Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The hard truth on soft power

From the SEP 08 Proceedings is a must read by Norman Friedman on A Shift to Soft Power. Read the whole, somewhat disjointed, thing to get your puzzler puzzl'n - but here is the boil-down point.
In July, Defense Secretary Robert F. Gates approved a new national defense strategy that formally made the war against terrorists the overriding priority. It emphasized the role of allies and partners in a world in which, as many have said, the United States is still the most powerful country but no longer overwhelmingly powerful by itself. The sort of large-war projects that currently occupy much of the defense budget will have to be cut. To the extent that such projects are insurance against a future collision with China or Russia, the document reportedly recommends cooperation to reduce competition.

Just as British imperial power seemed to be at a peak, the British found themselves fighting an insurgency in South Africa. Their heavy naval investment, the high technology of that day, did them little good, and their army found itself ill-prepared to deal with an enemy better trained and armed than those it usually faced in colonial warfare. Is Iraq our Boer War? The British won, but they discovered that they were far weaker than they had imagined and realized they needed allies. They considered an alliance with Germany, their rising rival, and found that the conditions offered were unacceptably onerous. Within a few years they were turning to the French. The course of World War I can be read as an example of how expensive alliances can be, in that the British found themselves helping defend France at all costs. Is China our Germany?

What of soft power? In the years leading up to World War I, London was the financial center of the world economy, much as New York is now. Like the current U.S. Navy, the Royal Navy realized that it was associated with the global economy. Historian Dr. Nicholas Lambert has found that, to a far greater extent than has been imagined, the Royal Navy's leaders looked to economic attack as a means of winning. This was much more than the usual naval weapon of blockade; it was a novel and comprehensive approach to national strategy. Leading British economists showed that attacks on German credit could quite possibly cause rapid national collapse. However, they soon also realized that the British and German economies were so closely linked that an all-out economic attack on Germany would cause a British crash. The British government therefore rejected this approach. In effect the British realized that globalization had created what amounted to mutual assured destruction, a point often raised before 1914 by those who argued that major war was no longer possible.

Tragically the German General Staff, which guided German national policy, was economically illiterate; it did not understand the nature of the deterrent threat. There was no effective civilian government that could veto war on such grounds. Worse, the German leadership seems to have seen war as a way of buttressing itself against a rising demand for power by the German population, as reflected in the Reichstag, the German parliament (whose power was strictly limited). The nuclear weapons that provided deterrence during the Cold War were a lot easier for national leaders to understand.

As for current soft power, many have remarked that the Chinese and U.S. economies are so tightly joined that no sane U.S. administration will calmly contemplate war. This is a 1914 situation. How well does the ruling Chinese Communist Party understand that its country's prosperity underlies its power and that it in turn depends on the United States? If it does, then it will be open to Secretary Gates' cooperation. If not . . .

No comments: