The soft power game

Europe's issues may be sapping the region of its influential power.

European Union leaders Sarkozy, Merkel 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Thierry Roge)
European Union leaders Sarkozy, Merkel 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Thierry Roge)
The European debt crisis has depressed markets and preoccupied statesmen both within Europe and outside the continent. In an effort to staunch the financial hemorrhage while minimizing commitments in the overstretched European Union, Brussels has tried to peddle its debt to China, the Gulf States, Russia, Norway, Brazil and whoever. The results of these feelers are as yet inconclusive.
What is conclusive is Europe’s shrinking ability to influence others via its soft power [power based on indirect influences, such as culture, values and ideology]. As countries that do not particularly cherish democratic values or claim to have an authoritarian model more attuned to their circumstances and “values” became wealthy, Europe’s ability to throw around its soft power diminished.
Furthermore, less endowed regimes now have alternative sources to turn to if they find the price of European favor prohibitive.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s compliant judicial system recently imposed a seven-year sentence on opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, which will effectively sideline the braided-hair firebrand from contesting the next elections. The Ukrainian court did so despite warnings from Brussels. In light of this rebuff, the European Union canceled Yanukovych’s trip to Brussels for talks on a EU association agreement until the circumstances are more propitious. Within a week Yanukovych had signed on to Russia’s free trade zone with a reassurance from President Dimitry Medvedev that the Kremlin considered the Tymoshenko affair an internal Ukrainian matter.
Europe’s cash problems mean that we may be approaching a reversal of roles in the soft power game. Instead of Europe tugging on the soft power leash to restrain nasty regimes, Europe itself may be on the receiving end of soft power pressures. Francois Hollande, the Socialist Party candidate in France’s 2012 presidential elections, criticized his likely opponent incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy for soliciting Chinese assistance. He called it a sign of weakness and warned that it would carry a price.
As US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton once put it in reference to China: “How do you deal toughly with your banker?” One can see the deterioration in the European position by appraising the EUʼs role in negotiations between Russia and Georgia over Russiaʼs admission to the World Trade Organization (Russia may join the WTO this year, bringing to a close an 18-year accession process). Georgia was attempting to use its veto to push Russian military forces out of the Abkhazia and South Ossetia breakaway regions whose independence has been recognized by Moscow, perhaps in a justified tit-for-tat for Western recognition of Kosovo.
When Russia and Georgia went to war in August 2008, Sarkozy, then the rotating chairman of the EU , mediated between the sides, believing that Russia was obligated to withdraw military forces from South Ossetia. When Russia did nothing of the kind, Sarkozy warned Russia of “serious consequences” but Vladimir Putin, Russia’s real ruler, didn’t blink. As a consolation prize Sarkozy went to Tbilisi in October 2008 and told the cheering Georgians about France’s support for “the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity” of Georgia.
That was then. Currently the EU has persuaded itself that Russian membership in the WTO would do the economically beleaguered continent a world of good. Once Russia obligated itself to the rules of fair play and transparency, mandated by membership in the WTO, trade would blossom and jobs within the EU would be created (although similar expectations did not materialize when China joined the WTO). Prime Minister Putin told the EU recently that Russia was indifferent about joining the organization, but if it meant something to the EU they would have to sort out the issue of Georgia.
EU Foreign Affairs Minister Catherine Ashton dispatched her top diplomat for Russia and Central Asia, Gunnar Wiegand, to Tbilisi.
According to the “Wall Street Journal,” the EU official warned that if Georgia did not change its position on Russia, the EU would change the WTO rules and demand Russia’s admission by a simple majority.
Georgia folded under this pressure, although it essentially fought for a position that the pre-crisis EU had concurred with.
Israel should be observing the European climb-down with interest and draw its own conclusions. The European component in the Middle East quartet is no more trustworthy than the UN or the Russians.
What currently interests someone like Sarkozy is fiscal solvency and if he has to secure it with a French vote to accept “Palestine” into UNESCO, he will do so despite pretensions of friendship for Israel.
It would be illusory to count on Europe to ramp up sanctions against Iran minus a credible Israeli threat of preemptive war.
Similarly, the threat of Israeli countermeasures in the event of a Palestinian unilateral declaration of independence will cut more weight in European capitals than an appeal to fairness.
Precisely because Europe has wavered in dealing with countries holding energy and financial high cards, Israel may be in for renewed pressure from the likes of Ashton. When all else fails, leaning on Israel shows that the voice of Europe still counts for something.