Pope Francis and Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in the United States this week the same way, making a slow descent down an airplane ramp toward a waiting entourage. Watching the two, you couldn’t help wondering: Which man is more powerful in the world today?
Francis is arguably the dominant figure, despite the old crack about how many army divisions the pope has, and the potency of a rising China. That’s because the nature of power has changed: Francis embodies the kind of intangible but world-changing influence that matters most now, which Harvard University professor Joseph Nye a decade ago described in his book “Soft Power.”
Francis’s primacy is clear when you add the other two figures who will dominate the stage in the coming days ahead of the United Nations General Assembly in New York — President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Their quest for temporal power — in Putin’s case, through the most aggressive use of Russian military force in a generation — is more fragile than it looks.
“Soft power rests on the ability to shape the preferences of others,” Nye wrote in his 2004 book. The essence of such influence, he said, was that it “co-opts people rather than coerces them.” This past decade has been a series of lessons about the limits of the military version of hard power to achieve results, notably in Iraq.
Why is Francis such a magnetic figure? The answer illustrates a paradox of power that resonates with the Christian message. This pope is strong because he is humble. His message resonates in a complex world because it is simple. He disdains the trappings of power, the pomp and fanfare, and thereby enhances his real power. All of his words and actions seem to be going in the same direction.
Francis’s special impact was clear Thursday when his speech to a joint meeting of Congress brought a rare moment of bipartisanship to the House chamber. The pope touched on political issues — including immigration, climate change and the sanctity of life — but his core message was the simplest precept of tolerance and faith: the “Golden Rule.” On the Capitol balcony afterward, he even reached out to unbelievers, asking them for good wishes.
What’s fascinating, watching Xi, Obama and Putin on the same global stage with Francis, is that the political leaders seem to crave the authenticity that the religious leader commands so effortlessly.
Obama had this intangible quality in his first year as president. His 2009 Nobel Peace Prize might have been premature, but it reflected a global yearning for his trademark theme, hope. Obama lost this halo as he shouldered the commander in chief’s burdens of wars and drone strikes. His hard- and soft-power messages got mixed. The world began to perceive him as warlike and inflexible, while many Americans began to see him as pliable and weak.
With the exception of the Iran nuclear agreement, in which Obama embraced a strategy his first day in office and carried it through systematically, he also came to be seen as reactive, rather than visionary. That’s a mistake Francis never makes.
Putin is hungry for soft power, even as he flexes his muscles, literally and figuratively. He wants to be seen as the bare-chested big-game hunter, and he seems to relish his experiments with paramilitary “hybrid warfare” in Ukraine. But his ambition (and real power) is something deeper: an appeal to the aspirations and grievances of a Russia that feels its culture and values have been ignored. However distasteful Putin’s actions may be, the West should recognize the spiritual yearning that underlies his power — the soft side of hard.
Xi, meanwhile, is in some ways the most paradoxical of the figures visiting the United States. Like Putin, he has tried to operate as a “big guy” in the world arena — “Xi Dada,” or Big Daddy Xi, is his Chinese nickname. But even as he cloaks himself in the garments of hard power, and ruthlessly consolidates control of the Communist Party machinery, Xi misses the soft touch. China over the past two years has made enemies of most of its Asian neighbors. Xi’s power grab at home has stirred dissent and even whispers of unrest.
A pope is a teacher, always. But this one is teaching us about the nature of power in a world where social media can create an intimate bond with even the grandest figure. This bishop of Rome has unusual impact because he disdains the throne.
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