The Decline of Hard and Soft Power
Is there a strategic dialogue between the United States and Europe on the vital issues of today?
Looking back, we all know that there was a severe lack of more serious strategic dialogue for a rather long time. It wasn’t just the first part of the Bush 41 presidency, although the period brought US-European relations to a new low.
What we have had to deal with is the fact that the core strategic agendas of Europe and America have been drifting apart in the last few years.
After having been tied together for a generation by a common threat, the leaders of America and Europe failed to develop a common vision during the 1990s.
While Europe continued to be preoccupied with its highly significant strategic 1989 agenda, which aimed to build a new structure for peace on this old conflict-ridden continent by sharing sovereignty through the institutions set up for economic and political integration, America become absorbed in its own very different strategic agenda after 2001 – it wanted to safeguard its citizens and interests through exercising what it considered to be its sovereign rights.
The two strategic agendas were and are certainly different, but they are not necessarily incompatible. In fact, it is obvious that both of them are important and that they should be shaped in such a way as to make them mutually supportive. Both Europe and America are undoubtedly interested in fighting terrorism. In addition, a new structure for peace and prosperity in Europe should also have a beneficial effect on America..
But it did not work out that way. Before the war in Iraq, we saw how the Atlantic became wider and wider, reflecting not only different tactical perceptions, but also the underlying differences in values, interests and views. It could be said that regardless of the attitudes of various governments in Europe, European public opinion turned sharply against the United States. Recent opinion polls have shown that this animosity has not changed.
When President Bush was re-elected, you could feel the sense of relief spreading in European capitals. Instead of a shakedown cruise for the new administration, the Europeans felt that Bush’s second administration wanted to learn from some of the steps, which the Europeans treated as mistakes.
And President Bush started immediately by declaring his intention to put the relationship with Europe on a new footing. European leaders were more than keen to join in this effort.
The visit by President Bush to Brussels in February was undoubtedly a success. In sharp contrast to previous visits, it was more to do with the European Union than with Europe.
While in the old days NATO had been the centre of attention and European issues had dominated the agenda, this time it was the European Union’s turn to be in the spotlight and the agenda was almost totally dominated by various non-European issues. One issue of substance that both sides could agree upon was the need to move forward with the Middle East peace process, whereas the differences of opinion on how this should be done had largely disappeared.
This visit was a very deliberate attempt to make a new start. And now, more than half a year later, it is clear that some significant changes have occurred indeed.
After years of no consultations on key issues, we have now seen an avalanche of all kinds of emissaries overwhelming Brussels. If one looks around inside Rond Point Schumann, one can even see the first signs of consultation fatigue.
So, a marked improvement in consultation activities of all kinds has definitely occurred. In addition, cooperation on numerous small and big issues has improved. The question remains, however, whether this has been a real strategic dialogue, bringing the two strategic agendas more in tune with each other.
A dialogue has been re-established, but...
If we turn the clock back a year or two, we find ourselves in the middle of a discussion about the hard power of the United States and the soft power of the European Union. And the task was to make the power of the United States somewhat softer by relying more on various multilateral activities as well as to make the power of the European Union somewhat harder by developing additional instruments.
This is already happening to a certain degree. The tone of the speech recently given by President Bush to the 60th UN General Assembly was noticeably different from the tone used some years ago. The accusations of unilateralism have always been somewhat exaggerated, but the situation now is clearly different.
Moreover, the European Union has taken some decisions that will give it somewhat harder power in due course. The setting up of so-called battle groups for rapid intervention in faraway areas will also add a very significant instrument to the combined arsenal of Europe.
But the most significant change that we have seen is the rather substantial and undoubtedly worrying decline in both the hard power of the United States and the soft power of the European Union.
American military power has got seriously bogged down in the marshes, back alleys and deserts of Mesopotamia. This fact is probably not going to change for some considerable time to come. No-one will say this in public, but everybody knows that the world’s number one superpower has very limited options to use its military and hard power virtually anywhere else in the world. At the moment, the only superpower we’ve got is a weak one.
And now let’s add Hurricane Katrina to all this. It is still too early to say to what extent its political effects and immense reconstruction costs will alter the strategic priorities of the United States. But it seems unavoidable that there will be a shift from the outward-oriented strategy of global war on terror to homeland security. Sooner or later, we will have a new New Orleans thanks to Katrina, but it might have reduced the chances of building a truly new Baghdad.
It is clear that there has been a decline in the hard power of the United States, whereas the decline in the soft power of the European Union is no less obvious.
