Soft power

Image source: VCG via Getty Images


We all know that countries aren’t really created equal. Yes, the principle of sovereignty, the practice of diplomacy, and the formats of most international institutions uphold the idea that countries are equal partners and that each one has an equal say in the running of the world. But it shouldn’t be too much of a controversy to state that some countries are more powerful than others. Even the UN recognizes this, with its Security Council that neatly aligns with the victorious powers of World War II.

What makes these countries more powerful than others? Their militaries, of course. Big armies and scary technology have been used throughout history to coerce weaker countries into doing what the strong country wants. When backed up by a smoothly functioning political system and bureaucracy, the power imbalance can be steep. Followers of the “realist” school of international relations say that this hard power is all that really matters: international relations is a contest for supremacy, and barring an unexpected event like a stupid political decision, the strong countries win and boss around everyone else.

This is basically true, but it would be inaccurate to just boil international relations down to that. (Otherwise, small, weak countries would have no chance.) Soft power plays a role as well. This concept, pioneered by the Harvard professor and former American defense official Joseph Nye, emphasizes other aspects of international power: culture, values and foreign policies. They may not make you tremble like nuclear weapons or aircraft carriers do, but subtly and over a long time, they are effective too.

“Liberals” and “constructivists,” the other factions in the academic world of international relations, have always emphasized the importance of values. If a country is seen as sharing your values, you’ll be more likely to ally with them or at least rely on them as a partner. If a country is not seen as sharing your values, the fear and suspicion that underlies much of diplomacy is only increased. Similarly, the way countries behave towards each other influences perceptions, even among bystander countries. A country with a track record of bullying, unpredictability and/or unreliability will find its diplomatic efforts stymied compared to one known for promoting peace, human rights and fair play.

I find culture to be the most fascinating aspect of this, since it’s such a slippery subject — hard to quantify, hard to evaluate, it’s usually overlooked or dismissed as a relevant factor in the cold hard world of international relations. But I think it subtly affects IR too. (This is one reason this blog occasionally covers cultural topics in addition to more newsworthy stuff.) For the most part, countries are drawn to those that share their culture, or have a similar one. History is littered with examples of alliances forged through shared cultural understanding: Imperial Germany’s interests may have lain with an alliance with powerful, influential Russia, but it ended up choosing Austria-Hungary mostly because of a shared Germanic culture and disdain for Russia’s Slavic culture. America and Britain may have important shared interests, but their alliance is cemented by a shared culture, language and history. The Commonwealth, Britain’s post-imperial club, mostly runs on these factors.

In the long run, the sense of a “superior” culture worth emulating accords certain countries a special status and deference from those who might be their equals or superiors politically. For most of ancient history, Greece was a mess politically speaking, but its sophisticated culture earned it a cachet from its neighbors and respect from its stronger adversaries, Persia and Rome. China commanded similar awe and emulation (although in that case it was helped by its size, strength, and resources). In general, religion is a particularly strong glue; the Arabs clashed numerous times with their neighbors, but the wide appeal of Islam and the prevalence of Arabic elevates them above their sometimes chaotic political situation.

The most subtle, underappreciated form of soft power might be plain and simple recognition. Let’s face it: not all countries are equally well-known, either. Guinea-Bissau is not as familiar as Mexico. Mozambique probably sounds like a made-up country to most of the world, but almost everyone has heard of China. Fame gives European countries in particular extra clout; Britain, France and Germany are among the most well-known countries in the world, and it’s very common for members of the global elite to at least visit them. Countries of similar size elsewhere, like the Congo, Iran or the Philippines, don’t get as much attention, which surely has an effect on the way they are treated.

When it comes to which country commands the most soft power, the question is hardly in dispute: America rules the roost. It may be proud of its enormous hard power, but soft power is the other tool in its arsenal. America’s political and economic systems are widely used models. It attracts lots of immigrants, increasingly from all over the world. Its universities are top-of-the-line. The globe is in thrall to American pop culture: look at how familiar American superheroes, American rappers, and American sitcoms are from the rich West to poor Africa. Thanks in part to the prevalence of English, even relatively mundane happenings in America attract international attention. It is true that American foreign policy doesn’t always command respect — George Bush’s cowboy attitude and dumb decision to invade Iraq made it rued around the world, and as Joseph Nye himself points out, America’s current president has done a lot to remind everyone of America’s negative qualities like vanity, ignorance and bullying bluntness. But it is famous, and its values and culture are broadly attractive.

