Soft Power

Joseph Nye, professor and former dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, wrote extensively in the early 2000s about “soft power”, the ability of nations and leaders to get their way by being appealing partners. In particular, soft power is distinguished from “hard power”, the use of the coercive force of military might. Nye identified that in a nuclear world, hard power would have its limits, and the use of diplomacy and the management of national image would be vital for leaders to extend influence and get their way.

With the proliferation of atomic weapons and global missiles, the major powers have settled into postures of MAD—mutually assured destruction. The risks of massive destruction were effectively restricted to the major powers and their allies. The only serious exceptions were stray lunatics who could have stolen a weapon or, as we see today, a rogue state like North Korea that gains the capability to create a bomb. As Kissinger has said procrastination was the only overt policy for 20 years. That moment has now arrived on the watch of our most unreliable President ever.

The basic notion of Nye’s formulation of soft power was to provide a usable alternative to hard power to influence the behavior of nations. It was always intended to be used alongside of some combination of economic incentives and disincentives, such as sanctions, but it is more than financial bullying. Soft power takes morality and culture to be central to geopolitics. Nations that view one another as good global citizens are more likely to work together, and any nation seen as a moral authority will wield great soft power over those nations that share its values. As Nye memorably put it, “Seduction is always more effective than coercion”. Soft power is not about creating vassals. It is about creating partners.

The most useful way to think about soft power is to visualize it as hard power’s vivid connected shadow. Demands are not accompanied by saber rattling, but delivered with “delicious chocolates and flowers” and/or disincentives like economic and political sanctions.

One (perhaps facetious) young Foreign Service officer suggested years ago that the Teddy Roosevelt saying, “speak softly, and carry a big stick’” might someday be stood on its head. He quipped that we might one day say, “It is not helpful ever to speak stickily and carry a big soft”. He made a good point, though very few people clearly understood what he meant.

A more modern iteration today might be that “it is always a mistake to speak loudly and only carry a stick of cotton candy”. That is, empty threats are useless, as is soft power alone.

Recognizing that neither candy nor bomb alone is likely to change behavior, but linking them together with practical workable proposals could accommodate the needs and desires of the relevant agents and defuse a problem.

The mystery we are all surrounded by today is what really are the protagonists—Trump and Kim—thinking, doing, saying, and leaving unsaid.

On the face of it, for the US to be squaring off against a country the size and wealth of North Korea is astonishing. North Korea is tiny and weak. North Korea has barely more than 1% of the territory of the US, under 8% of our population, and a per capita GDP of $1,800.

Kim seems to want some combination of the following: respect, security, and a means to keep his people united and supportive of the regime.

Trump and his predecessors have been trying to eliminate the Kim family’s insecure and threatening posture, to keep them from developing atomic weapons and the means to deliver them

Mutually assured destruction obviously means something quite different to Kim than, say, Russia or China, both of which have global stakes at risk. Kim’s concerns are truly local. One could even say they are personal.

Evidently Kim thinks that without his viable weapons of mass destruction, his position and country are constantly at risk from our possible aggression. And he seemingly cannot grasp that we cannot/will not stand quietly by and leave him in control of his lethal power and his threats against us.

In theory at least, the US, with 100% backing from the UN, could do the following:

—praise Kim for his remarkable technology for a small country-why?- to show him we can accept reality.

—suggest to him he would not ever need to threaten us IF he now permanently freezes  and shelves those weapons (as Iran has done) and he receives UN guarantees of North Korea’s independent integrity forever as long as he behaves with a suitable inspection regime,

—at the same time we would withdrew all our military from all of South Korea

—and at the same time both countries, backed and protected by the UN, agreed to respect today’s borders in Korea and –

—also at the same time end all sanctions against North Korea.

The world would breathe easier.

What remains in the way of such a plan today?

—Kim likely would think that he has lost face and would then lose power;

—Trump would believe that his bluster is what had brought Kim to the table, which would warrant praise for him everywhere BUT would put Trump’s Russia problems back on the front pages.

All of the above can be thankfully attributed to Joe Nye’s brilliant ideas of a modified definition of soft power.

The remaining risk today simply may be that some loud mouth idiot could trump it as merely a cotton candy plan!


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