Brendan McKee discuses the decline of soft power policy against the rise of Nativism and what the consequences for democracy could be in decades to come.
Discussions regarding Brexit or Trump almost always focus in on the damage that they can or have caused to their respective states. This is not without good reason as poorly conceived policies and as inflammatory rhetoric can undoubtedly cause irreparable economic damage and polarize political environments, respectively. However, though this is certainly an important discussion, it remains only half the picture. This is merely the internal dimension of the damage caused by the entrance of unabashed nativism into mainstream politics. Indeed, the far more dangerous side to this may be the international dimension of these sorts of nativist policies, policies like Trump’s ‘America First’ ideology that has seen the US withdraw from numerous international agreements and arguably relinquish its leadership role on the global stage. This is what I want to talk about, however first we need to talk about what precisely is at stake.
Soft Power Politics
Conventional perspectives on international relations are founded upon the use of two foreign policy tools: incentives, such as admission into economic clubs or trade deals, and punishments, such as sanctions or military interventions. The carrot and the stick. However, state interactions are not purely limited to these two ‘hard power’ realms, and indeed these categories may actually represent the junior category to something greater: soft power. Soft power is basically an umbrella term used to describe those interactions between states that rely on factors that fall outside of the traditional ‘carrot and stick’ approaches. This may make it sound rather ethereal, but it is in reality one of the most potent forces on the international stage. Much of soft power is determined by how a state is internationally perceived, which is important as it is primarily through soft power that states have extended their power, influence, and hegemony through history. For an example, consider how Canada has historically maintained an international reputation of being polite, communicative, and human-rights oriented. When Canada enters diplomatic negotiations it is entering with this reputation as well, something which will obviously be more beneficial for Canada than if it had a reputation for being abrasive and intolerant in its foreign relations.
This was precisely Canada’s foreign policy strategy during the Cold War, where Canada acted as the ‘reasonable friend’ to the US thereby allowing states with a poor relationship with America, such as Cuba, in avenue by which they could interact with NATO-aligned powers. This thereby extended Canadian foreign policy and power without the need of the stick or the carrot. Of course soft power has historically not always been so benign, it is after all through soft power than many of the great empires of history were maintained — powers like Rome, China, and Britain cultivated a reputation of invincibility and supremacy to maintain their massive empires without having to continuously subdue their imperial holdings. It has even allowed hegemonic entities to annex territory without a fight, purely on the basis of soft power alone. Soft power can therefore be thought of as the key to the foreign policy tool box of any given state, as it has an a priori impact upon international relations. How much carrot or stick is needed will depend on soft power.
Of course, soft power need not always be so direct. Historically, a state that has a strong soft power reserve, much like a product with excellent branding, is frequently going to be imitated. France, for example, long carried a reputation as the premier example of the modern state: centralized, republican, constitutional, and unilingual. As a result, smaller states and developing countries, even those that fell well outside of the French Imperial sphere, found inspiration in the French model and molded their institutions to follow its example. France did not make them do this and it often did not even incentivise this. Rather the reputation of France, that is its soft power, was enough to convince these other states that they ought to be like France if they wanted to reap the rewards of being a modern state. Ultimately this was not done to benefit France but rather to benefit the of the people inhabiting those states, whether it actually benefited the people of those states is a different question, however we obviously cannot ignore the fact that such imitation was also beneficial for France. After all, imitation is the finest form of flattery and such flattery only increased the prestige — and therefore the soft power — of France. This can therefore be seen as an exercise in soft power, one aimed at bringing foreign states into your sphere of influence by projecting to them the idea that you are worth emulating. Though certainly self-interested, such an exertion of soft power is not always purely to the benefit of the state exerting it. The spread of human rights for instance can itself be seen as an exercise of Western, particularly American soft power upon international norms. The end of the conflict in the Balkans was in large part accomplished thanks to the soft power of the EU and Western European states in combination with effective implementation of an irresistible carrot: the promise of future entrance into the EU. When powerful states act in a moral manner, it influences those states that are less powerful to do the same — in effect, the powerful states become trend setters. We can think of this type of soft power as moral leadership and it is this moral leadership perspective that has gained traction as one of the preferred methods of international relations since the end of the Cold War because the Cold War’s great power bipolarity often influenced states to act in pragmatic and self-interested ways, however the collapse of the Soviet Union precipitated the growth of new perspectives on how states ought to interact and a growing focus on human rights.