There was a time when the European Union was a smashing success story. The power of attraction of the European Union and the example set by brought about the astonishingly smooth regime and system changes from Tallinn to Sofia, i.e. for ten nations and one hundred million people.
As a result, Europe has never throughout its entire history been so free, so secure and so prosperous as today. The continent that exported wars and totalitarian ideas to the rest of the world during the last century was getting ready to export stability, peace and democracy to its adjacent regions and beyond.
Europe’s six major failures
So far, however, this year has been a truly miserable one for Europe. It has lasted only for six months and we’ve already suffered six major failures.
The first failure was the mid-term review of the Lisbon process. As the Lisbon process, which had been launched with great ambitions and hopes five years ago, was obviously failing, the review meeting was seen as the last chance to breathe some new life into it.
But the meeting only slowed down the vitally important opening up of the service sector in the European economies, thus de facto further endangering what little was left of the Lisbon process.
The second failure was the so-called reform of the Stability and Growth Pact. Although the original SGP was by no means handed down from the sky on two tables of stone, the new version signalled a significant loosening of fiscal discipline, fuelling suspicions that there were, in fact, different rules for bigger and smaller member states of the union.
The third one was the non-achievement of even a minimum consensus on the reform of the long-term financial framework of the union with the aim of spending more on the future, i.e. on research and development, and less on the past, i.e. on different subsidization schemes.
The fourth mistake was, of course, the rejection of the Constitutional Treaty in the referendums in France and in the Netherlands. Whether this was a big or small failure depends on whether one considers the Constitutional Treaty to be a big or small step forward.
Now, let’s turn to foreign and security policy and to the fifth failure – the handling of the arms embargo against China. Regardless of whether one blames it all on the leaders of France and Germany – as Chris Patten does – or on someone else, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that we have damaged our credibility in the eyes of Washington and that we have also lost face in front of Beijing.
And obviously, the sixth failure – although it stretches into the last few months as well – was the monumental cock-up over the liberalization of the textile trade primarily with China.
In short, we haven’t been enjoying the best of times.
We should have been able to handle every one of these setbacks separately. But when taken together, one cannot help but feel that Europe has lost its strategic direction and a certain amount of its faith in itself as well.
Politics in Europe has become defensive, inward-looking and status quo-oriented. It has lost the critically important element of creating something new and vastly better than the old.
I am one of those who fail to see the objective reasons for this state of malaise. It is certainly true that it is, above all, the major continental economies that have seriously lagged behind in their reform efforts, but at the same time one should not paint a completely bleak picture of the economic situation or of economic reforms in Europe.
In fact, some parts of the European economy regularly reach high levels in different international rankings for current global competitiveness or for economic reforms needed for tomorrow.
Moreover, we have completed an enlargement process that was spectacularly successful, as it brought prospects for peace and prosperity to ten nations and 100 million Europeans from Tallinn to Sofia.
Over the past decade and a half, these parts of Europe that have admittedly been slightly unstable and conflict-ridden throughout their history have made almost miraculous achievements. But one thing is certain: it would not have been possible without the power of attraction of the European Union and without its much-criticized regulatory mechanisms.
Issues concerning enlargement, the European economy and the interaction between the two are at the heart of the tasks that are now ahead of us.
We have committed ourselves to building a Europe that is united and free, democratic and dynamic in a world that is undergoing a profound transformation, while the process of globalization is accelerating all the time.
I am convinced that the present moment – the third phase of globalization in modern history – offers Europe the best chance for self-realization it has had in more than a century. Whether we are able to seize this chance depends on the outcome of the enlargement process.
I am as convinced of this as I am worried about the efforts of some to contrast our common policies with globalization or with enlargement (or both). To me, such an attitude represents not only a failure to see where our true interests lie, but also a betrayal of the values on which our Europe is built.
If we shy away from globalization, enlargement or liberalism and start treating them all as threats, then the future of Europe is clearly at risk. In that case, politics in Europe would amount to little more than the administration of decline.
Today, strong competitive pressure is building up faster in the European economy than in any other major region of the world. This is starting to drive a process of reform at grass-roots level, a process that has the potential for achieving much of what the top-down process has so far failed to deliver.
There are four major drivers for change in this third phase of ever-accelerating globalization: the innovation potential of America, the production potential of Asia, the conflict potential of what might be called the Greater Balkans and the reform potential of Europe.
Europe certainly has both the capacity for reform and the reserves of productivity that will ensure the success of reforms. While we have clearly been outperformed by the United States since the early or mid-1990s, we should not forget that three decades before that period we were outperforming the United States.
