Essays On War

Lyubko Deresh. The Gentle Power of Ukraine

The Gentle Power of Ukraine

In international relations, there are several ideas about the power of influence. Hard and straightforward brute force (i.e., hard power) associated with coercion and various forms of pressure is not the only and far from the most intelligent way of interaction. Back in the 1940s, the political scientist Joseph Nye contrasted the concept of soft power, which can act by influencing human desires, to brute power. Laozi aptly described the idea of soft power: „Water is gentle and pliable. But it sharpens and destroys hard. In overcoming hard power, there is no equal to it. Soft and gentle overcomes hard and rough. But only the wise understand what the point of distinction is.“ After all, no one who at least once in his life held an iPhone in his hands or walked around some European capital does not need to be explained how soft power works.

However, along with soft power, researchers have recently begun to single out another type of international influence, which is sharp power.

Proponents of sharp power are akin to weak-minded Jedi who succumbed to the Dark Side of the Force. Sharp power is soft power in the hands of authoritarian governments that try to show the whole world how good life is in their non-democratic countries, even if the facts indicate otherwise. China, Iran, and also Russia are the leaders of modern sharp power, and Russian aggression (military, political, and informational) against Ukraine, starting in 2014, has already become a kind of encyclopedia of sharp power. Using religious institutions to achieve political goals, rewriting history, creating a „parallel reality“ with the help of television, „trash“ sites, and bot armies–all this is sharp power, the essence of which is informational aggression under the guise of promoting „cultural and ideological diversity.“

It appears to me that besides the previously mentioned three forces of influence, there is another that deserves special attention. The invasion of Ukraine and subsequent Ukrainian resistance sparked a reawakening of the West’s recognition of the power of ethical influence, which can be referred to as „gentle power.“

Gentle power is the ability to influence others with your moral arguments. Gentle power comes to the one who has paid the right price for his right to appeal to moral values and not seem like a demagogue and a hypocrite. From the first days of the full-scale invasion, Ukraine began to appeal to the morality of the West, and its arguments were heard because Ukraine paid for them with death and blood. Gentle power is inconspicuous, but it comes at a high price. Instead, the breadth of its influence exceeds not only brute force but also soft and sharp power combined. Ukrainian gentle power is doing to the West what no other power has been able to do: it is bringing it back to life.

This force can be called gentle because it engages the mechanisms of empathy in a person, with the help of which ethical values and moral reasoning enter the interlocutor not only on a rational but an emotional level. Gentle force appeals to what Immanuel Kant called the categorical imperative, the fundamental emotional and intellectual experience of truth, goodness, and justice. Having met a carrier of soft power, another person or society adopts the moral values embodied by them, just as a certain society can adopt certain cultural norms due to the influence of soft power. We can say that gentle power is the power of ethics, which is transmitted literally from heart to heart.

For example, when the whole world saw how courageously Ukrainians stand against a larger aggressor and how they consistently and firmly defend their relatives, homes, pets, and right to exist, the rhetoric of many Western political scientists underwent fundamental changes. In the first weeks of the spring of 2022, dozens, if not hundreds, of articles appeared in major international publications devoted to the moral component of the Russian-Ukrainian war. The Western world began to wake up from a long moral slumber and realize that supporting Ukrainians is a matter of its interests and values. Dignity, freedom, and the right to self-determination are the foundations of the Western world. If they do not support Ukraine now, the West may cease to exist–not in the military or political but moral sense.

This is how gentle power works. It appeals to the deep foundations of your existence, and you are forced to restore the already lost connection within yourself, your conscience, your soul, and your heart. The heart and soul–the emotional basis of our inner self–can feel completely different from what the practical mind dictates.

Therefore, it is unsurprising that the awakening of conscience is sometimes unpleasant. After President Volodymyr Zelensky’s speech to the Bundestag in March 2022, German philosopher Jürgen Habermas called his plea to help Ukraine „moral blackmail.“ Such a feeling of „blackmail“ can arise only when our intellectual and pragmatic constructions take us too far from a value-based inner existence (whether we recognize it in ourselves or not). This is gentle power. It brings you back to being, to reality, to the origins of your own self.

Gentle power differs from soft power because the latter works more in the sphere of desires, while soft power works in the sphere of values and duty. Both powers are invisible, but soft power is more about consuming products, services, institutions, and culture, while soft power is about giving, serving, and contributing.

Perhaps the most important feature of gentle power is that it comes to those who surrender to it, and opens up the more we open up to it. He who is immoral has no power to call for the morality of another. But someone who made a certain sacrifice in the name of common values suddenly acquires a special charisma to which millions obey. I think that since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, gentle strength has been gained by self-sacrifice not only by the Ukrainian military (how deeply their words sometimes penetrate!) but also by many Ukrainian political and public leaders: volunteers, journalists, writers, and so on. Today, their voices are heard in different parts of the world.

Gentle power is shaky and easy to lose. It is worth taking a step aside, succumbing to temptation, and using it for one’s benefit, as immediately the magical effect of the ringing, stretched string of ethos disappears, empathetic mechanisms are turned off, and words about morality, which were just filled with this power, turn into an empty sound.

One of the key challenges today for Ukrainians themselves is to preserve and deepen their international leadership in the field of gentle power, not to waste the already acquired capital of gentle power on petty squabbles within the country. A gentle force is on the side of the one who thinks not about his particular interests, but about the common good.

By promoting a moral, value-based approach in international relations and the future, Ukraine has every chance to breathe new life into Western civilization and lay the foundations for a fairer way of life after the war, both in Europe and the whole world.


Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan