Soft Power and Wedge Diplomacy

by Chris Borgen

Via Tom Barnett’s blog, I came across this essay by Jim Hoagland that was published last month in the Washington Post. Hoagland set out observations about the politicking at the World Policy Conference that was sponsored by the Institut Francais des Relations Internationales, a French think tank. What he saw has some interesting implications about the importance of soft power.

After setting the scene by describing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s attempts to drive a wedge between the U.S., on one side, and European and other states, on the other, Hoagland explained:

But as I listened to the freewheeling discussions, I wondered if the widespread obituaries being written for American power and all that it stands for might not turn out to be premature. I did not hear the deep questioning of the American model of capitalism that I expected at this moment of financial terror, and Medvedev’s blatant attempt to drive wedges between Europe and the United States was effectively blunted by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

We will be glad to discuss European security with you, Sarkozy responded directly to Medvedev, but we will be joined by “our friends and allies, the Americans. . . . Such matters concern them, too.”

Sarkozy also warned his guest that new security arrangements for Europe would not recognize “spheres of influence” (a concept recently endorsed by Medvedev) and would have to be based on democratic freedoms and respect for human rights. “Balance-of-power politics cannot guarantee stability for our continent,” Sarkozy added.

Music to the ears of an American participant. But for me the high point was listening to three democratically elected leaders from the developing world advise their Western peers not to give up on supporting democracy and market liberalization in their countries and everywhere else.

“Free elections are the only way out of crises” that would spark repression or chaos for dictatorial regimes, said Mongolian President Nambaryn Enkhbayar. His view was strongly echoed by Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga.

“Trade and investment are vital to Africa’s ability to work its way out of today’s economic mess,” said Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade. “You in the North should be truly Keynesian about this crisis. Put your billions into investments in Southern Hemisphere countries to create real assets and jobs — not financial bubbles — and you will get the best returns possible.”

And Saudi Arabia’s Prince Turki al-Faisal — while warning that Western countries should not try to force-feed democracy to the kingdom — acknowledged that a country that refused to try any “of the dishes that democracy has to offer risks starving to death.”

There was, to be sure, skepticism and anger in Evian over what Sarkozy called the excesses of “financial capitalism,” which routed huge pools of savings away from the productive economy into the pursuit of unrealistic returns before slamming into the ditch.

But there was a solid consensus also for global oversight and regulation, not for a renunciation of the free market. Medvedev’s Dump America message did not make much progress. What the world seems to await is better American leadership, not its elimination.

Besides being a rejection of the Medvedev wedge, these reactions by relatively “new” democracies and/or market economies shows how (at least in terms of diplomatic rhetoric) the norms and ideals espoused by the “West” are being internalized (to varying extents) in a wide variety of countries. While the U.S. and the EU have acted at times as if they were the teachers and the rest of the world were the students, what we now see are the erstwhile students trying to remind the “teachers” of their lessons.

This not only shows how powerful soft power can be, but also reminds us that normative talk is not “cheap” talk. Rather, it can contribute to facilitating real changes, foster expectations as to how we will act, and also provide a bulwark against the opportunistic rhetoric of our competitors.

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