March 01, 2016
Premium stories from Worldcrunch's own network of multi-lingual journalists in over 30 countries.
With an activist Supreme Court creating a gap between democratic rhetoric and reality in the U.S., and Russia and China eager to flex military muscle, the full-force return to hard power looks bound for dominance.
PARIS — Russia's war in Ukraine rages on, tensions are erupting in the South China Sea and now abortion rights are being stripped away in the U.S.: Looking around the world, we have to ask: what is left of the notion of soft power?
How can we talk about the power to convince when the power to coerce is increasingly the norm? And when there is such a gap between rhetoric and reality in the U.S. and in Russia and China, hard power almost seems to have become part of soft power?
“We will lead the world not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example,” Joe Biden said the day after his election. But what kind of example was he talking about? That of the Supreme Court’s judges, whose decision promises a terrible future to women and to all those who still wanted to believe in an enlightened and liberal America?
Or the former president who prepared with absolute audacity and cynicism what can only be described as a coup attempt? American democracy was saved by the courage of men and women, most of whom were Republicans, who put their duty and honor before their loyalty to their party: Men and women for whom obedience to the Constitution was a sacred duty, almost religious in nature.
Of course, in terms of hard power, the U.S. remains, by far, the world’s leading military power. Its defense budget is equivalent to the military budgets of the nine countries who spend the most in this area after the U.S. Its economy is still (for how long?) the largest in the world. The U.S. is less the stuff of dreams. What if it was, in its least liberal form, a glimpse of our future? But it still provides food for thought to those who would take the risk to directly attack it.
If America’s soft power is no more what it used to be, its two main rivals, China and Russia, have not benefited from it. Russia has deliberately sacrificed the little soft power it had on the altar of the hardest power there is. And China, whether deliberately or not, seems to be going the same way.
Wealth and economic growth were as much part of China’s soft power than its hard power. Ever since Xi Jinping came to power, this is no longer the case. Chinese leaders seemed to be inspired by the example of Guizot to mobilize their population behind them. “Enrich yourself” was their doctrine. By emphasizing the goal of political control over enrichment internally and the assertion of power externally, China has contributed to the triumphant return of geopolitics and the relative fading of geo-economics.
Everything is happening as if Xi Jinping’s inspiration was Joseph Stalin: the exercise of the most centralized power possible, whatever the cost. Jeopardizing Hong Kong’s financial position or mobilizing with increasingly aggressive politics against Taiwan. The U.S. is in decline, Europe is, at best, chaotic. Russia may be an ally on the verge of weakening in Ukraine, but it is diverting the world's attention from Chinese ambitions.
The U.S. is in decline, Europe is, at best, chaotic.
In this respect, the parallel with the Korean War (1950-1953) is useful, and not only for its temporary conclusion: the division of the country. In the beginning of the Cold War, the USSR used Chinese soldiers to advance its pawns. Today, it is almost the other way around.
Everything is happening as if China was using the Russian army to advance its ambitions. And this at a time when demographers go as far as to say that the Chinese population has already shrunk by nearly 120 million in recent years. Chinese-style state capitalism could work as long as there was a minimum of balance between these two terms. From the moment the state controlled everything, this unlikely model was doomed in the long run by its internal contradictions.
United States President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping
The two leading world powers both seem to be going in the wrong direction, each in their own way. America gives people less reason to dream and China is sacrificing soft power for hard power.
Will it be enough for a new beginning?
In the context of global warming, Washington and Beijing should focus first on their internal problems and contribute together to reinventing multilateralism. This is clearly not the direction China has taken. And one can wonder whether the U.S., as if frozen in ever more radical positions is capable of implementing the objectives pursued by the best among them.
It is likely that the 2024 presidential election will pit two new figures against each other: Trump cannot escape justice nor Biden his age. But will it be enough for a new beginning?
What do all these developments mean for Europe? At a time when Putin seems to be basing his actions on Peter the Great, and when Xi Jinping seems fascinated by Stalin’s personality, do we have any other choice than to keep close to an America that — in spite of its excesses and limitations — essentially shares a common set of values with us?
The declining soft power of the U.S. is not a threat to us, but China and Russia’s hard power is.
Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.
Yet one month on, a quick look at the map shows that many of the worst-hit cities are those where Russian is the predominant language: Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson.
Then there is Mariupol, under siege and symbol of Putin’s cruelty. In the largest city on the Azov Sea, with a population of half a million people, Ukrainians make up slightly less than half of the city's population, and Mariupol's second-largest national ethnicity is Russians. As of 2001, when the last census was conducted, 89.5% of the city's population identified Russian as their mother tongue.
Between 2018 and 2019, I spent several months in Mariupol. It is a rugged but beautiful city dotted with Soviet-era architecture, featuring wide avenues and hillside parks, and an extensive industrial zone stretching along the shoreline. There was a vibrant youth culture and art scene, with students developing projects to turn their city into a regional cultural center with an international photography festival.
