After the Second World War, the Cold War era between the US and the USSR lasted four decades and ended with the total collapse and dismantling of the Soviet Union in 1991. This epic confrontation between America and the Soviet Union was a new kind of war with no armies or battles. Instead, the tools of ‘Soft Power’ were the dominant force in the US and gave them the upper hand in the war and eventually led for them to win.
In the 1990s, Harvard professor Joseph Nye coined a new term ‘Soft Power’. He wrote several books describing the American use of power in its policies and all the different variables involved, and he made a prediction about America’s power in many of his books. He warned that the US’s ‘soft power’ will be eliminated by the Iraqi and Afghan war and predicted that the US’s ‘soft power” will be transferred from the West to the East with the rise of Asian ‘soft power’ in China and India.
In this article, I will discuss the nature of the use of ‘soft power’ and how the US utilized it in its foreign policy during the eras of George W. Bush, Obama and Donald Trump; and how the administrations have variously used ‘hard power’, ‘soft power’ and ‘smart power.’
Bush and use of hard power
During the administration of George W. Bush, and after the 9/11 attacks, the US used its hard power - the US military - to avenge its fallen victims.
They began with Al-Qaeda’s stronghold of Afghanistan to catch Bin-Laden. They occupied the country and destroyed the Taliban. Nevertheless, they did not stop there, but soon after invaded Iraq to destroy Saddam Hussein and his regime, although they failed to prove that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and they also failed to find a connection between the Iraqi regime and Al-Qaeda.
During these wars, Bush used fancy terms like: ‘the axis of evil’ and ‘it’s a crusade’…etc. This was a way to win over public opinion inside the US and ensure their support for his wars.
These wars certainly did not bring democracy to these countries but turned the two countries into failed states (‘sectarian war’ was the term to describe the civil wars in these countries). Furthermore, the Iraqi war bill exceeded one trillion dollars.
After these wars, the US lost its image and popularity around the world and one poll showed that in more than 37 countries, there was a deep decline in US popularity, and that the majority of Europeans felt that the world became more dangerous after the Iraqi war. American culture and values, once believed to be one of the best in the world, were under threat. As a result, it can be said that during the Bush era, American soft power was dramatically eroded.
Joseph Nye described these wars: “They were a great show of force but they didn’t protect the US or make it immune to terror attacks.”
The Obama period
“Depending only on our hard power to achieve our foreign policy goals is not practical anymore and it’s too expensive,” Joseph Nye observes.
Using the military force as a solution for conflicts had a big impact on the new American president. He had a lot of challenges to tackle; and one of them was the huge budget deficit that had accumulated since 2003 due to the Iraqi war. Another challenge was the problem with real estate mortgages in 2008.
The way Obama dealt with all these challenges was to depend on the US’s ‘soft power’. His methods were clearly felt around the globe in the more moderate US policies towards Iraq. For example, he pulled out the majority of US troops and kept only a small force to train the new Iraqi army. He liked diplomatic solutions to conflicts and did not rely much on the US army to solve conflicts.
During Obama’s era, new superpowers were on the rise. Notably, China and especially Russia, who reintroduced itself into the international theatre through its military intervention in Syria supporting Assad’s regime.
Obama’s strategy in using soft power in a lot of crises, especially the Syrian one, was a big mistake and it failed to bring down the Syrian regime. It even gave Russia a political gain in Syria and the Arab region. Obama was reluctant to use the military to bring down Assad, although the Syrian President was using chemical weapons against his own people.Dr. Naif Alotaibi
John Brennan, Obama’s advisor said: “We will use ‘soft power’, diplomatic and economic power to defeat the extremist methods that were never used by the Bush administration.”
One indicator showing the Obama administration’s interest in ‘soft power’, was that a control room (situation room) was named the Soft Power Control Operations Room. Obama used the strategy of transforming competitors into partners, and taking into account their lack of superiority over America.
He preferred diplomatic solutions and negotiations to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat, which infuriated US allies in the Middle East. He was the first US president since 1979 to address the Iranian people directly and to use terms such as the “the Islamic republic” rather than “the Iranian regime.”
After the Arab Spring, Obama tried to contain the Islamic organizations that won the elections in the Arab world. He also promised to close Guantanamo prison and to stop torturing terrorist suspects. It should be noted, however, that those promises were not fulfilled.
In conclusion, we could say that Obama’s strategy in using soft power in a lot of crises, especially the Syrian one, was a big mistake and it failed to bring down the Syrian regime. It even gave Russia a political gain in Syria and the Arab region. Obama was reluctant to use the military to bring down Assad, although the Syrian President was using chemical weapons against his own people.
Trump and ‘Smart Power'
In 2017, President Trump arrived in the White House and he had one big promise in his campaign: making America great again. The Republican Party and Trump want to bring back the old American image as the sole super power in the world, and they think that Obama’s policies gave the US a weak image.
In his book ‘The Future of Power’, Joseph Nye thinks that economic power is the most important tool in a ‘smart power’ structured organization. Maybe, that is why we would like to see Trump as a successful businessman, rather than a politician or a political party leader.
In the same book, Nye gives an advice to his country: “if the US wishes to succeed in the 21st Century it needs to rediscover itself as a ‘smart power’ country.”
It is a little early to know what kind of force or power Trump is going to use; although it is predicted he will use a combination of the two (hard and soft power) or as it is also called- ‘smart power’, the first indications show Trump threatening to use power in parallel with negotiation and diplomacy.
Dr. Naif Alotaibi is a Saudi writer, researcher and media advisor. He has worked for several prominent Saudi media outlets.