During World War II, Stalin’s advisers encouraged him to seek the favor of the pope. He famously replied: “How many divisions does the pope have?” Decades later, the Soviets came to realize that papal power was not something to cavalierly disregard. Many, in fact, claim that Pope John Paul II’s moral authority was decisive in breaking the Soviet hold on Poland and propelling the Evil Empire toward its final demise. It was, therefore, a true example of the clout of “soft power.” Of course, one can maintain that view only by discounting the massive U.S. and NATO military forces that kept Soviet hard power in check for decades.
A few years back, a number of policymakers, jumping on a popular academic trend given its greatest voice by Joseph Nye, began espousing a theory of soft power. In this new and shiny vision, America could wield its greatest global influence through the power of its example. The world would just look at how good we were, and how great it was to be an American, and clamor to follow us. Somehow these visionaries neglected to notice that Europe’s almost total unilateral disarmament had failed to translate into influence on the global stage. Rather, it had done the opposite. In a remarkably short time, European opinions on any matter of consequence ceased to matter.
Worse, a large segment of the world took a good look at the American example and was repelled. Some of these people launched the 9/11 attack. At some point, it became clear that those holding a world vision that included returning to eighth-century barbarism were not finding our example attractive. Our deep-thinking strategists realized they needed a new answer. What they came up with was even more seductive than soft power. In the future, America would prosper through the employment of “smart power.” One wonders if our policymakers had been willfully employing “dumb power” for the previous two centuries. In any case, smart-power advocates claimed that a new policy nirvana was attainable, if only we could find the right mix of soft and hard power.
Well, soft power and smart power were fascinating intellectual exercises that led nowhere. Iran is still building nuclear weapons, North Korea is threatening to nuke U.S. cities, and China is becoming militarily more aggressive. It turns out that power is what it has always been — the ability to influence and control others — and deploying it requires, as it always has, hard instruments. Without superior military power and the economic strength that underpins it, the U.S. would have no more ability to influence global events than Costa Rica.
When President Obama made the strategic decision to pivot toward Asia, he did not follow up by sending dance troupes to China, or opening more cultural centers across the Pacific’s great expanse. Rather, he ordered the U.S. military to begin shifting assets into the region, so as to show the seriousness of our intent. If North Korea is dissuaded from the ultimate act of stupidity, it will have a lot more to do with our maintenance of ready military forces in the region than with any desire the North Korean regime has for a continuing flow of Hollywood movies.
By now every serious strategist and policymaker understands that if the United States is going to continue influencing global events it requires hard power — a military — second to none. That is what makes a new report from the well-respected Stockholm International Peace Research Institute troubling. According to SIPRI, in 2012, China’s real military spending increased by nearly 8 percent, while Russia’s increased by a whopping 16 percent. Worse, SIPRI expects both nations to increase spending by even greater percentages this year.
The United States, on the other hand, decreased real spending by 6 percent last year, with much larger cuts on the way. After a decade of war, much of our military equipment is simply worn out and in need of immediate replacement. Moreover, technology’s rapid advance continues, threatening much of our current weapons inventory with obsolescence. As much as the utopians (soft-power believers) want to deny it, American power is weakening even as the world becomes progressively less stable and more dangerous.
In a world where too many states are led by men who still believe Mao’s dictum that “Power comes from the barrel of a gun,” weakness is dangerous. Weakness is also a choice. The United States, despite our current economic woes, can easily afford the cost of recapitalizing and maintaining our military. We are not even close to spending levels that would lead one to worry about “imperial overstretch.” Rather, our long-term security is being eaten up so as to fund “entitlement overstretch.”
I suppose that one day, if left unchecked, the welfare state will absorb so much spending that the only military we can afford will be a shadow of what has protected us for the past seven decades. Soft power will then cease to be one option among many and, instead, become our only choice. We will become as relevant to the rest of the world as Europe.
I wonder how many people realize just how different their daily lives will become if that day arrives. For a long time, American hard power has cast a protective shield around the liberal world order. It will not be pretty when that is gone.
— Jim Lacey is professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps War College. He is the author, most recently, of the forthcoming Moment of Battle. The opinions in this article are entirely his own and do not represent those of the Department of Defense or any of its members.