Going soft on thinking hard: the global power struggle

The United States and European Union are allied, yet locked in an uneasy power play for the last century. While the US has traditionally employed a strong focus on military to reach its goals, Europe has conventionally used a softer approach. But with a shaken political climate post-Trump inauguration and pre-Brexit, a combined tactic may be of greater value.

Samantha Dixon

“Make America strong again” championed Ronald Reagan, thirty-four years ago, justifying his eventual 43% increase in the US military budget.

“Make America great again” heralds Trump, requesting a 9% increase in the US’s disproportionate military spending just two months into his term.

The concept that military capacity is directly linked to power is older than knowledge itself.

In the past it was more true: the world superpowers typically had the best fighting forces, allowing them the ability to colonise the remainder of the world, increasing their power further, while resulting in wars that spelt threats for civilised life.

The result was a shift from states acting within the survival of the fittest, predators against the weak, a move from animal instinct based on force, to one based more on persuasion instead. So called soft power, versus hard.

Hard Soft Power Inforgraphic - March 2017

The United States not only spends the most in the world on military power, but last year was also named the number one world soft power in both the UK research agency Portland’s Soft Power 30, and the Monocle Soft Power Survey, ousting Germany, UK and France.

When Trump took the reins of America, he was given access to the entire US nuclear arsenal, intelligence and counter-terrorism operations, trade, and influence over the rest of the world after becoming what The Independent called “the most recognisable figure in the world”.

Yet in Trump’s first two months’ hackles have been raised across the world as he implements controversial measures.

His attempt to exclude citizens of eight Muslim countries from entering the US, continued dialogue about the US/Mexico border wall, and comments about the efficiency of NATO are just some items that have caused tensions worldwide.

With great power, the US has great responsibility. But the way they continue to employ power could spell dire straits for the rest of the world.

Their Western ally, the European Union may be able to help: however, their softer approach is also far from perfect.

How Trump chooses to employ power will have significant impacts on the rest of the world. But instead of either hard or soft power, a smarter strategy will need to come into play.

A Choice of Weapon:

Foreign power can come in different forms. Firstly, traditional ‘hard power’, involving the use of military force or payment to coerce other states.

On the other hand, soft power relies instead on appealing to others through culture, political values and foreign policy. It’s primarily distinguished by its ability to make other countries want the anticipated effect, rather than be ordered to the desired result.

It’s the adult world, international equivalent of playground politics: instead of a bully pushing people into the dirt, the bully will make friends by offering to share his sweets for dessert.

In modern politics where physical survival is not a pressing issue, coercive power becomes all the more important.

It’s been argued by scholars in the past that the US possesses both hard and soft power, but more recently that America is increasingly hard power oriented, while Europe, thanks to a long and bloody history, prefers a softer approach.

The Wild, Wild West

The  US has always placed a strong emphasis on its military budget. According to 2016 data, the US makes up one third of the world’s combined military budget at almost $600 billion USD.  In comparison, the second largest, China, spends just 145.8 billion.

This can be put down to traditional foreign policy reasoning. The US has wide borders, few neighbours, a large population, and a concrete American ideology.

Under the Bush administration, while on the scent for Saddam Hussein, US foreign policy shifted from pre-emptive warfare, to preventative, allowing its invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

The US spends big on military not just to make things happen, or in case things happen, but to avoid things happening.

A Soft European Cheese

Unlike the hard cheddar of the US, the EU is a soft, French Camembert: smooth, creamy, and ultimately unsurprising.

With Europe’s tumultuous historical past, it is predictable that following the conception of what would become the European Union (EU) post-WWII, a policy of peace, negotiation, diplomacy, and persuasion was implemented.

The need to employ hard power rarely exists in Europe. When it is employed, it is typically more resultant of NATO-obligations, for example post-September 11, or during the Balkan war.

Instead, the EU employs soft power, like offering prospective membership into the EU for countries within its neighbourhood.

By dangling the carrot of prospective membership into the exclusive EU club within reach of various European countries, the EU has offered a powerful incentive for opening accession negotiations: requiring candidate countries to employ democracy, human rights, economical restrictions, and accepting the core EU intent and values.

The result? Eastern countries conforming to Western standards – with no military intervention. Soft power employed to the finest degree.

But Europe’s soft approach does not come without criticism. NATO head Anders Fogh Rasmussen has disagreed in the past with the current level of military power in the EU.

“We Europeans must understand that soft power alone is really no power at all. Without hard capabilities to back up its diplomacy, Europe will lack credibility and influence,” he told MEPs in the European Parliament in 2013.


A Hard Shell

However, it’s no longer as simple as the US employing hard power, and the EU preferring soft power.

With the US topping the charts in both hard and soft power, things are looking good for Uncle Sam. Perhaps the question is whether there is still a clear divide between the two forms of power.

Following the Cold War, polls reported that nearly half the population of America believed it was in decline, leading to protectionism and advice of withdrawal from overextended international commitments.

Today, if the polls above are to be believed, the US is in the strong position of being the crème de la crème of the various lists of power. But, it proves an interesting turn that it again is moving towards the same protectionism and withdrawal from international commitments.

Trump’s policy enactments in the first two months of his reign have already caused friction in the trans-Atlantic relationship unseen since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

This streak of authority that has awoken is incompatible with soft power ideals, making balance impossible.

The fractured EU

The US’s newfound power spells trouble for Europe.

“European soft power seems to be on the wane,” the Soft Power 30 report stated. “Half of the continent’s countries have fallen in the rankings. Europe’s continued economic problems, the refugee crisis, and the way it has fuelled instability and support for political parties outside the mainstream appear to be having an impact”.

While the EU states individually may have been beaten out by the US, collectively the EU may be able to gather enough force of soft power to reclaim its top position. However, with the inclusion of all 28 member states, including the less-developed and enticing Eastern-Europe, this may be easier said than done.

But, Europe is not out of play yet. The power of 28 member states at international round tables gives it an advantage over the single vote of the US, allowing it to place heavier pressure on its allies and former colonies to vote as a bloc.

But the strength of the EU, despite its undeniable soft power, still relies on the impenetrable hard power to back it up. The EU played only a secondary role in Iran, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Lebanon, among other international crises. Without an EU army to act on its words, the EU will continue to lack credibility.

Ultimately, neither the EU or the US can rely solely on either soft or hard power. This is perhaps why the US remains a superpower – behind its soft power face, is the hard power punch to follow through.

The challenge now is the balance: for the EU to gain strength, and for Trump to show restraint. To make America strong and great again, hard power and tough words will no longer cut it. Sweets need to be brought to the playground too.

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