About a decade and a half ago certain scholars began to call attention to the importance of ‘soft power’ in world affairs, which they defined as the capacity to win friends abroad and persuade other nations to agree to policies that you want. It was very different by nature from ‘hard power’ — that is, military strength and economic muscle — but it was nonetheless real.
There has always been one feature to ‘soft power’ that has made it less substantive than military capacity or economic resilience: you can lose it or gain it — or even regain it — very swiftly. The Bush administration has been an example of how the US could destroy its attractiveness once it appeared to care little about world opinion. Little wonder, then, that outside the US there was such jubilation when Barack Obama was decisively voted in. Before the world begins to think Obama can walk on water, we ought perhaps to reflect on what the recovery of US attractiveness and soft power cannot do. Here, alas, we have to return to the horrid world of ‘hard’ power: economic reality and geopolitical reality.
Soft power cannot pay for foreign oil and gas, imported cars, electronic goods, kitchenware and children’s toys. It seems to have very little influence over the fluctuating exchange value of the dollar. More important still, if Asia decides it is too risky to continue buying US treasury bonds, then HIS glamour will count for little.
The same is true on the military-strategic playing fields. How exactly, one wonders, would revamped US soft power be applied to counter the assertiveness of an increasingly nationalistic Russia, smarting at its imperial collapse and intent on balancing the influence of the world hegemon? What can Obama’s charms do in the face of China and India’s maritime expansion, with their silent submarines, long-range rocketry and satellite capacity? The probable answer is not much. The election of Obama has generated extraordinary goodwill; but such positivity must be tempered by the realisation that he comes into office during one of the most difficult periods in modern history; that he is to run a country far less dominant, relatively, than at the time of Wilson, Truman and Kennedy; and that, while his international attractiveness is strong, great nations cannot survive on soft power alone.