The West in general commands a lot of soft power. Thanks to European imperialism, the world as a whole has been shaped in the Western image, and it would be nearly impossible to teach recent world history without discussing the West in some way. Europe is still the world’s biggest tourist draw. Its lingering historical prestige, combined with its present-day combination of cozy antique villages and a comfortable modern lifestyle sustained by generous welfare, go a long way in masking its long-term decline as an international player. Thanks in no small part to their colonialism, Britain and France are more familiar to many countries than their own neighborhoods. Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and Canada have become immigrant magnets despite their light hard power credentials.

The other soft power titan? Japan. With a constitutional restriction on its hard power projection capability, Japan has pretty much banked on soft power to increase its clout. It has worked very well: Japanese technology is used all over the world, Japanese culture is among the most familiar outside of the West, tourism is booming, and Japanese characters from Pokemon to Gundam are the strongest rivals to America’s pantheon of pop culture icons. Although it is now a bit passe, in previous eras Japan was widely admired for modernizing rapidly along Western models while keeping its culture intact. While all this is important, Japan’s soft power is hobbled somewhat by various, mostly minor issues that regularly appear in the news (suicides, creepy fetishes, overwork, etc.), its hostility to immigrants and foreigners in general, and its terrible reputation among its immediate neighbors.

Probably the most discussed topic in soft power conversations these days — as in so many foreign policy discussions — is China. As mentioned earlier, China has historically been a soft power giant, exporting everything from philosophy to urban planning to its neighbors. But lately, its image has suffered somewhat, aside from die-hard Communists in the Maoist era. It is as often associated with rampant greed and bossing around its neighbors as it is with anything positive. For a long time, China didn’t really care, but beginning in the ’90s Nye’s theory started circulating in Chinese intellectual circles. Eager as always to compete with America and cultivate an image as a peaceful power, China has begun to aggressively promote its soft power. Confucius Institutes all over the world teach Chinese language and handicrafts; Chinese cultural performances are heavily marketed; the Chinese New Year is celebrated overseas; even Confucius (Master Kong), once demonized by the Communists, has been rehabilitated and rebranded as an icon of a gentle, wise China.

These campaigns are only a little over a decade old, so their efficacy is probably too soon to judge. Whatever their merits, China already has a great deal of soft power on account of its fame and attributes like dim sum, taiji, and Jackie Chan. But China’s efforts seem doomed to fail, or at least disappoint, for 2 reasons: 1, they’re state-led, while the vibrancy and appeal of, say, Japan’s pop culture is organic; and 2, it is unclear whether an appreciation for a country’s culture will necessarily lead to an endorsement of that country’s values and foreign policy — which is the point of all of this. Plenty of people enjoy The Big Bang Theory and KFC while railing about American imperialism.

Other countries also wield outsized clout thanks to their soft power. South Korea’s movies, pop groups and TV dramas have won it many fans throughout Asia. India’s movies, religious practices, and — to a lesser extent — music have gone a long way in giving it a more benign image than China and ameliorating negative impressions of India abroad. Even countries like Nigerian and Turkey, who are more often thought of as places to emigrate from, have acquired a bit of a “cool” status thanks to their pop cultures and vibrant societies. These countries would do well to encourage their creative industries to cash in on their burgeoning cachets.

So what, say the realists. Why does any of this matter? At the end of the day, it’s hard power — military might, diplomatic skill, and cold, hard cash — that settles things. Why does it matter that Russia (for example) has a dearth of soft power? If it wants to, it can step in and smoosh its neighbors. Would a fondness for French wine make one less willing to resist a French invasion? Would cute Japanese mascot characters make one more likely to surrender in a trade dispute?

