Eclipse of the West’s soft power?


While the resurgent authoritarians of Russia and China are investing in the expansion of soft power, that of the Western democracies is dwindling, analysts suggest.

The European Union’s approach to the Western Balkans* is a case in point, demonstrating how the Union risks aligning itself with increasingly illiberal and authoritarian regimes, argues analyst Arlind Puka. The EU’s soft power capabilities are weakening for a number of reasons, Puka writes….

….including institutional confusion, Brexit, the Refugee crisis, terrorism, the rise of populism, resistance among member states to further enlargement given the Union’s economic problems. There has also been disappointment with the performance of recent members Romania and Bulgaria, as well as with older states such as Greece, Italy and Spain, which are encumbered by massive sovereign debts, and the unfulfilled commitments of several Western Balkan aspirants in their quest for EU accession. Given this situation, political developments in the Western Balkans that have a direct impact on regional security must be closely monitored. 

“Those who speak of the imminent decline of the West often view it through the lens of the growing power of Asia, or in terms of the US’s declining competitiveness against new superpowers such as China and India. Yet the more immediate challenge is its internal fragmentation in the face of these pressures,” argues John Bew, a professor of history at King’s College London.

“Having enjoyed a preponderance of force and wealth, Western democracies have failed to grasp the changing nature of power in international affairs. Since 1989, from a position of strength, the West has evangelized about its capacity for ‘soft power’, even attempting to quantify it as some sort of saleable commodity,” he writes for The New Statesman.

Many of the assumptions underpinning the post-1945 international system have been challenged in Western states by populations which reject the world-view that they imply, adds Bew, author of Realpolitik: A History:

And they are fraying under the pressure of what the writer Pankaj Mishra, borrowing from Friedrich Nietzsche, calls the politics of ressentiment. Until a successor vision emerges for the management of global affairs, one that has a broad domestic consensus behind it, it will be our fate to deal with the moving parts – the changing alliances, porous borders and emerging threats – as they collide and splinter.

Soft power is a perishable commodity and sudden shifts in foreign policy, perhaps prompted by populist domestic pressures, can quickly erode democracies’ moral authority, experts suggest.

“You don’t want to tear up 70 years of foreign policy until you think hard about what replaces it,” said Joseph Nye, a Harvard professor who served as the head of the National Intelligence Council and has written extensively on how the United States can gain leverage from its “soft power” — the attractiveness of its culture and democracy.

The soft power accumulated over decades can drain to nothing in a matter of minutes, FT commentator Philip Stephens recently observed.

Similarly, insofar as Brexit represents an illiberal turn in the UK and “the more alien the British appear to other Europeans, and the more their soft power erodes,” Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform argued last week.

Underpinning all of this is a loss of confidence in the merits of “Western civilization” that would have seemed odd to our forebears in 1945, Bew adds:

It is too easily forgotten that the vision of liberal internationalism was Western in inception, and it was based on a belief in the legitimacy and superiority of the Western way of government. Although imperfections were admitted, the organising philosophy was to apply these goods – such as the rule of law and the principle of self-determination – on an international scale.

*Decades of international presence and investment in promoting stability and progress in the Western Balkans seem to have paid some dividends. But the full democratic consolidation of most former Yugoslav countries seems like an elusive goal. Political institutions remain weak and dominated by nationalist and populist strongmen who are polarizing societies. Endemic corruption, captured media, and public frustration plague transitions across the region.

The International Forum for Democratic Studies and the Europe Program at the National Endowment for Democracy invite you to a discussion on

“Stability and Progress in the Western Balkans:

Threats, Predictions, Solutions”


Andrej Nosov

Director, Heartefact Fund

Reagan-Fascell Fellow, National Endowment for Democracy

Goran Miletić

Program Director for the Western Balkans, Civil Rights Defenders

Jasmin Mujanović

Policy Consultant, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung – Dialogue Southeast Europe

Sandra Orlović

former Executive Director, Humanitarian Law Center

with introductory remarks by

 Carl Gershman

President, National Endowment for Democracy

moderated by

Ivana Cvetković Bajrović

Senior Program Officer, National Endowment for Democracy

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

10:00 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.

(lunch served directly following the presentation)

1025 F Street NW, Suite 800, Washington, DC 20004



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