Europe’s soft-power problem

Although Europe has begun to make up for years of neglect in terms of defence spending, it remains woefully ill-equipped to win over other countries through the power of attraction and persuasion. Each side in the European culture war is uniquely unappealing to billions of people around the world

epa09907999 A man walks next to billboards with posters for French President Emmanuel Macron (C) and previous presidential candidate Marine Le Pen (R), in Paris, France, 25 April 2022. Emmanuel Macron defeated Marine Le Pen in the final round of France’s presidential election on 24 April, with exit polls indicating that Macron led with approximately 58 percent of the vote. Photo: picture alliance/EPA/Mohammed Badra
A man walks next to billboards with posters for French President Emmanuel Macron and presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, in Paris, France, on 25 April 2022, a day after Macron’s win

The Ukraine crisis shows that the European Union has a problem with power. While its hard-power deficit has recently moved to the centre of attention, its philosophical and political shortcomings are an even bigger concern. After all, given Germany’s Zeitenwende (foreign-policy ‘turning point’), Finland’s and Sweden’s debates over NATO membership, and the size of European rearmament spending pledges, Europe likely will have more military resources than anyone other than the United States before too long. But even then, it will have a soft-power problem.

Europe is home to two identity-building projects, both of which are deeply alienating to the rest of the world. Each was represented in the second round of the French presidential election, where the incumbent, Emmanuel Macron, defeated the far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen to secure a second term.

Macron framed the campaign as a choice about what kind of civilisation France – and Europe – wants to be. He portrayed his country as the ultimate embodiment of enlightened civic virtue. For him (and for Europeans like myself), the European project is an elaborate attempt to transcend the continent’s bloody history of nationalism, imperialism, and genocide. The EU is meant to forge a new European identity based on civic principles such as international law (against ‘might makes right’), liberal democracy (against populist majoritarianism), privacy (against ‘surveillance capitalism’), and human rights (against the surveillance state).

This project implies a new kind of patriotism – and, insofar as it has succeeded, it has provoked a counterrevolution from those who believe that globalisation and European integration threaten their wealth, culture, and status. Le Pen presents herself as the tribune of this new-old version of European identity. Describing Macron as a globalist agent of death who will lead France and Europe to cultural suicide, she claims to represent the forgotten farmers and workers whose interests have been sidelined for the benefit of economic elites and refugees.

The structural dynamics of the French electoral system have intensified the dialectical relationship between these two versions of European identity, with the traditional contest between the centre left and the centre right giving way to a showdown between Christian ethnic nationalism and civic internationalist patriotism. But France is hardly alone. One finds similar divisions across Europe. Movements to ‘take back control’ have mobilised voters against the openness and internationalism that underpin the new European identity.

Europe’s internal culture war has undermined its soft power

Europe’s internal culture war has undermined its soft power. The EU would like to think that it is an exponent of democracy, yet many of the world’s largest democracies – Brazil, India, Indonesia, and South Africa – have been reluctant to stand with it on Ukraine. Europe’s warring identities have each contributed to this lack of global appeal.

The problem with the European far right is obvious. Despite her appeals to religion and traditional values, Le Pen’s xenophobia, Islamophobia, and implicit white supremacy have alienated a large share of the global population, not least the world’s 1.9 billion Muslims. What is more surprising is that attempts by internationalists such as Macron to develop a civic identity have sometimes also reduced Europe’s appeal in many parts of the world. His version of Europe supports gender parity, minority rights, and environmental action, but it has also been increasingly willing to subordinate sovereign power to the imperatives of markets and supranational principles and institutions.

These new priorities have naturally been met with charges of hypocrisy. Many European countries that slammed their doors during the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis are now offering a warm, open-ended welcome to the blonde, blue-eyed refugees fleeing from Ukraine. And, as many attendees at this year’s Doha Forum noted, the West’s commitment to the principle of sovereignty in Ukraine rings somewhat hollow after years of Western drones patrolling the skies above Pakistan and Afghanistan. Weren’t these the same countries that changed international borders in Kosovo, overthrew Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya, and invaded Iraq? Moreover, after raping the planet for centuries, Europe has now decided to present itself as a champion of climate-change mitigation and environmental protection.

What is most off-putting is the way that Europeans tend to universalise their own experience, often assuming that what is right for them is right for others (closer to home, an EU enlargement model requiring other countries to adopt an 80,000-page rule book is a case in point). For various historical reasons, most European societies have embraced a balance between majoritarian democracy, minority rights, and private property, and we now take this package of principles as a given. But as the Arab Spring showed, people elsewhere might opt for the right to vote without demanding the full package. Those who rebelled against authoritarian regimes sought to emancipate themselves, not to mimic the West.

As my ECFR colleague Ivan Krastev and I have argued, the world seems to be moving from an era of imperialism to one of decolonisation. In the former, the success of the capitalist economic model and new communication technologies helped spread Western ideas and values worldwide; but now, countries and societies increasingly want to celebrate their own values and culture.

This paradigm shift has profound implications for everyone, but especially for Europe. Powers that want to prosper will need to embrace a ‘sovereignty-friendly’ idea of soft power. Failing that, we Europeans will always be accused of using our norms and standards to defend white privilege. We will remain at odds with the new project of decolonisation, and thus out of step with much of the international community.

This commentary was originally published on 4 May 2022 in Project Syndicate.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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