Europe’s single market program that was developed between 1985 and 1992 was a magnificent program that inspired great changes and reforms. However, looking at our performance since the time when the process was supposed to have been completed, it is obvious that it was not enough and that we suffer from its only partial implementation.
But now the single market is being transformed by the enlargement process and the inclusion of new member states. While representing only about 5% of the total economy, I would argue that their incorporation into our integrated market is starting to drive almost 50% of the rapid changes that are being implemented at the corporate level and that are increasingly accelerating reforms at the political level as well.
This is not a threat, but an opportunity. A European economy reshaped on the basis of numerous competitive advantages deriving from different parts of Europe is bound to be more competitive globally.
Against the background of the globalization process that is currently accelerating, the enlargement of the EU has given us a competitive advantage.
Today, I cannot see any more important tasks for the leaders of Europe than to seize the opportunities opened up by globalization and to implement reforms in order to make Europe the true winner in this process, as it should be.
It is not a question of ensuring the ‘sustainability’ of the so-called European social model, as some defensively suggested during the preparations for the recent informal summit, but of securing Europe a place on the winners’ rostrum as a result of globalization.
Strategic direction and relations of strategic importance
There is, of course, a correlation between these tasks, wider security issues and Europe’s standing in the world. As for our standing, there is no doubt that we have taken a beating due to this year’s failures. Judging by my own experiences in different parts of the world during the past few weeks, it looks as if the Americans consider Europe to be a place where there are too few babies and too many Muslims and which has too bleak a future because of that, while the Asians hardly think about Europe anymore.
Peace in Europe still remains at the heart of our security policy. Voters in Verdun did say ‘Non’ to the Constitutional Treaty because they were convinced that the issue of war and peace that brought so much horror to their city was solved in this part of Europe. But voters in Sarajevo, in Kiev and in Istanbul are far less likely to think the same say. And they are feeling ever more uncertain about the future of the entire region. There is a serious risk that the reform processes in these countries – indeed in the entire fragile ‘near abroad’ of the European Union – will be hindered or even reversed, as the guiding light from Brussels is beginning to fade.
During the past decade, this wider region underwent a favourable cycle of integration, reform and stability. The decline of the soft power of the European Union, however, might lead to a vicious circle of instability and tensions in and between the states that belong to this wide and strategically important area that is called the neighbourhood of Europe.
There is a risk that Europe’s enlargement fatigue and reform fatigue could create a dangerous combination. This problem does not affect only Europe’s interests. Europe borders the Muslim world, which is suffering as a result of the clashes between its pro-reform and anti-reform forces. At the same time, there are ever more Muslims in our own suburbs and city centres.
Looking ahead, there is no doubt that some day we will have to come back to the different institutional issues. Today, however, we are facing an intellectual rather than institutional crisis. Our main problem is the lack of strategic direction and of self-confidence.
To overcome this problem, we have to tackle the wider interrelated issues concerning the economy and enlargement. Yet only by talking about bringing these issues closer to the voters we won’t solve any problems at all.
Our voters expect us to provide strategic guidance and to honour our commitment to achieve positive results. Otherwise we will have very little to bring closer to our voters. Still, if we fulfil our tasks, it will be immediately felt by them. It is not therapy that is needed; only actions can deliver real results.
If Europe gave up its soft power and de facto closed the door on the Balkan countries and on Turkey, it would probably be very hard to avoid the resulting negative impact on the clash between different forces inside Muslim countries, which form a large and significant part of the world. Europe and the United States would have to suffer the consequences. It would also deal a heavy blow to our common agenda of promoting political and economic reforms, freedom and democracy.
It was only a year ago when we had every reason to discuss the possibilities for acceleration of the development of Europe’s hard power. Now, the stopping of the decline in our soft power has suddenly become the most urgent problem.
A year ago the dominant agendas both in Europe and in the United States were reasonably clear – I’m referring to the 1989 and 2001 agendas, respectively. They could have been used as a foundation for our efforts to improve our relationship and to establish a true strategic dialogue.
Now, the situation has changed. Both the United States and the European Union have lost their strategic direction to some extent. The two of them should now concentrate on how to restore the consensus on their strategic direction. After that they should re-energize their efforts to improve their strategic relationship.
Positive actions are needed around the world
There are certainly plenty of issues that need to be addressed. While both Ariel Sharon and Abu Mazen are confronting fundamentalist forces in their societies and are building a new consensus to make new attempts at peace, they clearly need all the support we can give.
