Obama or not, U.S. still needs hard power
By Ian Bremmer What will it take for America to remain the world’s "indispensable nation" over the next generation? Debate has begun again in Washington over the proper balance of soft power (the ability of American ideas, values, and culture to "entice and attract") and hard power (military and economic capacity). As Joseph Nye, who ...
By Ian Bremmer
By Ian Bremmer
What will it take for America to remain the world’s "indispensable nation" over the next generation?
Debate has begun again in Washington over the proper balance of soft power (the ability of American ideas, values, and culture to "entice and attract") and hard power (military and economic capacity). As Joseph Nye, who popularized these terms, has argued many times, a successful U.S. foreign policy will always depend on both. But the inauguration of a president who promises to reinvigorate American diplomacy has encouraged advocates of soft power to insist that the country’s hard power advantages have become less relevant. I don’t agree.
Soft power matters. It played an enormous role in extending U.S. influence over the past several decades. It will continue to — for as long as America remains a global power. A few days ago, when Obama gave his first formal interview as president to Al Arabiya, an Arab television network, he opened a door that might create opportunities for American soft power in the years to come.
But you don’t have to be a hawk to believe that, over the longer term, it’s the country’s hard power advantages that will ensure that America remains indispensable for the world’s political and economic stability — even as its soft power loses some of its appeal relative to that of other states.
The erosion of the U.S. soft power advantage has already begun. The global financial crisis has inflicted a lot of damage on the American argument that unfettered capitalism is the best model for steady economic expansion. The rise of "state capitalism," as practiced in China, Russia, the Persian Gulf states and several other places, has created an attractive alternative. Breakout growth over the past several years in several emerging market countries ensures that American brands now share shelf space around the world with products made in dozens of developing states. The icons of American popular culture, central to U.S. soft power appeal, now share stage and screen with celebrities from a growing number of other countries. The Bush administration’s unpopularity in much of the world has merely added momentum to these trends.
America’s hard power advantages have their limitations, as well, but their value is less subject to the ebbs and flows of popular opinion and cultural attraction. The United States now spends more on its military than every other nation in the world combined. For all the fear in Washington (and elsewhere) that China’s military spending continues to grow and that Russian foreign policy has become more aggressive, U.S. military spending outpaces China’s by almost ten to one and Russia’s by about 25 to one. It will be decades before any other state can afford to challenge the balance of global military power-assuming that any becomes willing to accept the costs and risks that come with global ambitions.
U.S. military strength will remain useful for the next several decades — not only for the waging of wars and not just for Americans. Governments around the world that depend on the import of oil and natural gas to fuel their economies are hard at work crafting plans for a technological transition toward a more diversified energy mix. But that’s a long-term process. For the next several years, the world’s oil and gas will continue to come from unstable (and potentially unstable) parts of the world — the Middle East, the Caspian Sea basin, West Africa, etc. Only the United States has a global naval presence. That’s why other countries will continue to count on Washington to protect the transit of all this oil and gas from threats like terrorist attack and even piracy. Why should China or India accept the costs and risks that go with safeguarding the Strait of Hormuz, the world’s most important energy bottleneck, when America will do it for them? That gives U.S. policymakers leverage they wouldn’t otherwise have with their counterparts in other governments.
The U.S. provision of global public goods will also extend to new military challenges. As Iran and others master uranium enrichment technology, their nuclear clout may provoke neighboring states toward even greater reliance on Washington as guarantor of regional security and stability. That’s not a bad thing if it helps ease the fears and pressures that might otherwise beget a nuclear arms race. As several Eastern European governments worry over the implications of Russia’s increasingly belligerent approach toward some of its neighbors — an anxiety heightened by Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas, Moscow’s demonstrated willingness to turn off the taps, and last August’s war with Georgia — they’ll turn to a U.S.-led NATO to ease their fears.
The U.S. military will also remain an essential weapon in America’s soft power arsenal — by delivering relief to victims of natural disasters abroad, for example.
An Obama administration grappling with a financial crisis and a hard landing of the U.S. economy can’t draw on American military resources as recent presidents have done. But a willingness to balance soft power with a credible promise to continue to provide global public goods — and to defend US security with force where necessary — will ensure that America remains an indispensable nation for many years to come.
Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media. He is also the host of the television show GZERO World With Ian Bremmer. Twitter: @ianbremmer
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