Soft Power in Tough Times: The Normative Influence of the EU

Does the EU lag behind its potential? How can the EU become a more powerful actor and what would it use its power for? In this essay, I expand on normative or “soft power,” which is a concept developed by Joseph Nye of Harvard University to describe the ability to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction. A defining feature of soft power is that it is noncoercive; the currency of soft power is culture, political values, and foreign policies.

Leading up to a Summit in Brussels to discuss the Euro crisis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel received applause in the Bundestag after announcing that Europeans “have a historical obligation to protect by all means Europe’s unification process begun by our forefathers after centuries of hatred and blood spill” (Merkel 2011). But while Chancellor Merkel and Europeanists at large may commit wholeheartedly to the prospect of an “ever closer union,” one must be willing to step back and evaluate the capacity for the European Union to achieve its full potential on the global stage. In this essay, I evaluate three contentions regarding the future of the European Union as a viable power player in international relations: whether or not the Union lags behind its potential, how the Union can become a more powerful actor, and what it would use its power for.

For the sake of consistency, I am establishing a framework whereby European power is defined by the ability to influence actions of other nation states and institutions, either by militaristic and/or sociopolitical means. In so doing, I challenge the neorealist perspective that for Europe to bolster the credibility and capabilities needed to address 21st century security challenges, it must be willing to increase, or at the very least reform, its defence sector. On the contrary, an expansion of military engagement would pose a dangerous threat to the civilian soft power that Europe has worked so tirelessly to implement in lieu of traditional hard power. This, in turn, would damage the EU’s effectiveness in ameliorating conflict in the Caucus region, human rights violations in Eurasia, and east African piracy, to name but three examples.

Clearly, a Union established in the aftermath of two devastating world wars illuminates the modern culture of European power strategies. Nearly sixty years of peace on the continent have been no coincidence thanks to the commitment to “negotiation, diplomacy, and commercial ties, on international law over the use of force, on seduction over coercion, on multilateralism over unilateralism” (Kagan 2002: 5). Rejecting the power politics which defined European empires and kingdoms for centuries in favour of multilateral compromise and reliance on normative values such as human rights, democracy and justice has helped Europe transcend into “a quiet superpower,” and the most “ambitious and successful international organization of all time” (Moravcsik 2009: 407). Nevertheless, this perceived lack of harmonised defence objectives leave many wondering if the European Union is failing to meet its potential.

The 20th century contributed to distinct power advantages which, following WWII, led to the first “Superpowers” – the US vis–à–vis the USSR. However, the abrupt collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War did more than bring down the wall in Berlin: the dramatic transition between 1989 and 1991 destroyed the framework which had for so long maintained the bipolar Occidental and Oriental balancing act. Europe is no longer the centre theatre for Soviets and Americans to play out their security dilemma, and the nature of conflict is rapidly evolving. As such, realists posit “without greater military power projection capability, Europe will not be taken seriously in the contemporary world” (Moravcsik 2009: 406). An aging population, stagnating economic growth and perceived inabilities to project force may well prove to be harbingers for the decline of Europe.

However, such pessimistic predictions are easily discredited. While it remains impossible to ascertain at what point Europe will finally realise its full potential – to do so would imply a Fukuyamaesque narrative of finality – it is clear that the EU is making successful and credible commitments to human security. To argue that “Europe has neither the will nor the ability to guard its own paradise” negates the real progress European troops have made (Kagan 2002: 8). With as many as 100,000 EU soldiers stationed in combat roles abroad in the last twenty years, European defence expenditures account for 21 per cent of global defence budgets. Furthermore, with Americans generally reluctant to spearhead joint UN peacebuilding missions, Europeans often assume responsibility in locations “as disparate as Sierra Leone, Lebanon, the Congo, Ivory Coast, Chad and Afghanistan” (Moravcsik 2009: 409). Casting aside neorealist axioms regarding “balance of power,” one can better explain nuances of the EU unique role in terms of a liberal international relations theory. It is because of integration, not in spite of it, that the aegis of European influence is expanding. Cooperative engagement in a global civil society thus seems more possible than ever, as the European Union – despite its limited military capacity when compared to the United States – is allowed the opportunity to develop spheres of influence in its own way.

As preferences converge due to the globalisation of liberal capitalism and the spread of democratic ideology, it is European normative power that must take centre stage. While military operations such as the successful Operation Artemis – the first autonomous EU mission of its kind – are not to be overlooked, the EU is “distinguished from other actors because it is not only a civilian power […] but also a normative, civilizing or ethical power within the international system” (Sjursen 2006: 170-171). Indeed, a Europe that relies too heavily on its military capabilities is unsustainable for several reasons.

The Union is currently too politically fragmented to provide a realistic power balancing alternative to NATO, let alone the United States (Sangiovanni 2003: 200). During a public lecture at LSE’s European Institute, Maurice Fraser suggested that establishing a coalition of the willing between states such as France and the United Kingdom, the two of which account for nearly 50 per cent of European military forces, would strengthen European foreign policy (Fraser 2011). At the instance of conflict requiring quick and militarised action, member states could then decide to “opt in” on operations with or without entire EU agreement.

Such an experiment could endanger the very values upon which the Union was established. Enhanced cooperation with a select few Member States could result in further fragmentation between hawkish, interventionist European powers and those who remain committed to soft power tactics, sustainable peace and long-term structural solutions that militaries are, quite frankly, often unable to address (Manners 2006: 185). In so doing NATO could be weakened, further convoluting appropriate civilian responses to complex humanitarian emergencies (Sangiovanni 2003: 203). This illuminates the fact that while military action is a credible instrument by which Europe can exert influence, it must be wielded only in the most exceptional cases, and only in so far as all Member States can agree.

