The EU’s soft power and the big carrot
MOSCOW – There’s a joke in Europe, the making of which is credited to Lord Chris Patten, Chancellor of Oxford University who in the 1980s was the EU’s Commissioner for External Relations. Adapting President Theodore Roosevelt’s advice to “speak softly but carry a big stick,” Patten said that the EU’s attitude to foreign affairs was to “speak softly but carry a big carrot.”
Collectively, Europe must exercise influence through “soft power.” The concept was invented by Joseph Nye, the Harvard political scientist, who, in his 2004 book “Soft Power,” defined it as the power to influence other countries without force or money. Instead, soft power draws people to it who, by “admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness — want to follow it.”
U.S. soft power has suffered in the past decade because the hard kind has been so prevalent. But it has not disappeared. It draws people to it still. The EU has had nothing but soft power. The “big carrot” is its ability to have others “aspire to its level,” economic or otherwise, accompanied by the promise of financial assistance. Yet Patten’s joke carries a rueful recognition that this may be a less-than-realistic approach to a hard world.
It is a testament to soft power that hundreds of thousands of people have come out in Ukraine to express their desire for an agreement that will bring them closer to the EU. Now vast protests are mounted against the Yanukovich regime, calling for (as some of the placards have said) living in a “normal” country with the rule of law. The European “carrot” isn’t just the money it disburses to its poorer members; it is also the promise, to people who increasingly wish to call themselves “European,” of raising standards — from the quality of food to the honesty of politicians. It’s a classic case of “aspiring to a level” that other neighbors have attained.
Ukraine, once the second-largest state in the Soviet Union, was the foundation of what became the Russian and then the Soviet empire. It was also the cradle of the Eastern Orthodox religion. Yet now the rhetoric of the opposition is strongly anti-Russian.
Addressing 200,000 Ukrainians who turned up on Sunday in Kiev, the former interior minister, now an opposition politician, Yuriy Lutsenko, said that this was “an anti-colonial revolution. Above all, Ukrainians have turned out to say to Moscow: ‘We are no longer under your command, we are an independent country.'”
In Moscow, my old friend Natasha is my constant sounding board. For her, a young woman in the last war, hungry and exhausted for most of it, Ukraine isn’t an imperial possession. It is “ours,” in the “one of us” sense. It was greatly strengthened by the experience of World War Two when the country was under occupation — its Jewish communities slaughtered and the rest suffering. For her generation and later ones — certainly President Vladimir Putin’s late 50s/early 60s generation that was raised believing in the Soviet Union — Ukraine was an inalienable part of the Russian-focused world.
I talked via Skype to Sergei Guriev, a prominent liberal Russian economist and the former head of the New Economic School. He left his post and his country for France, fearing that he may suffer arrest and an indefinite jail sentence. I had interviewed him months ago, soon after his exit. He told me then that there was “a banality of evil” about the high officials in Russia, who “just don’t think about what will happen next.”
Guriev’s view is that, in the short term, a continued closeness to Russia would avoid disruption with Ukraine’s biggest customer for industrial output. However, Guriev said in an interview last week, “there’s no way in which Russia benefits Ukraine in the longer term.” The Russian economy, he said, “is stagnating. It’s hard to agree with Putin when he says that the country has sufficient funds to see it through troubles ahead. It’s enough for now — but it soon runs out of the price for its energy falls.”
Last weekend, demonstrators who remained in the tens of thousands on the “Maidan,” or square, in Kiev were confronted with counter demonstrations from an estimated 15,000 pro-government supporters. They were mostly brought in by trains from the Donbass industrial and mining area in the eastern part of the country, and they mostly dispersed on Sunday evening.
The pro-European protestors were addressed by a gamut of foreign dignitaries, including two contrasting Americans — Sasha Grey, the rock star and former porn actress, and Senator John McCain.
Grey’s tweet — “Stay strong Kiev” — got the Ukrainian twittersphere buzzing, while Senator McCain spoke of “an incredible display of patriotism” among the demonstrators.
It may be, as the Economist wrote last week, that this is the “birth of a nation.” This is the emergence of a country becoming conscious of itself as something other than part of another’s sphere of influence, and choosing a European destiny. Or it may be that the split in the country between the pro-Russians and the pro-Europeans remains too large and deep to remain whole. Either way, the hard power that Russia has reflexively exerted on Ukraine strengthens the belief of many that Ukraine should look west for a less brutal civilization.
For Russia, it is self-defeating to see Ukraine as “ours,” whether with affection or by imperial fiat. Ukraine achieved independence, to be sure, without a struggle or much conviction when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. It may, in a delayed reaction, now be finding a self-definition.
If it is the popular will, Russia must let Ukraine go west, and it should reflect on its own eternal question — “whither Russia”? Might it not, sometime this century, find a shared destiny with Europe where, for two centuries, it has both menaced and helped lift up, and from which it has taken and given so much?
PHOTO: A pro-European integration protester stands on a barricade during a rally in Independence Square in Kiev, December 16, 2013. REUTERS/Marko Djurica