America’s Goldilocks power problem

With recent action on Syria, North Korea and Iran, Trump is proving to be a master at hard power but a soft power weakling, argues Matthew Bondy.

By: /
May 16, 2018
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US President Donald Trump walks to Marine One from the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, May 14, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis

The Obama-to-Trump presidential transition has been the most politically staggering of any in post-war American history. The domestic American political pendulum has swung violently from Obama-era Oval Office dignity, big government projects and liberal identity politics to a new Trump era of gross indecency, rapid deregulation and the equally and oppositely harmful identity politics of the far right.

The inter-presidential political shift has been just as jarring in the foreign policy realm.

Barack Obama did soft power brilliantly. Soft power — a term coined by scholar Joseph Nye in the 1980s — is the ability of states to influence one another non-violently: it’s more butter than guns. Obama’s successes in this regard are several, including his diplomatic moves on Cuba and international leadership on climate change. He did hard power — more guns than butter — poorly, despite the obvious exception of taking out Osama bin Laden. Obama’s Syrian “red lines,” his “Asia pivot,” his naïve dismissal of ISIS as a “JV team,” and his ineffective management of Ukraine’s crisis are indictments of his poor use of American might.

Trump, on the other hand, is so far a master of hard power transactions but a soft power disaster. The Soft Power 30 index, published annually by Portland Communications, saw America slip from first to third globally from 2016 to 2017. Worse still, Trump is bailing on soft power diplomacy precisely when America’s rivals are catching on to its import. Beijing, for one, is going all in on soft power to build its global reach and influence.

In this first quarter of the 21st century, in other words, America has a Goldilocks power problem.

Hard power successes

For those of us who felt American hard power — the use of military force or economic pressure to influence states’ actions — drifted dangerously during the Obama years, Donald Trump is turning out to be an extremely effective hard-power president.

When Syrian madman Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people last month, Trump ordered retaliatory strikes with decision and resolve, in concert with major allies France and Britain.

That one action punished Syria, reinforced America’s long-standing policy of non-proliferation and warned Iran and Russia that they don’t get a veto in the region.

Meanwhile, by ratcheting up enormous economic, diplomatic and military pressure on the world’s most evil regime — North Korea — Trump scared establishment liberals as much as the American enemy, but it worked. Despite headwinds — North Korea is balking at routine US and South Korean military drills — Trump seems to be successfully bringing North Korean despot Kim Jong-un to the negotiating table. American captives in North Korea were delivered home last week, and peace on the Korean peninsula — following the contours I outlined in these pages — is a real possibility. (On Saturday, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK, outlined plans to dismantle its nuclear test facility.) 

Even more recently, in cancelling the dangerous Iran nuclear deal, the Trump administration is risking strategic destabilization in the Middle East — but, crucially, doing so while Iran remains weak and non-nuclear. The blowback has already begun. Last week Iran reportedly fired rockets into the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights; Israel then hit dozens of Iranian military sites in Syria, opening up an extensive military exchange. But unlike under previous US administrations, under Trump, America has no pretense of honest-brokering that situation. It’ll stand with Israel to secure the Jewish state against its enemies.

All the while, defence spending among NATO allies is climbing, Russia is on the receiving end of new economic sanctions and American-supplied armaments in Ukraine, and China is finally faced with an administration willing to deal with short-term trade pain for better terms in the long run.

These material achievements will help to secure America and its allies over time.

Ironically, these achievements also show the limits of hard power.

A soft power weakling

A fuller explanation of soft power underlines just how reticent the Trump administration has been to use it.

As Nye explains in a recent post for Project Syndicate:

“Soft power rests on attraction rather than coercion or payment. It co-opts people rather than coerces them. At the personal level, wise parents know that their power will be greater and will last longer if they model sound ethical values for their children, rather than relying only on spankings, allowances, or taking away the car keys.”

Canada, in contrast to all-sticks-no-carrots Trump, is a huge advocate for soft power, under governments of both stripes.

By exercising global thought leadership on gender issues, for example — including the promotion of a feminist foreign policy — the current government in Ottawa is angling not just at policy outcomes but at the influence that comes from being seen in the light of moral leadership.

Other governments — the brief but highly active governments of Joe Clark and Paul Martin being strong cases — tackled global governance issues like refugees and developing the revolutionary Responsibility to Protect paradigm to confer a sense of righteousness that they intended to translate into influence in the political clutch.

In America, soft power is tied to its post World War II liberal values — open markets and free societies — backed up by its willingness to embed its enormous power in multilateral institutions. That restraint and the appeal of those universal values are widely considered key to its global influence.

In Nye’s parenting analogy, the US can influence behaviour better if other states feel safe, valued and inspired by America. 

It’s on soft power issues that Trump is precipitously unwinding American leadership, exposing the US to a grand strategic risk and opening up the world to more conflict and less political consensus.

The president’s anti-democratic sentiments — thug regimes are latching onto his “fake news” mantra with glee, and he’s running around congratulating dictators like Vladimir Putin on their sham election victories — are weakening global perceptions that America is fair and just and a worthy role model.

Partly as a result of this, research suggests countries around the world are becoming less democratic and more authoritarian, which ultimately makes the world a more dangerous place. Dictatorships rule to preserve the interests of the regime rather than the state, making them less responsible and predictable global actors and often downright predatory on domestic populations. 

Even worse, by failing to champion democracy either at home or abroad, the Trump administration legitimizes America’s great power competitors like China and Russia in a way that even softies like Obama avoided doing. 

Only half the answer

Trump is the best hard-power president America has seen in a long time.

He’s deploying hard power swiftly and efficiently to execute American constabulary duties, as in the case of punishing Syria for using chemical weapons. His credibility on the use of force is paying dividends on the Korean Peninsula.

Even the president’s strong stance on Israel — the US embassy was relocated to Jerusalem on Monday, and the administration is standing firm despite violent backlash — shows the current administration’s willingness to choose sides and risk uproar for the sake of pursuing the national interest.

But that’s only half the job.

The great modern American presidents, like John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, knew the benefit of fusing military hard power with public relations soft power. That’s why they’re legends around the world to this day, remembered as much for their association with the concept of liberty as they are with Checkpoint Charlie or breathtaking military buildups.

For now, America is taking an either-or approach to building its power and influence — a decision that leaves it weaker while its rivals gain strength.

Regrettably there is little evidence that the Trump administration will see the light on the value of soft power. The White House is slashing diplomatic and foreign aid expenditures precisely when those assets could moderate the president’s global agenda with allies, opponents and publics around the world.

Until and unless he centres his foreign policy in a more balanced approach, Trump will keep landing punches with one hand tied behind his back.