Probably not. Hard power continues to be the most important element of international relations. But I think that in the day-to-day conduct of international affairs, when countries aren’t always at each other’s throats, soft power does play an important role. What academics call “normative biases” do affect thinking and decision-making. Even if governments use a more rational calculus of their interests, their citizens are affected by soft power, and governments usually reflect the popular will. American pop culture saturation makes it hard to conceive of the Philippines actually breaking its alliance with the US. Peaceful images like meditating sadhus and damsels warbling love songs make it hard for anyone but Pakistanis to think of India as a truculent power. Cultural and media exposure have created a bond between North America, South Korea, Japan and Europe that does much to reinforce their formal alliances. And frankly, soft power makes it more likely for people to care about other countries. Sometimes, simple awareness makes a lot of difference.

NOTE: There seems to be some disagreement whether economic power counts as “hard” or “soft.” On one hand, money is definitely powerful, and a state of economic dependence can be as crippling as military occupation. On the other hand, “hardness” is often equated with force or the threat of using force, while money is seen as a way to persuade rather than coerce. The best answer seems to be that it depends on how economic power is used, as this article argues.





It’s that time of year again — the very end, when every media outlet celebrates the New Year with retrospective articles and year summaries. My favorite has always been TIME Magazine’s “Man of the Year” series, which deems a person, group, or (unfortunately) concept the most influential of the year. It’s a fun tradition, although largely dictated by what would look best on TIME‘s cover. I like to make a more reasoned case for my selections and evaluate theirs too.

Let’s look at TIME‘s runners-up first. In general I think they made good choices, although as usual they are overly Americanocentric. Robert Mueller, the former head of America’s Federal Bureau of Investigation and the special prosecutor investigating Donald Trump’s links with Russia, has been lurking in the background for the last half of the year and has charged 2 high-level officials, but I get the feeling that he will be more important next year. Colin Kaepernick shaped the news by protesting police brutality and systemic racism before the (American) football games he played in, and TIME relates how his protest spread to South Africa as well. But Trump played some role in rallying support for Kaepernick’s protest, and I’m not entirely convinced that either the original protest or the backlash against it has actually produced any meaningful, lasting change (a common problem with discussions about racism in America).

Kim Jong-un seems like a natural choice, given that his country, North Korea, has been in the news pretty much all year. Although North Korea has faded in and out of the news for 2 decades at least, it received the most sustained coverage this year, as it not only increased the tempo of its nuclear tests, but finally gained the long-sought capability to lob its nukes at America’s East Coast. This has jangled nerves around the world and led to ever tighter sanctions, even by China, North Korea’s only ally. But he doesn’t quite make my shortlist: as usual for these crises, there is much bluster and talk but little real action or change on the ground. It is entirely possible that Kim just wants to get nukes for his own protection, and the rest of the world will just leave it at that. It’s hard to see how Kim has effected real change.

One of 2017’s ongoing themes has been sexual harassment and assault, especially after the revelation of movie producer Harvey Weinstein’s history of sexual predation in October. The torrent of accusations and revelations is unprecedented, and it’s no surprise that TIME would choose to recognize this. Yet I disagree with its choice to deem victims of sexual harassment who have come forward with their stories (“the Silence Breakers”) as People of the Year. For 1 thing, I dislike TIME‘s occasional trend of giving the honor to nebulous groups rather than a single person. Choosing a journalist who broke the story (like Ronan Farrow, who wrote a lengthy expose in The New Yorker despite much opposition) or a victim (like Ashley Judd, the 1st actress to come forward) would have been better. For another thing, it’s still too soon to tell whether these revelations will have a real impact. The story really only began in October (despite a few earlier scandals involving Fox News) — although I personally suspect that the MeToo movement is too far advanced and women are too fed up with sexual abuse for the proverbial genie to be put back into the bottle. Patty Jenkins, the director of this year’s hit movie Wonder Woman, is an interesting choice, but other movies outgrossed hers, and it seems like she was chosen mostly to continue the feminist theme. (In general, arts and culture is very diffuse and it’s hard to pinpoint 1 figure there to have significant global influence in 1 particular year.)

Now for some submissions of my own:

Qasem Soleimani probably deserves recognition. The head of Iran’s Quds Force, which directs foreign military operations, he is the mastermind behind many of Iran’s maneuverings in West Asia. This year, the Islamic State’s back was finally broken, enabling Syria and Iraq to take back control of their former territory — and for Iran to extend its own influence there. Iranian-backed militias were instrumental in defeating the Islamic State — along with Kurdistan, which doesn’t wield nearly the same kind of geopolitical influence as Iran.

