Soft power, scale and wishful thinking

Notes from the Western Periphery

SOFT AMBITION ‘Global Ireland’ is the Government’s strategic initiative to double the scope and impact of Ireland’s global footprint by 2025.

Ireland’s nuanced presence on the world stage

When the Russian navy proposed to conduct exercises 240 kilometres off the south-west coast, the child in me wished these exercises were much closer so we could get a good look at the Russian warships. I remember gazing down from Howth Head at the massive aircraft carrier USS John F Kennedy when it visited us in June, 1996. Fighter jets; 80,000 tonnes; 5,000 sailors. Awesome!
While the Russians (for reasons known only to themselves) have abandoned plans for military exercises within Ireland’s exclusive economic zone, the diplomatic efforts of Minister Simon Coveney and the Cork fishermen carried more than a whiff of David versus Goliath. Even if disrespectful, I found it hard to keep the image of Peter Sellers in ‘The Mouse That Roared’ out of my mind.
The affair has now turned the spotlight on the under-capacity the Irish defence forces.

Unarmed neutrality
Six EU member states are not in NATO: Austria, Cyprus, Finland, Ireland, Malta and Sweden. Sweden’s neutrality is of the ‘armed’ variety. When I visited that country in the late 1960s, my Swedish colleagues delighted in pointing out sections of motorways that were straight, wide and long. These were emergency runways where the Swedish Saab and Gripen fighter-bombers could operate. Military service was compulsory.
Irish neutrality, on the other hand, is of the ‘unarmed’ variety. Our armed forces are very professional and serve the UN with great distinction overseas in the world’s trouble spots. But they are small in scale and very lightly equipped. In 2020, we allocated 0.27 percent of GDP to funding the defence forces. The EU on average, and Sweden in particular, spends 1.2 percent of GDP, some five times more than Ireland.
We have only one physical land border with another state, and it would be difficult to imagine that state today massing its troops and tanks along it, poised to invade. Boris Johnson may be a dreadful Prime Minister, who dreamed of being king of the world as a child, but he is not Vladimir Putin! This is very reassuring, but spare a thought for the Baltic States, Poland and Ukraine.

Delightfully vague
Faced with no imminent threat, our substitute for ‘hard’ power is a belief in ‘soft’ power. The official statement is contained in ‘Global Ireland: Ireland’s Global Footprint to 2025’ as follows:
“While we are small in scale, our engagement in Europe and on the wider international stage means that we can truly be considered an island at the centre of the world. To fulfil that ambition we need to greatly increase our international presence.”
To be critical of this approach seems churlish. What’s wrong with striving to ‘punch above our weight’? Economists, political scientists and business people love it. But economics and political science, notorious for claims to great wisdom and insights, have a long record of failures. Think of the unpredicted 2008 recession. Think of the mistaken claim to eternal dominance of market forces in Francis Fukuama’s ‘The End of History’. Think of the banking crisis.
Soft power is a delightfully vague concept that can mean anything you desire. Samuel Huntington (author of ‘The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order’) sees soft power merely as a tailwind that follows directly in the wake of hard power.
Joseph Nye (‘Soft Power’) proposes a more beguiling version of this, yet his non-state actors (Hollywood, Microsoft, etc) owe their existence and prominence to the hard power of the US. Fears generated in the US and Europe by the rise of alternative global hard powers, China and Russia, demonstrate the kind of power that really matters.

Exploring visibility
But nestling within the term ‘soft power’ is a truth struggling to get out. When a state like Ireland claims to have ‘soft power’, what we mean is that other nations notice Ireland more than its tiny size and absence of any vestige of hard power could account for. Such notice is good and facilitates our interactions with the world.
A much deeper exploration is needed of the factors that give Ireland visibility on the world stage. The official government approach is self-serving and mercantile. It stays away from probing into the cultural consequences for us today of centuries of colonisation by Britain, emerging in 1922 with a post-independence economy that was both trashed and weakened by partition.
What could be more interesting to the colonial victims of Europe’s savage 19th-century empires than the experiences of the first victim to break free? Or more interesting than the adoption in Ireland of the coloniser’s language, which gave our writers a global stage and the benefits of two interacting cultures.
Even our national failures are interesting. They include the many spectacular economic own goals of the years since independence, but each failure was followed by fessing up, taking strong medicine and no street riots. The world likes countries who admit their errors, pay their debts and claw back.
By all means open up new Irish embassies abroad. But our huge diaspora, which has no vote in Irish elections, retain a love of country that is deeply embedded in history and personal lived experience. Not in economics, political science or as articulated in government policy.

‘Global Ireland: Ireland’s Global Footprint to 2025’ was launched by the Fine Gael government in 2018, and is available at

John Bradley was a professor at the ESRI and has published on the island economy of Ireland, EU development policy, industrial strategy and economic modelling.