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Is there a European soft power?

Yudhishthir Raj Isar, from The American University of Paris, tells us about the European soft power.
Yes, definitely. I wouldn’t say a European soft power, because if you think back to my previous point, there are soft power resources, there are soft power assets, but the actual acquisition of soft power requires an active strategy. And for the moment, we don’t know whether there will or will not be an active strategy. But as far as the soft power capability is concerned, the asset is concerned, yeah, Europe has multiple assets. Since we’re talking about cultural diplomacy, let’s start with the cultural assets in terms of arts and heritage. And as we know, the wealth of European arts and heritage– living contemporary art, ideas in different streams of intellectual and artistic life– those are very strong.
And certainly, the vastness and the magnificence of the European heritage in terms of material as well as intangible heritage of ideas, those are also very strong. And of course, as we all know, these are all the work of people who now live in nation states, the nation state which is an institution that we are all constrained by and bound within. We are all practitioners of what Michael Billig called banal nationalism. That’s the way we think and that’s the way we are in the world, in nations. But nations are relatively new. And the reason I’m referring to nations as being relatively new is that even newer is this community of nations, this union of nations that is the European Union.
And so when I talked a second ago about the richness of the cultural offer, there’s a little bit of an aporia there, because it’s cultural offer of many different national communities. And the big challenge for the European Union– and this is one of the issues that the European Commission has been grappling with and that various people have been thinking about in Europe for a while– is how do we present a common face? That all of this cultural variety is there, but how do we bring all that together into one single envelope, into one single showcase, and say, we are showcasing the multiplicity, the diversity of Europe.
And that point of bringing together and showcasing a unity as opposed to just a diversity is the second soft power asset, it seems to me, which is the very success of the European project, although that success looks as if it’s a little threatened these days. But it’s been threatened over the decades so many different times, so I think it’s worth keeping an optimistic rather than a pessimistic view. But the very fact of the European project is an example to people in the rest of the world and can be considered a soft power asset.
And part of that appeal of this community of nations is the fact that it is certainly an actor endowed with considerable resources of hard power– not military, but economic. Yet at the same time, the way it operates in the world and the way it talks in the world makes the EU very different from, let’s say, the United States or China. And that’s why the Belgian political scientist Yves Tiberghien coined a very felicitous term, which was that of Minervian power. Europe is a Minervian actor, referring to Minerva, the goddess of wisdom.
And that’s linked to the idea of Europe as a source of a new set of norms, building on the long tradition of values that are now shared right across the world– Not shared equally or not shared totally, because you would find, let’s say, many people in South Asia who believe wholly in the European version of human rights, democracy, or gender equality. But then you might find a lot of people who don’t believe in those ideas in quite the same way. But that’s a whole other debate. What I’m saying here is that there is a normative strength, a form of normative behaviour, collective normative behaviour, which is a strong asset.
And the last point I’d make, though, is that of these three assets, this last one, Europe as a normative actor, has been considerably dented in the last few years by the fact that right wing sort of fundamentalist regimes– xenophobic regimes, anti-immigrant regimes, illiberal regimes, authoritarian regimes– have come up within the European heartland– in the very country from which I speak to you today, in Italy. So when looked at from the outside, that dimension of European soft power assets is looking a little bruised today.
Because the idea that, well, we can offer you these values that all of us have subscribed to– we’ve sacrificed our national sovereignties, we’ve gotten away from the constraints of the nation states within which we lived for 200, 300, 400 years, and we’re trying a new experiment. And this new experiment is maybe a model for the whole world to follow, or at least for– we know that the United States of America also exists. Maybe one day there will be a United States of Europe. And even if there isn’t a United States of Europe, the European Union is a model because of certain values. And those values are today not being perceived as wholly integral anymore.

Yudhishthir Raj Isar, from The American University of Paris, tells us about the European soft power.

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What do you think are the main sources of the European soft power? Do you think the EU institutions have a role to play to strenghten the worldwide influence of Europe?

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Cultural Diplomacy

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