This year, the Soft Power 30 index, compiled by the Portland consulting group and the University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy, announced that France had ever so politely edged past the United States as the world’s greatest soft power. The news should not have come as a great surprise. The young presidencies of Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron have so far offered a study in jarring contrasts. On the one hand, you have Macron’s linguistic and cultural fluency, which he yoked to his commitment to influence other nations by attraction and persuasion. On the other hand, you have Trump’s evident disdain for rhetorical softness, reflecting his belief that coercion is the most effective form of influence.
Macron’s visit to the United Arab Emirates this week to unveil the Louvre Museum’s first foreign franchise underscored these differences but also, for anyone who closely listened to Macron’s speech and the occasion for it, blurred them. Ostensibly a celebration of France’s soft power, the Louvre Abu Dhabi serves as a powerful symbol of the concept’s ambiguities.
When he arrived in the UAE, shortly after Trump delivered a speech in Seoul that included an open military threat directed at North Korea — “Do not try us” — Macron had a very different message to his hosts: “Do try us, please! Not just our wine and luxuries, but also our culture and the universal and humanist values refracted through it.” As portrayed in Macron’s official speech at the museum’s opening, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, conceived by the celebrated French architect Jean Nouvel — the animating force, as well, behind Paris’s Arab World Institute — has the potential to (softly) change the future history of its host country and the wider region. Implicit was the suggestion that French culture would deserve the glory for any such shift.
France’s motivations in pursuing the project may have been originally more prosaic. When the museum project was first announced in 2007, in the twilight years of the Jacques Chirac presidency, Macron was still working as an obscure state finance inspector. One wonders what, in his professional capacity, he then thought of the agreement’s lucrative financial terms for France. In return for renting the Louvre brand for 30 years, the UAE agreed to pay $525 million. In addition to shouldering the construction costs, the UAE also committed to paying nearly $750 million to the Louvre and affiliated museums for art loans, temporary exhibits, and curatorial tips.
It was an offer that an increasingly cash-strapped Louvre could not refuse. The arrangement became even more compelling when in 2016, the year after a wave of terrorist attacks in Paris, the number of museum visitors dropped by 15 percent, leading to a shortfall of nearly 10 million euros. Nevertheless, many critics decry the cash nexus at the heart of the exchange. Soon after the agreement was signed, more than 5,000 French museum curators and specialists published a manifesto titled “Museums Are Not for Sale,” in which they denounced the “commodification of France’s national patrimony.” With greater urgency, a number of human rights organizations deplored the miserable pay (or complete absence of pay) and shocking conditions under which foreign workers, mostly from South Asia, labored on the construction site. Although Louvre administrators, prodded by revelations in the press, sought to ameliorate the lot of these workers, the impact is unclear. Having barred Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International from entering the UAE, the government has reportedly cracked down on the few activists inside the country.
Given this dark side to the museum’s construction, Macron proved strikingly tone-deaf when, toward the beginning of his speech, he joked: “It is far from obvious for a country like France to part, even as a loan, with some of its most beautiful works. In fact, it’s torture.” Apart from that glitch, Macron spoke eloquently about the museum as an instrument — in fact, as a source — of soft power. By assembling works of art across centuries and continents, he declared, we are reminded that beauty is a universal aspiration and inspiration: “It reveals a special link between all of us … a bridge between continents that some wish to divide.” This bridge, however, is threatened. Macron reminded his hosts that they find themselves “at the heart of geopolitical tensions that are shaking the world … complex challenges that are not just civilizational and religious but also climatic.”
It may well be that Macron’s reference to global warming was aimed at Trump, who was pointedly left off the invitation list of more than 100 heads of state at next month’s climate summit in Paris. No less pointed was Macron’s militant ecumenicism. Affirming “our religions are tied to one another in a fundamental and indelible fashion,” he denounced “those who claim that Islam builds on the destruction of the other monotheistic religions.” France, he announced, would stand fast “in the struggle against all forms of obscurantism.” One need not be a historian to appreciate the deftness of Macron’s tying of France’s intellectual legacy to current events.
Invoking the light reflected off the surrounding desert and sea, and the light refracted through the museum’s sweeping filigreed roof, Macron pivoted to the siècle des Lumières — aka the Age of Enlightenment — and the light of reason. With admirable culot — French for chutzpah — Macron even made a pitch for the teaching of French in Emirati schools by presenting French as the language “not just of reason but also of light.”
Ironically, Macron’s impassioned speech could be interpreted not only as a criticism of the hard power embodied in Trumpian foreign policy but also as a reversion to the way that soft power can aid and abet hard power. This was most obviously revealed in his visit, the following day, to the French naval base in Abu Dhabi. (The base, opened in 2009 and the first one created by a French government in more than 50 years, was the work of the conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was less interested in building museums than military bases.) As a self-described Jovian president, Macron has not been shy in identifying himself with the hard power of the French military. “Our presence — indeed, your presence here,” he reminded the assembled military personnel, “is the sign that France assumes its responsibilities, be it through diplomacy or, when necessary, military action.” With Gaullist flair, Macron declared: “It is the sign that France maintains its place in a volatile world.”
But the relationship between soft and hard power works in other and more insidious ways. In his repeated conjoining of natural light to intellectual light — by suggesting that it was through the light of French architecture and language that the desert light’s brilliance could be fully appreciated — Macron risked slipping into a kind of Orientalism. While Jacques-Louis David’s famous portrait of Napoleon crossing the Alps bestride a white stallion is among the works on loan to the museum, notably absent are the Orientalist works of Eugène Delacroix, canvasses that illustrate the ways in which artists both reflected and stirred popular support for the decidedly hard power of military invasions and occupations. (This includes Delacroix’s most celebrated painting, Liberty Leading the People, his paean to the July Revolution of 1830 that King Louis-Philippe, upon coming to power that year, wisely hid from public view.)
Ultimately, soft power is a tool. The creation of civil society, state actors can — and do — put it to tactical uses we would recognize as ethical. But soft power is not a normative concept, and it is something that is wielded by bad actors. Robert Nye, who coined the term more than a quarter century ago, has noted that this ambiguity has been exemplified by al Qaeda and the Islamic State’s abuse of Islam. But this is also the case of other ethno-nationalist movements, be it the weaponization of Joan of Arc by the National Front or the “lost cause” by American white supremacists.
In the end, Macron’s speech asked us to look to the better angels of soft power, in its insistence on what the West and East hold in common, his invocation of the cultural and religious ties that bind and not divide, and his iteration of the revolutionary values of fraternity and equality (liberty, admittedly, took a back seat). At the very least, he guaranteed France’s place at the head of the Soft Power 30 index. Whether he also guaranteed the resilience of unadulterated soft power in an age of rising ethno-nationalism might not be known before the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s renewal of its 30-year lease of the Louvre brand falls due.
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