After Rex Tillerson, hard or soft power?
Ved Nanda is Evans University Professor and director of the Ved Nanda Center for International and Comparative Law. He has taught at the University of Denver's Sturm College of Law since 1965. Nanda is past president of the World Jurist Association, former honorary vice president of the American Society of International Law and a member of the advisory council of the United States Institute of Human Rights.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s ouster and replacement with the hardliner Mike Pompeo has led to speculation on the coming shape of American foreign policy.
What is the likely impact on the Iran nuclear deal, which the U.S. made along with France, Germany, Britain, the European Union, Russia and China? How will this abrupt change affect the proposed meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, given that President Donald Trump had earlier warned Tillerson that he was “wasting his time” trying to negotiate with “Little Rocket Man”? How will it affect the already demoralized Department of State, which has suffered from huge budget cuts and loss of several experienced diplomats, leaving critical posts unfilled?
It is no secret that Trump and Tillerson did not see eye to eye on several critical issues, such as the Paris climate accord, from which Tillerson had urged Trump not to withdraw. Nevertheless, Tillerson served as a restraint on the president by urging him not to try replacing Kim by force, and against a “go it alone” attitude, as he realized the need for the U.S. and our allies to address global challenges together.
When Pompeo is confirmed, another question will be: Will the U.S. further pursue hard power, as contrasted with what Harvard Professor Joseph Nye in 1990 called “soft power”? Nye defined soft power as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than through coercion or payments.”
How can the U.S. best exert its influence abroad — through military power or persuasion? Or is it through a combination, called “smart power”?
It may be recalled that repressive treatment of Germany after the first World War eventually led to the second World War. And after that war’s widespread death and destruction the United States’ Marshall Plan helped rebuild Europe, which gave rise to prosperity, democracy and the rule of law in European countries traditionally split on religious, sectarian, ideological, economic and geopolitical grounds.
It was because of America’s ideas, values and policies that it won the Cold War, as people behind the Iron Curtain felt attracted and were persuaded that what the U.S. and the West stood for was much more attractive than what the Soviet Union and the Communist ideology offered. It is aptly said that the French Declaration of the Rights of Man was much more powerful than the armies of Napoleon in bringing about transformation in Europe. Similarly, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights gave people inspiration and hope to shed the yoke of imperialism all over the world. Those fighting apartheid in South Africa waved the one page of the Universal Declaration to proclaim their tireless fight against the repression of the Afrikaans government. And several centuries ago it was India’s culture, education and economic ties, not its military, that captivated the populations in Southeast Asia from Myanmar and Thailand to Cambodia and Indonesia.
Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya clearly signaled that hard power is not always effective in bringing about a desired change of direction abroad. The question simply is, how do we reach desired outcomes without force or economic coercion? The answer certainly does not lie in the kind of “hard power” budget proposed by Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, with its 29 percent reduction in funding to the Department of State and USAID. The “America First” slogan, telling others that they are secondary powers, does not augur well for persuading or attracting friends. This defense budget — almost 10 times more than State, USAID, and public diplomacy combined — does not show a good balance.
We have dynamic universities, civil society organizations, foundations and popular culture to project soft power abroad. What the U.S. needs in foreign policy is a fine balance of hard and soft power — a smart power based upon hard power, with a strong focus on diplomacy, education, culture and economic ties.
This opinion editorial first published in the Denver Post on March 23, 2018.