Mariupol, Severodonetsk or Kherson were city names known to few people outside Ukraine before the beginning of this year. Now they have become synonymous with what has become the defining, hard power geopolitical struggle of this first quarter of the twenty-first century; unprovoked military aggression against a democratic European country, and Russia’s near genocidal determination to erase Ukraine from the map and Ukrainian national identity from Slavic culture.
So, Mariupol and Severodonetsk – and soon, probably Slavyansk and Kramatorsk – have symbolised the determination of the Ukrainian people to resist what can now only be regarded as outright imperialist aggression by President Putin’s Kremlin. He apparently regards it as an acceptable political aim to recreate the ‘Novo-rossiya’ of Catherine the Great and to re-colonise the European territories conquered by Peter the Great over 200 years ago.
Putin was remarkably explicit on June 9th when he explained in an official Foreign Ministry video that Peter the Great had not ‘captured’ land in modern-day Sweden. In fact, he had ‘returned it’ to where it belonged. So too with Estonian and Baltic territories. He ‘returned and strengthened’ these lands, said Putin, and, ‘apparently it is also our destiny to return and strengthen’. A country is either sovereign ‘or it is a colony’ he said, and ‘a colony has no historical prospects’. Where Putin’s warped interpretation of Russian history designates a neighbouring country not genuinely ‘sovereign’, it must, it seems, become a colony.
This all represents a sinister challenge to the international order and to civilised values in Europe that have not been confronted in this way since the 1940s. In its immediate manifestation this challenge is, of course, based on the most egregious expression of so-called hard power – the crude and brutal use of highly indiscriminate military force. But Putin’s recent statements have confirmed what was always suspected from his half-revealed prejudices over recent years; that this conflict is even more fundamentally a struggle over values. It is a struggle between the prospect of Europe bowing to eccentric and romanticised nineteenth-century imperialist visions, against a determination of modern European countries working in the globalised world to uphold their own standards of self-determination and liberal democracy.
This is ultimately more fundamental to the future of Europe than the military outcome in Ukraine, whatever that turns out to be. And the rest of the world is watching and not yet explicitly committed to a view. At the UN in March, Russia was condemned by 141 countries, while 5 voted for it and 35 abstained. Those 40 ‘against and uncommitted’ votes accounted for more than half the world’s population. It really matters to the future of Europe and the Western nations that in this era-defining clash of values, they are seen ultimately to prevail in the face of this challenge.
In this respect, the Ukraine war represents even more a soft power competition than it is an imperative military conflict for the survival of a free country. We find ourselves in the greatest soft power competition since the darkest days of the Cold War. European countries are not only having to consider their fundamental values but are now squirming as they also have to confront what they will sacrifice to defend them.
Russia’s Ukrainian brutality alone make it impossible the country could be willingly occupied or colonised. And Putin’s attack on Ukraine has galvanised western soft power like never before. Soft power does not take a back seat when wars occur; indeed, it becomes the underlying rationale of what major conflicts tend to be about.
When we wrote our analysis of Britain’s soft power in Britain’s Persuaders: Soft Power in a Hard World, we began from the proposition that, like all varieties of ‘power’, soft power exists along a spectrum and that we fully accept that any soft power attributes have to be part of policies that exercise themselves in a ‘hard world’. We did not expect to have so dramatic an example of our point made by the biggest European war in 75 years happening only three months after publication.
British soft power exists in an environment where the political weather is being set by the ‘Big Four’ –the United States, China, Russia and India. They are all ‘big’ for different reasons – their size, economy, political importance, influence abroad and their potential to shape the world in ways that suit them. The geopolitical wheels between them are turning pretty quickly now and that creates real challenges for all the ‘middle powers’ in Europe, which includes Britain even though, for example, in GDP terms it is larger than Russia. . The Ukraine war has highlighted so many of the ‘middle power challenges’, being forced to the hard power margins while they watch the more consequential interactions among the big four as the conflict goes on. In this hard world the Europeans have been rhetorically very united in opposition to the Kremlin but already they find it more difficult to operationalise their coercive hard power, like effective military support to Ukraine, energy independence, economic sanctions and so on. And yet, they also have to make good on their soft power assets – to prove that liberal democracy will stand up to this challenge, and that it underpins a legal, international system that is worth defending and preserving from great power aggression or ‘poor world cynicism’.
It is simplistic to argue that hard power is military and soft power is diplomacy, culture and the rest. The difference between hard and soft power lies in how policy instruments are used rather than what they are in themselves. As we analyse more carefully in our work, hard power is essentially about trying to project the coercive or pressurising ability to persuade others to do something. Soft Power is much more about magnetism. It doesn`t try to project – it just is. Soft Power is magnetic. It is the power of imitation. And the most important elements of a society that has soft power is one that seems to be stable and law abiding, prosperous and in which there is a sense of opportunity. Some really basic things make a society very attractive if they are convincingly true. Any society that can encourage others to imitate it is obviously helping to structure the outside world in a way that is very much to its advantage. Ukrainian soft power has never been higher. Undoubtedly leaders worldwide wish that at least in leadership terms they too embodied the spirit of their country’s society as President Volodymyr Zelensky does now.
Thankfully, Britain’s own society is rich and varied. It has deep roots and, for historical and demographic reasons, has a significant presence in world politics that goes beyond the influence of its governmental or formal political influence. In our research, we identified nine different ways in which ‘Britain’s persuaders’ – those people and institutions who carry influence in various ways across the world – might, consciously or not, be expressing their soft power attractions. We looked at the range of ‘convenors’ who naturally brought groups and ideas together. We analysed the officials in government who achieved influence primarily by ‘speaking softly’ in what they did. British research and innovation is another source of soft power influence, as is the influence British institutions have in setting functional regulations in so many different fields across the world. We looked at British multiculturalism and cosmopolitan values as a natural source of international influence; at education in all its formal and informal guises; and at the reputation Britain possesses for nurturing and attracting creativity in many different fields. We tried to assess the impact and direction of British entertainment industries, ranging across all sectors from theatre and film to music and sport. Not least, we assessed the power of ‘British individualism’ – even eccentricity – in trying to understand how Britain projects itself as an easy-going home for bloggers, vloggers, stars, saints, and the socially anarchic.
When we had completed the manuscript for Britain’s Persuaders we had little idea quite how relevant its underlying concerns would be. At the time, in light of the upcoming challenges of the 2020s, of Brexit implications, and the British government’s ‘Integrated Review’ of external policy, we were concerned to point out the opportunities that were being missed to project British values and the underlying strengths of British society. In light of the epochal challenges now posed by the Ukrainian war, the focus seems less on soft power opportunities – which might either be embraced or spurned – and more on the sheer necessity to capitalise and mobilise soft power in the dramatic clash of values that President Putin has now, without any remaining artifice, visited on the western world.
Michael Clarke and Helen Ramscar are co-authors of Britain’s Persuaders: Soft Power in a Hard World, London, I. B. Tauris /Bloomsbury, 2021. Professor Clarke is distinquished fellow and former director-general of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). Helen Ramscar is an associate fellow at RUSI.