After the United States. Part Two. Where did the soft power go?

The old distinction between hard power (military force) and soft power (power of inspiration) has been replaced by the distinction between brute force and efficiency.


Harvard Professor Joseph Nye is the father of the concept of soft power[1]. In highly celebrated books and articles, he maintained that the power of persuasion (others might say seduction) is superior to the power of deterrence. Of course, Nye does not deny that power, as legitimate and persuasive as it could be, is ultimately (ultima ratio, Weber would say) based on force, that is, on firepower and not just on gaming skills.

The following well-known anecdote form WWII will illustrate the point. In a meeting of allied victors in Yalta, Winston Churchill suggested that it would be important to invite the Pope (Pius XII). But Joseph Stalin blurted out a definite and defining question, “How many divisions has the Pope?” It is likely that Stalin might have uttered his derogatory question on some other occasion, or that he enjoyed repeating it. What is important is the cynical acknowledgement of brute force in the relation between nations. “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” said Mao Zedong.

Indeed, during the last century sheer brutality kept dictators in power and projected their nations’ dominium over vast areas of the planet, leaving in its wake a pile of dead bodies numbering in the tenths of millions. However, despite the huge military power of the Soviet Union, its representatives lost the game in a humble battle of public relations. They were not able to offer anything convincing in exchange for an attractive sample of household appliances inside a model kitchen in the American pavilion of the Moscow fair of 1959. The improvised debate was between none other than Nikita Krushchev and Richard Nixon about the advantanges of a model home with washing and dishwasher machines. At that time, the Soviet Sputnik faced the American household appliances. The American way of life, as it appeared in Time magazine, seemed irresistibly attractive. Freedom of speech and of choice, even when reduced to the freedom of consumption  for a housewife in Levittown, New York, despite Krushchev’s boasting about his country’s prowess, won over the austere and gray image of the Russian way of ife.

We could say that Professor Nye has been the brave academic defender of the superiority of the washing machine[2]. But let’s be fair. Beyond the lure of household appliances and of the new technologies that followed them, from the computer to the smart phones, soft power is the ability of a political actor, as for example a State, to influence the actions and interests of other actors by making use of cultural and ideological means (including the commercial propaganda of a consumer society) with the complement of diplomatic means.

In the Trump era, the ability of the United States to influence the actions and interests of other countries, given its cultural and ideological attraction and the complement of diplomatic means, is diminishing rapidly and perhaps irreversibly. The president has no scruples in scandalously parading his preference for dictators and racists, in discrediting traditional allies, and praising old enemies. He preaches division and hate instead of unity and reconciliation. He acts as a tyrant, though luckily and for the moment he is constrained by some independent institutions. In other matters, Trump has systematically dismantled the Foreign Service, to the point that the US lacks enough career diplomats to engage in any soft power initiative[3]. We do not know for how long this institutional destruction will continue and not even if this hideous regime will end together with the current presidential period.

Among the powerful people surrounding the new Nero[4], the only rational character is a general, today’s chief of the Department of Defense, that is, the Pentagon. General Jim Mattis is sparing and cautious. In front of his soldiers he was heard to have said “you must stand firm until our country will once again show understanding and respect among us and to the world. We will recover the power of inspiration.” His is the only sane voice in an environment of ignorance, abuse, and intolerance. He still has faith in the soft power the United States once had, which he calls the power of inspiration. For Mattis, the authoritarian-populist-national storm is temporary. According to the general, better times will come.

However, while the general waits, rival powers, once criticized for their proclivity for despotism and their disdain for human rights, breathe a sigh of relief as they do not have to fear an American moral lesson. “We are all alike,” they celebrate. Trump admires Putin and distrusts Mrs. Merkel. For him either Duterte or Macron is fine as an interlocutor. As the tango Cambalache says: “Vivimos revolcaos en un merengue y en un mismo lodo todos manoseaos…” (We live sunk in a fuzz and in the same mud are all soiled …).

In the new geopolitical context in which we live, with the loss of moral leadership by the West, another dichotomy is rising: not anymore the old distinction between hard power and soft power, but rather a new one between force and efficiency. The United States maintains the largest military power of history, specifically the enormous and onerous apparatus that general Mattis presides. But that pure force is not anymore softened and enhanced by the power of inspiration. In front of American military might, other military apparatuses have risen that little by little try to catch up, without getting there yet. To that growing force, new powers add another type of power: efficiency. Force with efficiency, in front of force with less efficiency and with a crestfallen inspiration in the West.

