Obama’s soft power approach will win out in Ukraine

Vladamir Putin. Photo provided by the Russian Presidential Press and Information Office.

Vladimir Putin. Photo provided by the Russian Presidential Press and Information Office.

By Karam Singh Sethi
April 3, 2014

In a carefully worded mass text the New York Times reported Putin’s olive branch phone call to end tension on the Ukraine-Crimea border.  This comes a week after Russia was snubbed from G-8 talks and a few days after an embarrassing Russian Parliament vote.

So…the U.S. won?

Well, there is no military victory on the horizon. Some subscribe to Red Scare hysteria, but Russia is very unlikely to invade Eastern Ukraine. The crisis is based on a battle of old-male-egos. But in the nuanced game of power politics, Obama is likely to emerge the victor.

John Stoessinger, international relations theorist and author of the seminal “The Might of Nations,” believes in two kinds of power: soft and hard.  He defines the former as influence through international prestige. A state acquires prestige by historically abiding by international law, generating successful treaties and concentrating on image. Hard power, on the other hand, is associated with the Realist belief in coercion through military force, economic sanctions and even intimidation.

The Cold War arms race, for example, would be a tangible cost of hard power while Obama’s symbolic visit to Asia represents soft.

Many are ascribing these theories to current events in Eastern Europe. Most believe Putin embodies hard power, for good reason, and Obama, soft. However, the designations are not mutually exclusive.  The U.S. leader has shown willingness to use hard power tactics to influence the outcome of the Ukrainian crisis.  Here are a few examples of how the President has used both kinds of power:

  • Influencing the IMF to take a central role in financially aiding Ukraine (soft power)
  • Using strong rhetoric in Brussels (hard power)
  • Pushing specifically Germany to oust Russia from the G-8 talks (soft power)
  • Forming a new transatlantic trade pact to reduce Russia’s oil monopoly (hard power)

Obama’s choice of power is, in part, an attempt to repair a tarnished reputation of U.S. unilateralism that overwhelms recent memory. By taking a multilateral, diplomatic approach while maintaining resolve for Ukraine sovereignty, he proves the U.S. commitment to the international system, of which the previous president showed little regard.

The Russian leader is in a precarious situation. He must save-face amidst mounting criticism while coming to terms with his limited capabilities. Russia’s major leverage is oil and natural gas, and the world is already looking for alternatives given Russia’s propensity to use energy as a bargaining chip. You might remember when Putin cut off all natural gas exports to Europe in the dead of winter in 2009, causing shortages across the continent — certainly a hard power move.

Instead of trying to fit into the international system and bow to diplomatic measures, Putin hopes to find an answer to the cryptic 21st century “Russian idea,” described by Anton Barbashin and Hannah Thoburn as the notion that Russia could not be “made to fit comfortably into European or Asian boxes,” and must “live by its own uniquely Russian rules and morals.”

Whether or not Obama’s mix of soft and hard power will work is up in the air. Right now, at least, there is no sign that Russia is letting go of its hard power ways in Ukraine, though Putin told German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday that he had ordered a drawdown of troops on the Crimean border.

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Posted by on April 3, 2014. Filed under Military,Recent News,World. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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