There were also many offices of international NGOs and human rights organizations, a consequence of the fact that Mariupol was the last major city before entering the occupied zone of Donbas. Many natives of the contested regions of Luhansk and Donetsk had moved there, taking jobs in restaurants and hospitals. I had fond memories of the welcoming from locals who were quicker to smile than in some other parts of Ukraine. All of this is gone.
Putin is bombing the very people he has claimed to want to rescue.
According to the latest data from the local authorities, 80% of the port city has been destroyed by Russian bombs, artillery fire and missile attacks, with particularly egregious targeting of civilians, including a maternity hospital, a theater where more than 1,000 people had taken shelter and a school where some 400 others were hiding.
The official civilian death toll of Mariupol is estimated at more than 3,000. There are no language or ethnic-based statistics of the victims, but it’s likely the majority were Russian speakers.
So let’s be clear, Putin is bombing the very people he has claimed to want to rescue.
Putin’s Public Enemy No. 1, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, is a mother-tongue Russian speaker who’d made a successful acting and comedy career in Russian-language broadcasting, having extensively toured Russian cities for years.
Rescuers carry a person injured during a shelling by Russian troops of Kharkiv, northeastern Ukraine.
Yes, the official language of Ukraine is Ukrainian, and a 2019 law aimed to ensure that it is used in public discourse, but no one has ever sought to abolish the Russian language in everyday life. In none of the cities that are now being bombed by the Russian army to supposedly liberate them has the Russian language been suppressed or have the Russian-speaking population been discriminated against.
Sociologist Mikhail Mishchenko explains that studies have found that the vast majority of Ukrainians don’t consider language a political issue. For reasons of history, culture and the similarities of the two languages, Ukraine is effectively a bilingual nation.
"The overwhelming majority of the population speaks both languages, Russian and Ukrainian,” Mishchenko explains. “Those who say they understand Russian poorly and have difficulty communicating in it are just over 4% percent. Approximately the same number of people say the same about Ukrainian.”
In general, there is no problem of communication and understanding. Often there will be conversations where one person speaks Ukrainian, and the other responds in Russian. Geographically, the Russian language is more dominant in the eastern and central parts of Ukraine, and Ukrainian in the west.
Like most central Ukrainians I am perfectly bilingual: for me, Ukrainian and Russian are both native languages that I have used since childhood in Kyiv. My generation grew up on Russian rock, post-Soviet cinema, and translations of foreign literature into Russian. I communicate in Russian with my sister, and with my mother and daughter in Ukrainian. I write professionally in three languages: Ukrainian, Russian and English, and can also speak Polish, French, and a bit Japanese. My mother taught me that the more languages I know the more human I am.
At the same time, I am not Russian — nor British or Polish. I am Ukrainian. Ours is a nation with a long history and culture of its own, which has always included a multi-ethnic population: Russians, Belarusians, Moldovans, Crimean Tatars, Bulgarians, Romanians, Hungarians, Poles, Jews, Greeks. We all, they all, have found our place on Ukrainian soil. We speak different languages, pray in different churches, we have different traditions, clothes, and cuisine.
My mother taught me that the more languages I know the more human I am.
Like in other countries, these differences have been the source of conflict in our past. But it is who we are and will always be, and real progress has been made over the past three decades to embrace our multitudes. Our Jewish, Russian-speaking president is the most visible proof of that — and is in fact part of what our soldiers are fighting for.
Many in Moscow were convinced that Russian troops would be welcomed in Ukraine as liberating heroes by Russian speakers. Instead, young soldiers are forced to shoot at people who scream in their native language.
Starving people ina street of Kharkiv in 1933, during the famine
Putin has tried to rally the troops by warning that in Ukraine a “genocide” of ethnic Russians is being carried out by a government that must be “de-nazified.”
These are, of course, words with specific definitions that carry the full weight of history. The Ukrainian people know what genocide is not from books. In my hometown of Kyiv, German soldiers massacred Jews en masse. My grandfather survived the Buchenwald concentration camp, liberated by the U.S. army. My great-grandmother, who died at the age of 95, survived the 1932-33 famine when the Red Army carried out the genocide of the Ukrainian middle class, and her sister disappeared in the camps of Siberia, convicted for defying rationing to try to feed her children during the famine.
On Tuesday, came a notable report of one of the latest civilian deaths in the besieged Russian-speaking city of Kharkiv: a 96-year-old had been killed when shelling hit his apartment building. The victim’s name was Boris Romanchenko; he had survived Buchenwald and two other Nazi concentration camps during World War II. As President Zelensky noted: Hitler didn’t manage to kill him, but Putin did.
Genocide has returned to Ukraine, from Kharkiv to Kherson to Mariupol, as Vladimir Putin had warned. But it is his own genocide against the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine.