By Alistair Burnett
As the global balance of power shifts, more countries try out hard power.
This year has seen marked resurgence in the use of hard power by states in pursuit of national interests.
The US return to military action in Iraq and direct intervention in Syria, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and destabilization of eastern Ukraine and China’s assertion of its territorial claims in the East and South China seas are just three examples of major powers turning to force and coercion to achieve strategic aims.
Yet, not so long ago, talk in diplomatic, academic and journalistic circles focused on the growing importance of soft power in international relations.
In recent years, governments consider how to boost soft power, investing heavily in tools like international broadcasting and cultural institutes to win friends abroad.
China has spent billions expanding China Central TV’s broadcasts in English and other languages and opening 450 Confucius Institutes around the world teaching Chinese language and culture. It has even invested in trying to create global pop star Jia Ruhan. Russia has expanded its international TV news station, RT. The US continues to fund international broadcasting started during the Cold War.
These are all efforts to influence the views of people in other countries, winning them over to a way of thinking so they will pressure their governments – even in authoritarian states – to fall into line with new policies.
The US is considered the world leader in soft and hard power, and there’s no doubt American culture is attractive to many around the world – consider the numbers wanting to migrate there and who wear baseball caps, eat American-style fast food, listen to American music and watch Hollywood movies. Much of the global attractiveness of the US has little to do with its government, and photographs of anti-American protesters in the Middle East in jeans and T-shirts demonstrate how it’s possible to like American culture and dislike Washington’s policies.
But while the US has accumulated a lot of this soft power without having to spend a cent, relying instead on the sheer attractiveness of American society, the government still takes steps to manipulate attitudes. One little publicized effort is how the Pentagon influences its on-screen image through its film liaison office which can save Hollywood producers millions in special effects by providing hardware and personnel on approved scripts.
But do events of the past year suggest that in a world where the global balance of power is shifting and countries really want their own way, they turn to old-fashioned hard power?
Harvard Professor Joe Nye who coined the term “soft power” argues it is not a binary choice. He developed on his original definition of power by identifying a third way states could convince others to do what they wanted – with “smart power” – basically wielding a mix of hard and soft power.
Looking at how the United States, Russia and China have conducted themselves through this lens shows all three are trying – with varying levels of success – to use smart power.
Before using military force in Iraq and Syria against Islamic State, the Obama administration utilized soft power to maximize impact of the use of its hard power. Washington was keen that its intervention was not seen as unilateral action by aggressive Christian states against Muslims, so it portrayed IS as an enemy of fellow Muslims. Washington also emphasizes it intervenes in Iraq at the invitation of Baghdad and has been successful in building a coalition including leading Sunni Arab states to carry out airstrikes in Syria. So far the campaign has slowed IS down.
n Ukraine, Russia’s campaign to take Crimea and destabilize the eastern part of the country has been called hybrid warfare because of its mix of diplomacy, TV and social media propaganda about the threat to Russian speakers from Ukrainian nationalists, and use of irregular and disguised forces designed for ambiguity long enough to achieve Russian objectives. In the case of Crimea, annexed with little fighting, acute observers of Russian policy see this as an effective use of smart power. Stalemate in eastern Ukraine suggests it may be less effective there.
Beijing’s attempt to use smart power has met with mixed results. In the South China Sea, China claims waters also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. It has spent recent years reassuring neighbors it’s not a threat despite its growing economic and military strength. But, earlier this year, China sent an oil exploration vessel into an area Vietnam also claims leading to clashes between Chinese and Vietnamese ships. Tensions with the Philippines emerged after Chinese ships tried to block Filipino efforts to resupply a garrison of marines on a disputed atoll. The result was anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam, diplomatic protests by the Philippines, and both countries establishing closer military ties with the United States.
The long-term effectiveness of the return to hard power is probably more dependent on the military and economic strength of the United States, Russia and China than their international image. Russia will probably hang on to Crimea because Ukraine is the weaker state and shows no real appetite to get it back. China’s economic preponderance in the South China Sea region means its neighbors, while not rolling over, will probably meet it more than halfway in the resolving the maritime disputes. The US battle with what’s now called IS really goes back to the 2003 Iraq invasion which allowed jihadis to get a foothold in the country by presenting themselves as the resistance to infidel invaders. The extremists extended their power to western Iraq and Syria after 2011 when the Syrian civil war broke out and US troops left Iraq. Ultimately, defeating IS depends on a political solution in Syria and an Iraqi government truly inclusive of Sunnis as well as Shias and Kurds.
In all these cases though, soft power is being deployed in subtle ways to attract support by trying to “shape the narrative” by portraying rivals and enemies as acting outside shared global norms and values. The United States claims to defend Muslims from the Islamic extremism; Russia says it defends Russian-speakers from Ukrainian nationalists; and China describes itself as a rising, but peace-loving nation. The success of these attempts depends not just on the language and imagery used by officials, but also on whether the media and other opinion- formers adopt similar language and imagery.
Wielding soft and smart power is also complicated because one country’s attractiveness to another is a result of a complex interplay of what a country has to offer and how the offer is perceived. For instance, the United States has appeal in a country like Burma, because many people there want democratic elections and free speech after decades of repression, while many Pakistanis dislike the United States, regarding it as a country that doesn’t respect their sovereignty while also killing many of citizens in its anti-terror operations.
The increasing use of hard power is partly a result of the changing global balance as other countries take advantage of the relative decline of the United States to assert their interests. But the difficulties and uncertainties surrounding how to best wield soft power and measure its effectiveness also explain why leaders are still attracted to using familiar hard-power methods, be they airstrikes or economic sanctions.
*Alistair Burnett is the editor of The World Tonight, a BBC News program.