Hard Decisions for the Future of Soft Power


As the Obama administration settles in for a second term, regional conflicts continually test the United States’ stance in the international arena. Hillary Clinton’s departure from the State Department is highlighted by a record of securing regional partners and enhanced diplomatic clout. Noticeably absent from news feeds is the lack of discernible responses to alarming national security threats. A tactical emphasis on soft power realistically reflects the current limitations on the United States’ relative power; however, reservations about economic and military strength must not be allowed to dominate our response to international conflicts. Diplomacy is always the first option, but the United States cannot recede into the background when these efforts fail. Instead, our leaders should reassess actions that undermine our soft power and, in some instances, step forward to lead current peacemaking efforts. Failure to do so allows more assertive states to emerge as regional and global leaders after years of pushback at alleged United States hegemony.

Image from un.org

Image from un.org

Regional instability in the Middle East and Asia dominates the current list of top threats to American security. Recognizing that although spreading our resources too thin risks weakened defenses and often intervention can worsen tenuous situations, if our country does not remain part of the dialogue addressing international problems it cannot hope to protect its own interests. Some argue that American power is in decline, but using “smart power” in terms of diplomatic, political, economic, and cultural influences can increase world trust and maximize leverage. Clinton’s global travels have reminded leaders of our continued willingness to be involved. However, soft power wielded by popular figureheads will never be enough when we undermine our own efforts by giving nations reasons to doubt our resolve to act and to do so in adherence to our own principles.

If the current administration is going to lean heavily on soft power, then it must align United States rhetoric with its actions to increase its ability to leverage and stabilize conflicts. The consequent increase in soft power is one method to tighten national security without risking precious blood and treasure. Engagement through the last decade has been characterized by a trend in forgoing traditional justice in favor of techniques some call torture as well as assassinations carried out by robotic technology. Although useful at times, leaders must limit the use of this technology and other methods in consideration of the often underestimated casualty of regional public opinion or moral high ground. Preserving goodwill is crucial to achieving our diplomatic aims and preventing the establishment of terror groups. Additionally, increased use of powerful technology sparks competition, a primary concern in current non-proliferation negotiations. One need look no further than the announcements of nuclear weapons testing from North Korea and Iran for evidence of challenges to US power and attempts to model its might. As the United States limits its supporting role in conflicts within its interests, the world will increasingly identify the US with the few actions it does carry out, namely those that literally strike closest to home. Policymakers need to ensure that actions abroad model both the United States’ democratic principles and those they hope to establish instead of brandishing a double standard.

Soft power is not limited to rhetoric and official state visits; the United States should consider its use of economic and cultural influence. Although the United States still leads in the economic arena, steep debt and recession closes the economic gap between the rising economies on which we have become dependent. Increased energy independence offers a perfect opportunity to step up our economic game and minimize our stakes in volatile areas. Private sector actors should primarily lead the way in less threatening situations to lessen the burden on the public sector. By remaining a global player, we protect our economic interests and alleviate the global income disparity that often catalyzes paralyzing conflicts. Stabilization in both regional conflicts and emerging markets works to increase our economic strength and win the solidarity of domestic constituents and international partners. Nonengagement risks the loss of crucial markets to competitors who are willing to capitalize on new opportunities.

Solely using the bully pulpit to denounce atrocious crimes underscores a lack of deliberate action in accordance with our rhetoric and values. Especially in a post-9/11 world where internal conflicts impact the regional balance of power, the United States cannot continue to walk away or ignore issues when diplomatic efforts fail. The Arab Spring exemplifies the domino nature of drastic regime changes altering the political and economic landscape. Realistically, America cannot afford to entangle itself in another Middle Eastern conflict, but chemical weapons proliferation, the spread of terrorism, and changes in the regional balance of power offer numerous reasons that the United States should address this conflict with more than lip service and aid donations.

Our options are not limited to either speeches denouncing violence at one extreme or full-scale war at the other. Rather, we can innovatively apply tools of last-resort, such as leading a coalition or providing crucial air cover while ensuring that the regional partners we have culled in our diplomatic efforts are the primary line of defense. However, if the administration does not act, then the gap in global leadership combined with a loss of regional trust allow rising US opponents to exploit such an opening to vie for the role of international hegemon. In the wake of national security threats that demonstrate the pushback from rising powers, including cyber attacks and announcements of nuclear capabilities, the United States must increase its leverage to demonstrate that it will not cede any territory. Failure to do so would allow the United States to be acted upon as other nations dictate the outcomes of conflict.

While certain conditions limit the United States’ ability to police the entire world, conflicts central to our national security require a combination of tools and a willingness to act in alignment with our interests to establish our global legitimacy. Even considering the decline of our relative power the United States has a lot to offer the world. In our post-9/11 circumstances, we have faced the consequences of acting to protect our interests, but if the current administration pursues this course of nonengagement in every difficult or risky challenge, then we will have to face the future consequences of inaction.

, ,

Comments are closed.