One example will suffice to prove it. In his recent trip to China, president Trump boasted of the minor concessions extracted from the astute Mr. Xi, who flattered him with sumptuous celebrations. President Xi thus avoided discussing with his maniac interlocutor the themes he has his strategy fixed on. China knows where it goes: Trump does not. Xi asks himself questions that the American does not even imagine, such as: in which world do we live? Which are the largest tendencies in terms of climate, globalization and interdependence, technology and the future world of labor? China responds to these strategic questions with huge investments in systems of clean energy and electric vehicles, as it knows that in twenty years there will be an additional billion people in the planet, and that it will be necessary for them and us to breathe. Trump instead wants to defend the obsolete coal-fired plants where he assumes his voters will find new jobs. By then, China will be at the vanguard of two large industries: transport and energy.

In terms of globalization, the Chinese initiative of linking central Asian markets in just one road and belt and of establishing a new Asian bank for development will grant it a huge non-military power. Regarding new technologies, the Chinese have a plan of making the “Made in China 2025” seal much more than a slogan to print on sneakers, but rather one to stamp on ten strategic industries: electric vehicles, new materials, solar and wind energies, artificial intelligence, integrated circuits, bio-pharmaceutical industries, quantum computing, mobile communications like 5G and robotics.

Instead, Trump has withdrawn the United States from the Trans-Pacific Commercial Association, which is equivalent to a unilateral disarmament in terms of global commerce.

I could continue with the litany of nonsense that the new administration in Washington imposes, more than on the world, on its own country. I give the example of China for a simple reason: to illustrate the ability of a country to focus on the challenges that really matter and the medium and long-term planning abilities of that country. In an academic seminar we could point out important defects of the Chinese model of vertical and authoritarian planning. However, in the real world, while the USA, and by extension the whole West, wastes precious time in quarrels and vain ideologies, among them a haggard nationalism, China (and we could add another giant that is progressing: India) makes huge advances in efficiency.

This new reality does not escape professor Nye. In a recent article, published in the Financial Times (November 3rd, 2017), he argues that the current rivalry between China and USA, as seen by an hypothetic Martian visiting our planet, would favor the Americans because of four specific geopolitical reasons: the geographic advantage of being situated between two oceans, self-sufficiency in energy, a dominance of commerce and the primacy of the US dollar as currency. According to the professor, they are the aces in the stack of cards held by the American player in the current poker game with China.

Regarding this argument, I will make two observations. First, I note that the father of soft power only presents hard variables in his digression: the old facts of traditional geopolitics. I wonder: where did the famous power of inspiration go? Second, I can confidently state that the professor uses a wrong metaphor when he makes reference to the Chinese-American rivalry. The Chinese do not play poker; they play Go. Though its precise origin is not known, this game appeared some 4,000 years ago in China. Go is not well-known in the West but it is extremely popular in countries such as China, Korea, or Japan.

In Go, the players must conquer the largest possible territory by placing some white and black stones on a board. It seems simple, and in fact its rules are simple, but do not be fooled by appearances. There are many possibilities for the game and they depend on the character and intelligence of the player. In a Go game, today’s geopolitical board presents considerable advantages for China.

Better than Nye’s thesis is Henry Kissinger’s argument in his monumental study of China[5]. According to Dr. K, as he is called, the Chinese strategy (Based on Go) is centripetal (once again becoming the center of the world as a tributary empire), with precise though distant objectives, that require time and patience. The United States and in particular its caricaturesque representative Trump, play to win in the short term, with partial objectives and much impatience. They prefer to play with poker cards more than with Go chips. From the long-term strategic point of view they have four disadvantages, to wit: an infrastructure that is collapsing, a low growth rate, a political regression towards a manipulated an illiberal democracy, and a military force that despite its power and extension does not know how to win wars.

If the extraterrestrial character imagined by Prof. Nye would watch the geopolitical game of China vs. US, and especially if he, she or it were equipped with the artificial intelligence automaton invented by Google called Alpha Go, he, she, or it would not place a bet so easily in favor of an American win.
Oh! I almost forgot to cite a very significant index of hard power (and soft power, too): demography. The United States has only 4.4% of the world population. Sic transit gloria mundi (the glory of the world is temporary).


[1] . Joseph Nye, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (2004, New York: Perseus Books).

[2] However, not as eloquent as deceased Swedish professor Hans Rosling:

[3] . This demolition was made by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has proven that the highest executive of the largest oil company can behave in the field of diplomacy as the donkey at a school. Fulfilled his mission, Mr. Tillerson would be dismissed without remorse by the picturesque authoritarian president.

[4] . Regarding these characters, the pretentious Italian writer and politician Gabriele d’Annunzio in one occasion said “è un cretino con qualche lampo d’imbecillità” (translation: he is a jerk with some flare of imbecility) and in another “phosphorescent jerk.”

[5] . Henry Kissinger, On China (2011, New York: Penguin Books).


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