Emmanuel Macron, France’s new president, shaped much of the news in Europe this year. He stood up to both America and Russia (an important aspiration for the French, and some Europeans in general) and carried out important labor reform, always a tricky issue in France and a major stumbling block in economic reform in general. But most importantly, he not only defeated the National Front — apparently putting an end, or at least a long pause, to the xenophobic conservative surge in Europe — but ushered a new political party into power in France, La République En Marche! But it’s also a little early to deem him 1 of the world’s most consequential figures.

And now for my top 3:


This is the most conspicuous omission from TIME‘s list, despite his coming out on top in a reader poll. Saudi Arabia’s new crown prince has been pushing through real change and is making his mark in numerous areas. The most important reform in the long term is a reorientation of the Saudi economy away from its dependence on oil, which is necessary as the oil price falls and global reliance on fossil fuels recedes. He is consolidating power by purging his opponents and older aristocrats resistant to change. He is realigning Saudi society to be more in tune with the younger generation that dominates it demographically, allowing women to drive, concerts to be held, and movies to be screened. He is also making a concerted push to challenge Iran and keep Saudi Arabia ascendant in its region by blockading his recalcitrant neighbor, Qatar, and battering Iran’s proxy militia, the Huthis, in Yemen (at the expense of Yemen itself). His belligerent foreign policy and reckless purge of Saudi Arabia’s elite has attracted a lot of criticism, but Saudi Arabia was long due for a shakeup, and he is providing one.


China’s dictator usually shapes the world as much as anyone else in any given year, and it can be hard to determine when he’s actually the “Man of the Year.” 2017 seems like a good year for Xi. In October, he consolidated his already formidable power at home at the 19th Communist Party Congress, where his failure to designate a successor prompted speculation that he intends to be dictator-for-life. In a 3½-hour speech, he emphasized the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” effectively announcing China’s intent to become the next superpower. China’s military is undergoing rapid modernization and expansion, and a border dispute with India, ongoing island-building and militarization in the South China Sea, and an economic boycott of South Korea has demonstrated to the world China’s newfound strength. But Xi has put a lot of energy into diplomacy too: China’s diplomats are active and numerous at international conferences and forums, Chinese infrastructure plans in Africa and Asia are ambitious and generous, and Xi himself gave a very well-received speech at Davos (where the world’s economic elite gather each January) on free trade and economic openness. In issue after issue — climate change, reining in North Korea, global trade — China is central. And Xi’s personal power is also very significant; he doesn’t act as merely a member of a committee of oligarchs like his predecessors did. No wonder The Economist deemed him “the world’s most powerful man” earlier in the year.

But once again, I wouldn’t say it was Xi Jinping’s year juuuust yet. For 1 thing, the Party Congress was more about putting on a grand show and celebrating the Party’s achievements than an achievement in and of itself. It provided a nice opportunity for the media to talk about China and Xi in particular, but most of what was said there has already been articulated before, and should have been pretty obvious to China-watchers. In addition, the main dynamic feeding China’s rise is really America’s decline, which is abetted by…


I am not surprised TIME did not choose to name Trump Man of the Year again. Besides his public show of disinterest in the honor this year, TIME rarely chooses the same person twice. Trump’s 1st year in office has been shaped mostly by petty quarrels, minor issues and media hype. Some say that he lets Congress or cabinet departments handle the details. Some of his biggest promises, like repealing Obamacare and building a border wall, have gone nowhere. The so-called “alt right” movement that he energized is very minor. The backlash against his presidency is more prominent and will probably propel Democrats into Congress next year. His much yearned-for rapprochement with Russia has stalled, thanks to the ongoing investigation into his campaign’s collusion with it, and instead America is continuing sanctions against it and arming Ukraine. There is a sense, sometimes articulated clearly, that Trump is just a big baby and “underlings” like Rex Tillerson (his foreign minister), James Mattis (his defense minister) and H.R. McMaster (national security advisor) are the “adults” that actually run the show.

