How Putin Stole Our Smartpower

Jun 18, 2014 | Updated Aug 18, 2014

The Cold War's bipolar system taught many lessons on the use of power. Perhaps one of the most important was that the West could not have won the Cold War by a perpetual arms race only, it needed an array of soft power tools as well. The attraction of the western democratic model: soft power tools such as rock music and jazz, language and literature, arts and fashion, were key to fermenting change throughout Eastern Europe and were equally important. These were tools of "mental and emotional attraction (and coercion)." For example, the Marshall Plan was a masterstroke of a genius, understanding the importance of these softer elements of power and of attraction.

In today's complex international system deploying the optimal combination of foreign policy power tools when dealing with major crises is an even more challenging task. During the Cold War, the West had masterfully used all its tools in the power toolbox at its disposal. There was no need to invent theories, it just worked. Unfortunately, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, complacency soon set in. By the time of the Iraq War we seemed to have forgotten the craft of using the complex set of tools. Today, despite the nice declarations to the contrary, this know-how seems pretty much gone in the West.

Not in Russia, it seems.

Who would have thought that it is the hard power driven Vladimir Putin who would demonstrate to the world the use of the whole spectrum of power tools in the 21st century. He learned from his past mistakes, picked up our debate on soft/smart power, and, by the time he decided to invade Ukraine, he knew exactly how to wield the whole set of his tools.

When he surprised the world with an almost perfectly organized Sochi Olympics, he was enticing through attraction and put western leaders and the general public to sleep. Afterwards, he sent his well-trained and equipped little green men to lead the military actions in the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, making sure he also ruled the communication (the narrative), first and foremost, through television. He continues to combine force, overt and covert operations, as well as his soft power tools to make advances.

It's not just about Ukraine. He is using his energy stranglehold on large parts of Europe to divide the continent. He is influencing political movements on the extreme right and the extreme left alike. He is also drip feeding the western public selective and poisonous information obtained from Snowden. While Putin uses the whole spectrum of power tools, he forces us to ask questions about our own poor, soulless, haphazard, and anemic conduct. Why is it that we are so poorly equipped to use the whole set of power tools at our disposal to counter him? The West can do better.

Only countries or groups of countries that possess the full spectrum of power tools, will be able to have global or even regional influence. Call this "spectral power". This concept dissolves the rigid borders between hard and soft power. It allows us to look at the power toolbox as one whole, a linear softening from hard to soft. It also allows states to have a holistic approach. America should not just talk about "smart power," it needs to get strategic again in the combination of all its assets. This is something Europe should keep in mind as well, when contemplating its future foreign policy ambitions.

Understanding the interconnectedness of the elements in our power toolbox, as part of an entity consisting of different types of tools ranging from hard to soft is essential. It will make it easier to assemble the proper "power tool-kit" in the future, better reflecting the complexity of each situation. It will also allow states or groups of states to make better choices for the way they use their resources and make a dynamic approach possible instead of the traditional static one. A better combination of our tools of power will also, no doubt, be economically more beneficial.

All this comes with a warning! The wrong proportions can blow up in your face. The overuse of hard power will eliminate the benefits and the attraction of our soft power. The reverse is true as well (you hear Europe?): too much reliance on soft power, without the ability and the willingness to use hard power, leads to tragedy. (For more information see: Ukraine.)

Hard-powered Vladimir Putin gets it. He did not just listen to the Beatles. He understood the incredible force they unleashed on Soviet society. We are damn lucky no Russian rock band so far (state sponsored, of course) has made the grade.