State-building in Palestine, which is gradually emerging from occupation and from despair, will hardly be easy. It will require the best efforts of all of us. Still, we all know that the problems in the wider Middle East are multifaceted and that without successful state-building in Palestine there will be no peace in Israel and no improved prospects for stability and freedom in the entire region.
There is an urgent need to try to establish a true strategic dialogue on the future of Iraq. The countries in Europe – even those countries that were reasonably supportive of the war – have not adopted a common position on the way the United States has been pursuing the crucial peace-keeping and state-building efforts there. Nevertheless, all European countries agree that a failure to facilitate the setting up of a functioning state in Iraq could have a devastating and destabilizing effect on a large area.
Clearly, there is a line of possibly dangerous political pitfalls that runs from Baghdad over Kirkuk to Ankara and to Brussels. Without a coherent approach to the entire region, we will not be able to solve any problems there. We cannot be hard and confront Iran over its nuclear program, while we seek soft cooperation with it to achieve stability in Iraq and in Afghanistan. And we should be more than careful when weighing our military options because at the present moment 40% of the world’s oil supplies passes through the Strait of Hormuz every day. This figure will rise to 60% in the future.
Against this depressing background, it could still be said that so far we have enjoyed some success in dealing with Iran’s nuclear issues. We have certainly not achieved everything we wanted. Moreover, we have now reached a point where critical decisions need to be taken. But the unity of the European trio has been obvious, to which the discreet support by the United States can be added, although that has probably got more to do with the absence of better alternative policy options than with a genuine conviction that this is the best way.
In addition, it could be said that there has been more progress on the Iranian nuclear program over the last year or two than there has been on the Korean nuclear program over the last five years or so. The risk of rapid deterioration seems greater in the case of North Korea than of Iran.
The trans-Atlantic strategic dialogue must focus on the development of the wider area from Amritsar to Agadir, from Astrakhan to Aden. This is an area where we can succeed only if we work together. We must understand that if we don’t work together, we will fail – and fail together.
Now, let’s turn to the Balkans, for example, where a number of unresolved issues need to be addressed. In Kosovo, we failed in our search for peace and stumbled into a war which we managed to end without achieving the peace we had sought. Everything has been in limbo ever since and policies towards Kosovo have emerged spontaneously, instead of being formulated systematically. At the moment, these policies are longer sustainable and we have to achieve a strategic consensus on how to sort out the issue of Kosovo.
Of course, our agenda includes more issues that concern a much wider region. Last year has clearly demonstrated that there is a need for a far deeper strategic dialogue on the consequences of the rise of China. In terms of security, it is the United States that is a major power in East Asia. Europe should try to understand this and think of ways to support the USA, instead of undermining it.
China has a much more significant role in the world than being a country that exports goods and this fact is now being more widely recognized in Europe.
A solution must be found to critical issues pertaining to peace-keeping and state-building in areas that are often both difficult and demanding. Let’s take Sudan, for example. The goal there is not to organize a competition to find out the country that can secure the greatest number of airlifts and do it faster than anyone else. A wave of disintegration from the Sahel to the Horn of Africa could easily develop into an extensive genocide.
In addition, we must demonstrate that cooperation can be effective when it comes to addressing the issues that concern the security of our citizens – be that the global war on terrorism, which receives stronger support from the Americans, or the war on global warming, which receives stronger support from the Europeans. There is one more issue that could suddenly move to the top of our common security agenda – the need to fight a global war on infectious diseases.
To sum up:
We – the United States and Europe – are both in a somewhat more difficult situation than only a year ago. Both the hard power of America and the soft power of Europe have been weakened.
In Europe, we are facing various important challenges.
We need to reconsider different issues concerning the governance of our union. It’s not an imminent issue, but we will have to sort it out sooner or later.
We need to discuss and forge a true political consensus – inside our countries and between them – on a new grand strategy of enlargement, partnership and neighbourhood policies.
We need to return to the European Security Strategy, to revise its text and to re-energize the resulting policies.
The next step after these and other initiatives is the task that we decided to undertake at the beginning of this year – to initiate a true strategic dialogue with the United States. The United States and Europe must restore strategic clarity in order to be able to resume our strategic dialogue.
Perhaps this is an ideal time for trying to establish a true strategic dialogue. We are somewhat humiliated by the failures and challenges that we have had to put up with in recent months, which is why we might be more eager than usual to listen and to learn.
This article is based on two speeches made by Carl Bildt in the autumn of 2005.