But overseas, I think Trump’s influence is more obvious. As I’ve written before, he is withdrawing America from the world stage. His worldview is almost relentlessly negative, pessimistic, cynical and narrow-minded; other countries are seen in terms of what they can offer America and how they can threaten it. Since the world is still partly organized in terms of the American alliance system, this undermines it. Europe in particular is struggling to come to terms with a new America reluctant to support it unconditionally. The American president’s traditional support for democracy, human rights and free trade is gone (unless it suits his purposes). Speeches given by Trump this year at the UN and APEC (an Asian international forum) promoted his “America First” ideology, even though it was designed to appeal to cranky American voters who see the outside world as a problem. International trade architecture in particular is in turmoil because of Trump’s personal interest in the issue and his questioning of all kinds of trading relationships, from China’s to allies’ like Canada’s and Germany’s. Even South Korea has been blindsided with a Trump threat to pull out of its free trade agreement — while he menaces the country by making empty threats at North Korea over Twitter and in his “fire and fury” statement this summer. His hostility to immigrants inspires xenophobic populists in Europe; his hostility to the media validates repressive tactics in dictatorships. The tax reform passed recently starves the American government of much-needed revenue, which will hobble America’s ability to project its power and maintain its competitive edge in the near future. His State Department (foreign ministry) is being gutted of career diplomats. (Admittedly, this is mostly Tillerson’s doing.) In the turbulent politics of West Asia — basically the part of the world America is most concerned about — policy is increasingly in Saudi, Iranian and Russian control. (Admittedly, this began under Obama.)

Some say that Trump is just making foreign policy more realistic and that it’s naive to think of the world in emotional terms like “buddies” and “enemies.” I’m not entirely convinced that the shift in American foreign policy will outlast Trump, or that he’ll be reelected. But in the narrow terms of just this year, he was the primary factor driving global events.


Trump shrug

Image source: RenewAmerica

“New world order” is a phrase mostly associated with the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, when America and the Soviet Union decided to put their differences aside and cooperate rather than constantly menace each other. Together, the 2 superpowers were supposed to police the globe, punishing wrongdoers and promoting open societies and peaceful international relations. When the USSR collapsed, it was America alone who ended up playing this role, facing almost no resistance in its quest to shape the world in its own image and promote its own ideals.

We are once again living through a seismic shift in the world order like the collapse of the Soviet Union. For the most part, American “hyperpower” lent predictability to international affairs. No other country can seriously challenge the US, so none really try to. The benefits of free trade, open borders, democracy, human rights and peaceful diplomacy are obvious, so no one really worked against them. America was reduced to playing a police role, punishing countries like Iraq and Yugoslavia that transgressed international norms, mediating international disputes like the Arab-Israeli conflict to keep them from erupting, and ignoring problems like Rwanda or Zaïre that “didn’t matter.”

There are other contenders for seismic shifts in the world order since then. The 9/11 attacks in 2001 gave America (and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the West) a new sense of purpose. Terrorism moved from the back burner to the front of the agenda, and counterterrorism efforts have dominated American foreign policy ever since. The Iraq War seemed to presage a new era of American imperialism, but as time passes it seems less and less like it started a real trend. The global economic collapse in 2008 seriously discredited capitalism and empowered China and other emerging markets over a floundering West, but the world has slowly recovered from that chaotic time.

But now, America is challenging the very underpinnings of the world order. So much of international relations is shaped by America, whether other countries like it or not (and many of them are accustomed to it and take it for granted). It bankrolls giant organizations like the UN and the World Bank. Its military protects Europe, East Asia, and (to some extent) West Asia. The dollar is the international reserve currency. Its economy is the global powerhouse, both through its huge domestic market and its role in trade. Its political system is a model, conscious or otherwise, and its values are exported both through overt evangelists and more subtle messages in its pop culture.

Yet it seems that America is now losing interest in this. Military intervention leads to prolonged war and occupation, and Americans have been tired of it for a decade already. The military and financial contribution to NATO, the Western alliance, is no longer seen as worth it. Deep cuts to the federal government and bureaucracy have reverberations in its diplomacy, as the foreign service is suddenly understaffed, underfunded and mismanaged. Protectionism is back with a vengeance, no longer just an alternative economic theory or something to fall back on to score quick political points but the outright credo of the country. America now takes a realistic approach to foreign relations, no longer judging countries by their domestic situation but evaluating them in terms of straight-up strategic value. International commitments like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP, a trade pact linking America with East Asia, Oceania and Latin America) and Paris Agreement (a climate change accord) have been discarded.

