Analysis & Opinions - Project Syndicate

Soft Power After Ukraine

| May 03, 2022

While hard military power will decide the outcome of Russia's war in Ukraine, the power of values, persuasion, and attraction are hardly irrelevant. Though soft power tends to operate more subtly and over a longer time horizon, it has nonetheless emerged as a key feature of Ukraine's defense.

As Russian missiles pound Ukrainian cities, and as Ukrainians fight to defend their country, some avowed realists might say, "So much for soft power." But such a response betrays a shallow analysis. Power is the ability to affect others to get the outcomes you want. A smart realist understands that you can do this in three ways: by coercion, by payment, or by attraction — in other words, the proverbial "sticks, carrots, and honey."

In the short run, sticks are more effective than honey, and hard power trumps soft power. If I want to steal your money using hard power, I can threaten to shoot you and take your wallet. It does not matter what you think, and I get your money right away. To take your money using soft power, I would need to persuade you to give me your money. That takes time, and it does not always work. Everything depends on what you think. But if I can attract you, soft power may prove a far less costly way to get your money. In the long term, honey sometimes trumps sticks.

Likewise, in international politics, the effects of soft power tend to be slow and indirect. We can see the effects of bombs and bullets right away, whereas the attraction of values and culture may be visible only in the long run. But to ignore or neglect these effects would be a serious mistake. Smart political leaders have long understood that values can create power. If I can get you to want what I want, I will not have to force you to do what you do not want to do. If a country represents values that others find attractive, it can economize on the use of sticks and carrots.

The war in Ukraine is bearing out these lessons. The short-run battle has of course been dominated by hard military power. Russian troops swept into the country from Belarus in the north and from Crimea in the south. Ukraine's ability to protect its capital, Kyiv, and to thwart the invasion from the north was determined by its military effectiveness and by the invader's mistakes.

Russia is now seeking to take Ukraine’s south and east, and it remains to be seen how events will play out in this phase of the war. In the near term, the outcome will be determined by military force — including the equipment being supplied by the United States and other NATO countries — and by the exercise of hard, coercive economic power. While threats of trade and financial sanctions did not dissuade President Vladimir Putin from launching his military invasion, the sanctions that have been imposed have had a damaging impact on the Russian economy, and the threat of secondary sanctions has deterred countries like China from assisting Russia militarily....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Nye, Joseph S. Jr.“Soft Power After Ukraine.” Project Syndicate, May 3, 2022.