The Risks of Abandoning Moral Leadership
It is here where we return to the nativist policies mentioned earlier, as they seem to be made without any care for the concepts of soft power or moral leadership. When Trump stokes nativism and advocates for ‘America First’ policies, he rips down America’s credibility as a defender of global human rights. When the UK tears itself apart as it chaotically flings itself towards Brexit, it irreparably damages its reputation as a pragmatic state with a thoughtful political climate. When nativist politics blocks the EU from taking effective action building itself up as a coherent bloc, it makes integration and cooperation seem like a naïve dream. Nativist rhetoric does more than damage the internal discourse of the state, it destroys the soft power of the state. Those in smaller nations and developing states that look and see this sort of chaos may find themselves no longer incentivised towards liberal and democratic models. Sure, Britain, the US, and the EU can continue to fund liberalization and democratization projects, intervene when human rights abuses happen, and use the promise of trade to attract foreign states into their respective spheres, but without a positive reputation — without a strong soft power base — these attempts are far less likely to succeed. After all, what state would want to emulate the chaos of Brexit, the divisiveness of Trump, or the uncertainty of a divided EU? However, it is more than just the shape of future states that is at stake and we would all do well to again remember the role that EU soft power played in ending the conflict in the Balkans. Had that soft power not been there, many more may have died.
We should also remember that the US and the EU are not the only powerful entities smaller states can look to for money and leadership. States such as China and Russia are set to expand their power and influence at the expense of Western political entities, and why should they not? If currently dominant Western political powers are to so readily give up global leadership in the name of turning inwards and ignoring everything outside their borders they are essentially begging another entity to fill the void they have left. Moreover, developing states looking for a model to emulate may see states like China and Russia as stable, powerful, and as legitimate alternatives to liberal and democratic models. What will be the cost of this? Certainly, despite all its flaws, a liberal democracy is superior to an autocracy for the citizen who lives within those regimes. Therefore, if liberal and democratic powers allow their soft power to corrode and give up on their moral leadership then they risk inadvertently reshaping the globe to be a more autocratic place. Even if we do not take such a dire outlook and argue that the persuasiveness of liberal democracy as a model will continue in to the future, we are left with the question of what type of liberal democracy? Is it truly best for the globe if developing states find themselves emulating abusive and/or nativist states? Certainly not.
Reclaiming Moral Leadership
It is for this reason that moral leadership is now more important than ever. This goes beyond simply getting rid of the far right presence that has infected politics, beyond simply ousting the likes of Trump or Johnson, but of rebuilding the reputation of liberal democracy. I should add a caveat here that I am not arguing necessarily that entities which were liberal democracies have historically always been moral, indeed they have conquered continents and killed millions in the quest for power and wealth, however I am instead focusing on certain morally positive ideas such as notions of democracy and liberal freedoms that I believe are universal in their morality and appeal. It means re-evaluating the political decisions that have recently been made to ensure they are moral ones. Of course, this may not be a simple process and may involve a major reshaping of the current political arrangement in many countries as the conflicts we are confronted with may demand major changes. However, it is best to keep in mind that the benefits of making these types of hard decisions are likely to be beneficial in the long run.
Consider Catalonia, whose separatists desire Catalonia to be a liberal democracy within the EU. Even if it means risking the break-up of the Spanish state, is it not better to reward such a goal? And in rewarding it, is the precedent set by Spain in allowing a political discussion on independence not worth the risk of the breakup of the state as it may encourage other states to follow suit? Secession via referendum, a model set by Quebec, has arguably become the norm for secessionists, but it easily could lose this status in favour of a more violent alternative if it is continually rejected by major nations. Similarly, do the benefits of a progressive refugee policy and multicultural doctrine not outweigh any risks that may be associated with them? The soft power of entities like the US and the EU have had undeniably positive long-term impacts on the world, along with negative impacts as well. The danger inherent in nativist politics and the decline in US and EU soft power is the potential long-term decline in free and progressive politics globally. It is therefore imperative that advanced democratic states act proactively to defend their moral leadership and to ensure a positive future.
Politics is not static. It is not enough to merely aim to maintain the status quo. Moral soft power calls for leadership and I hope liberal democracies are up to the challenge.