Some foreigners are freaking out about this, since America is the guarantor of global stability. Without that underlying guarantee, international relations enter a more unpredictable phase, where rising powers are more likely to challenge the status quo and bring about a different world order. Since the American-led world order has mostly worked out well — who doesn’t like peace, prosperity and freedom? — there is discomfort and uncertainty about what could replace it. The ongoing rise of China, in particular, is thought to indicate a new emphasis on nationalism and narrow-minded economic interests over democracy promotion or human rights. Russia is outright challenging the American-led order, and even though many of them have been reluctant to stand up to it before, European countries have been aghast at how unwilling America now is to confront Russian transgressions. Kenneth Roth, the head of Human Rights Watch, lamented that America’s new disregard for human rights would bring the world “to the verge of darkness.”

Other foreigners are shrugging the whole thing off or even smugly rejoicing. Any superpower is resented, and China in particular sees America as hogging the spotlight and getting in the way of its own influence. Free trade in particular is an issue with wide global appeal (especially among the business elite), and China has deftly positioned itself as the new champion of globalization. The TPP is now being resurrected by the original member countries, led by Japan, without American involvement. Others look to Germany and its stodgy but level-headed chancellor, Angela Merkel, as the new “Leader of the Free World” (China being too suspicious to trust).

So how much is all this for real? It’s far too soon to say, but it seems fair to underline how much all of these recent developments rest on 1 man: Donald Trump. Although observers have predicted America’s decline for a while now, the idea that it would suddenly give up on “leading the Free World” and lose interest in upholding international alliances would’ve seemed strange only 2 years ago. Within America, and especially its foreign policy establishment, resistance to Trump’s agenda is severe. Although Trump has certainly started a movement and has many devoted followers at home, foreign policy always takes a back seat in American politics, and it’s unclear how much shrugging off global commitments is part of Trump’s appeal. There are certainly elements of Trump’s team that back his hostility to allies and disregard for international commitments (Steve Bannon being foremost), but even among his administration there are personalities pushing for a more traditional foreign policy approach (like James Mattis, the secretary of defense, and Rex Tillerson, secretary of state). Given how chaotic Trump’s time in office has been so far, it’s fair to ask how durable his policies will be. Earlier this year editorials often asked whether Trump’s election heralded a new wave of right-wing populism across the West, but after centrist, pro-EU candidates won the elections in France and the Netherlands, these concerns have diminished.

There’s also the small problem that despite America’s eclipse, no other countries really want to step up to the plate. Britain is a more obviously declining power consumed with its controversial decision last year to exit the EU. Germany has been reluctant to shoulder the burdens of power since 1945 and is a shadow of its former self militarily. Japan, similarly, has a declining population and a tradition of pacifism and consensus. Russia may be reasserting itself and has pretensions of re-forming an alternative power center, but lacks the allies and international clout and reach it once had. China is the most obvious candidate, with its growing roster of clients all over the world, hegemonic status in East Asia, massive population, and assertive military posture…. but it remains inwardly focused and unwilling to engage in messy interventions in far-flung countries.

Ian Bremmer, an American political risk consultant, calls this state of affairs “G-Zero,” since no country really wants to take the lead and dominate the world. Having decried imperialism for so long, most countries can’t exactly assume the mantle of empire themselves. Economic growth remains the imperative for most countries, and that means pursuing narrow self-interest, not monitoring international agreements or intervening in faraway disputes of no immediate concern. Countries like Germany or Brazil have mostly narrow, regional focuses. International cooperation is hard, messy, tiresome and protracted. Military intervention, as America well knows, is bloody, expensive, frustrating and also protracted.

Thus, despite Trump’s antics, it seems most likely that America will continue to uphold global order for the time being. 1 erratic president can’t bring down a durable, popular international system all by himself. America remains the hub of world power. But Trump’s election, and later, his actions, have delivered an unmistakable jolt to the world. They have shown that all that talk about American decline was on to something. They have shown just how much other countries rely on America to get things moving. And they have shown that Americans aren’t necessarily fond of playing the role of global policemen, and that 1 successful agitator can push them away from embracing the role.