After years of studying differing views on foreign policy and national security, I think the primary difference between the left and the right’s positions can be succinctly summarized: the right believes in the superiority of hard power (military) and is suspicious of soft power (diplomacy, aid, cultural exchange, etc.), while the left holds the exact opposite view, believing in the merits of soft power and distrusting hard power.
Putting aside legitimate issues of when military force is warranted and just, the essential left-right divide should have an empirical component to it. Does hard power work better than soft power at making the U.S. safe, protecting our allies, spreading democracy, and furthering broader U.S. interests? Or does soft power? Maybe there is some optimal combination of both.
The first problem we encounter when trying to answer this question is that military confrontations are relatively rare and the circumstances surrounding each separate instance are unique. We don’t have a sizeable enough dataset with the necessary controls to test whether soft power or hard power is actually better at achieving the desired results (we also need to put aside for a moment how difficult it is to measure or define soft power).
But I think there is something even more fundamentally problematic with trying to answer this question: an emphasis on soft power has never been employed as the primary tool of U.S. foreign policy, and therefore, it is in some sense untested. Let me discuss two hypotheticals, one with respect to the Cold War and the other in regards to the current war on terrorism.
Vietnam won its war with America and is still today a Communist regime. But it has just entered the WTO and the U.S. is its biggest trading partner. One cannot help but wonder if carpet bombing the country with more ordnance than used in all of WW II, which resulted in the deaths of 2-3 million Vietnamese and over 55,000 Americans, was really necessary.
What if back in the 1950s America had made it clear to the world that we would eagerly embrace all nations that chose a path of democracy and economic liberalism? That we would extend trade privileges to them, help them build strong institutions, pay for thousands of their best and brightest to study in American universities and return home to build their countries? Could not that have achieved the outcome that we have arrived at today, but without all the bloodshed? If we had had more confidence that our way of life was superior, both in terms of personal freedoms and improving material standards of living, could that have been sufficient to win people’s hearts and minds?
Turning to the present, suppose that after 9/11 President Bush had told the world that once Afghanistan was rid of the Taliban and Al Qaeda the country would receive enough aid to significantly improve the standard of living for all Afghanis by the end of the decade. What if, instead of spending $1 trillion on the invasion of Iraq, the president had announced a massive program to wean the world off of oil and gas, both as a way to undercut financing for terrorists and the states that sponsor them and to make America a leader in combating global warming? What if the president had asked Congress to dedicate $100 billion to assistance for democracy building in the Middle East for all nations that reformed their institutions and improved their record on human rights, and extended special trading privileges to these countries as well?
Maybe both of these scenarios would have ended badly. Maybe Communism would have spread throughout Asia if we hadn’t intervened in Vietnam. Maybe the Islamic jihadists would have found other ways to undermine us even if we hadn’t gotten ourselves bogged down in Iraq.
The fact is we’ll never know because these alternatives were never tried. There is a bias in American politics for erring on the side of hard power, at least partly because there is nothing that Americans hate more than the perception of weakness.
Unfortunately, my intuition coupled with my reading of history tells me that this bias has led to a lot more wasted lives and treasure than necessary to achieve our goals. Maybe one day we’ll give soft power a chance and actually be able to test my theory.