Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes a monthly column for The Post. His latest book is “The World America Made.”
These days “soft” power and “smart” power are in vogue (who wants to make the case for “dumb” power?) while American “hard” power is on the chopping block. This is, in part, a symbolic sacrifice to the fiscal crisis — even though the looming defense cuts are a drop in the bucket compared with the ballooning entitlement spending that is not being cut. And partly this is the Obama administration’s election-year strategy of playing to a presumably war-weary nation.
But there is a theory behind all this: The United States has relied too much on hard power for too long, and to be truly effective in a complex, modern world, the United States needs to emphasize other tools. It must be an attractive power, capable of persuading rather than compelling. It must convene and corral both partners and non-partners, using economic, diplomatic and other means to “leverage” American influence.
Kagan writes a monthly foreign affairs column.
These are sensible arguments. Power takes many forms, and it’s smart to make use of all of them. But there is a danger in taking this wisdom too far and forgetting just how important U.S. military power has been in building and sustaining the present liberal international order.
That order has rested significantly on the U.S. ability to provide security in parts of the world, such as Europe and Asia, that had known endless cycles of warfare before the arrival of the United States. The world’s free-trade, free-market economy has depended on America’s ability to keep trade routes open, even during times of conflict. And the remarkably wide spread of democracy around the world owes something to America’s ability to provide support to democratic forces under siege and to protect peoples from dictators such as Moammar Gaddafi and Slobodan Milosevic. Some find it absurd that the United States should have a larger military than the next 10 nations combined. But that gap in military power has probably been the greatest factor in upholding an international system that, in historical terms, is unique — and uniquely beneficial to Americans.
Nor should we forget that this power is part of what makes America attractive to many other nations. The world has not always loved America. During the era of Vietnam and Watergate and the ugly last stand of segregationists, America was often hated. But nations that relied on the United States for security from threatening neighbors tended to overlook the country’s flaws. In the 1960s, millions of young Europeans took to the streets to protest American “imperialism,” while their governments worked to ensure that the alliance with the United States held firm.
Soft power, meanwhile, has its limits. No U.S. president has enjoyed more international popularity than Woodrow Wilson did when he traveled to Paris to negotiate the treaty ending World War I. He was a hero to the world, but he found his ability to shape the peace, and to establish the new League of Nations, severely limited, in no small part by his countrymen’s refusal to commit U.S. military power to the defense of the peace. John F. Kennedy, another globally admired president, found his popularity of no use in his confrontations with Nikita Khrushchev, who, by Kennedy’s own admission, “beat the hell out of me” and who may have been convinced by his perception of Kennedy’s weakness that the United States would tolerate his placing Soviet missiles in Cuba.