How then, if not through traditional modes of military capabilities, might Europe hope to become a more powerful actor? By shifting our analysis of EU influence to those of substantive and symbolic norms, it is easy to see that Europe maintains a monopoly on norm diffusion within the international system, thus making it an indispensable agent of change. Norm diffusion occurs in several ways, including strategic communications, institutionalised relationships in organisations such as the WTO, and through cultural filters involving political learning and social identity. Furthermore, the EU often leads by “virtuous example,” thus influencing political actors through contagion (Manners 2002: 244). By utilising its unique position to diffuse norms in the international system, European power can be used to promulgate Union commitments to human dignity and security.

Peace brokering in the Caucus region and de facto eradication of capital punishment throughout Europe are but two examples which validate Union norm diffusion. The first instance is a particularly striking case study when juxtaposed with Balkan conflicts of the early 1990s, which “revealed European military incapacity and political disarray” (Kagan 2002: 2). Following the wars that eventually led to the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the most proximal live security threats for the Union shifted to the Caucasus. During the South Ossetia War of 2008, acting in his role as President of the European Council, French President Nicolas Sarkozy mediated cease fire negotiations between Georgia and Russia (Moravcsik 2009: 416, 410). Overt norm diffusion, that is to say, the physical presence of European Union leadership and active engagement in negotiations, provided a policy-making alternative to military coercion without sacrificing efficacy for power (Manners 2002: 245). While Russia is not formally partnered with the European Union in the latter’s Neighbourhood Policy, it is important not to underestimate the immediate impact of European diplomatic initiatives and interventions.

Norm diffusion also occurs in the realm of human rights and criminal law, the value judgements of which depend on varying societal contexts. By transferring the question of capital punishment from subjective national preferences to one of international norms of human rights, the European Union has been able to “reorder the language of international society through engagement” (Manners 2002: 248). In 1985 only nine of the fifteen Member States had outlawed the death penalty. A decade later, the Treaty of Amsterdam asserted that “the death penalty, the abolition of which is provided for in [Protocol no. 6] is no longer applied in any of the Member States of the Union.” (Manners 2002: 247). With the Declaration of Human Rights in 1998 bolstering the Treaty of Amsterdam and other declaratory measures, the abolition of capital punishment has spread throughout 48 countries, which accounts for every European country excepting only Belarus and Latvia.

As accession into the Union itself is “the single most powerful policy instrument Europe possesses and the most cost-effective instrument for spreading peace and security,” Turkey’s ambitions to one day join the Union have likewise been shaped by norm diffusion (Moravcsik 2009: 410). Aware that human rights violations remain a contentious barrier to entry, in 2001 the Turkish government initiated constitutional reforms “including abolition of the death penalty for civil offences” to signal cohesion with European acquis communautaire (Manners 2002: 250). Furthermore, it is reasonable to expect that neither Russia nor Turkey, in the cases mentioned above, “would be as receptive to norm diffusion if they believed that EU battlegroups or combat forces would soon be peace-making in Kurdish areas or Chechnya” (Manners 2006: 194). With such a binding commitment to legal frameworks and codified international norms of behaviour, Europeans are now better suited than Americans – whose adhesion to the death penalty and perpetuation of the Global War on Terror have in many ways discredited their authority on justice – to speak on greater issues of liberal freedoms.

Commitment to norm diffusion may also solve increasingly complex security challenges, such as piracy off the coast of Somalia. Some theories suggest that European mismanagement of its Common Fisheries Policy has resulted in the overfishing of East African waters, which in turn has contributed to unemployment and high discontent amongst fishermen in the region. Lacking sustainable options to secure a livelihood, the predominantly young, male demographic has in recent years been turning to violent piracy as an alternative. Should the EU move to actively address the systemic causes as opposed to the visceral conditions exacerbated by piracy, a militarised deployment to the Horn of Africa and beyond would prove unnecessary.

The true strength of the European Union therefore lies in its ability to not only reclaim the normative identity of the West, but to strategically reshape the discourse of international relations. The European Union does not lag behind its potential, but instead is perpetuating an integrated system that will withstand the pressures of conflict resolution and policy challenges over time. The Union is best suited to advance its power by norm diffusion as opposed to inflating its defence sector, although smaller-scale peacemaking operations are not to be discredited. Europeans have already seen their power of influence successfully contribute to a cease fire in Georgia, as well as virtually eradicate the death penalty throughout Europe. In terms of future foreign policy, continued emphasis on legal frameworks, to include economic and sociopolitical incentives, might assuage conflicts previously assumed only manageable by traditional projections of military force.

End Word Count : 1969

Works Cited

Eilstrup-Sangiovanni, Mette. 2003. Why a Common Security and Defence Policy is Bad for Europe. Survival 45 (3): 193-206.

Fraser, Maurice. 14 November 2011. “The State of the European Union in November 2011.” Speech presented at the European Institute, The London School of Economics and Political Science. London, United Kingdom.

Kagan, Robert. 2002. Power and Weakness. Policy Review (113): 3-28.
Manners, Ian. 2002. Normative Power Europe: A Contradiction in Terms? Journal of

Common Market Studies 40(2): 235-58.

Manners, Ian. 2006. Normative power Europe reconsidered: Beyond the Crossroads. Journal of European Public Policy (13:2): 182-199

Merkel, Angela. 26 October 2011. Vote on European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF). Speech presented at the Deutscher Bundestag, Berlin, Germany.

Moravcsik, Andrew. 2009. Europe: The quiet superpower. French Politics 7(3/4): 403-422.

Sjursen, Helene. 2006. What Kind of Power? European Foreign Policy in Perspective. Special issue of the Journal of European Public Policy (13/2) 169-181.

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