
It’s not sad to want your country to be great again – and it’s a cry that’s rallying all over the world right now, it seems. With the effects of colonialism having rendered everyone so samey you can’t distinguish them (case in point: this foreigner who sounds American but has no actual ties to that country), national identity is at risk. What makes an English person great, when they could have by rights been born in the Netherlands, or moved to France and still have achieved greatness there without barriers?
Moreso, with living history in the form of the Royal Family, for instance, relics of the good past when a small island nation was the fount of knowledge still remain, but can’t impress on the world in the same way. Oxford and Cambridge are still first class universities, but where does Durham rank in the world now? But that is the English plight, and when you think about how Western powers are all facing their own crises of the same kind (leading to a Trump Presidency in the States, surges of Marine Le Pen in France, the rise of the AfD in Germany and a near-miss in Austria’s election for the role of Head of State by a populist candidate), looking to the Eastern hemisphere may paint a different picture.
I’ve already gushed about it on Twitter, but Molly McKew’s (admittedly partisan) article on the Russian activities to undermine power plays from around the world is a compelling read. Applying all that she wrote as facts means that Putin is immune to soft power. If he is actively working to destroy our principles of democracy by influencing elections and corrupting our perception of the news and facts, he won’t be cowed by the expulsion of ambassadors and increased tariffs. They are tools he has no use for, or intentionally eschews.
Russia stands to benefit from all of these activities on an internal level, and when they are not interested in interacting with the rest of the world burning bridges in such a way you realise they won’t necessarily rely on foreign trade. Not that Russia will suddenly grow its own bananas (not really an import they’d have to worry about forfeiting to be honest), but as with China and its clones of popular Western websites like Amazon and Twitter it shows that you can provide citizens with something almost as good as what the free market has to offer. I don’t know how many Chinese people are looking for that big picture “but we aren’t free” sentiment, when they have everyday-human problems to deal with after all.
We’ve not really had conflict in the modern day Western world I’ve grown up in, that touched our lives. It’s thankfully always been in the fringes, like the Balkans, the Middle East or deepest Africa and South America. But these fringes are already crumbling, with African dictatorial regimes on the rise according to Boris Johnson’s party conference speech in 2016. And when giants like the States tumble due to hacking exposing communications that shake the confidence in the political apparatus, I simply start wondering whether the soft power Boris Johnson (the UK Foreign Secretary) wants to trade in post-Brexit will actually be effective. It doesn’t seem like those we want to influence play by those rules any longer.
(Photo credit goes to Chatham House)