Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Soviet Decline and America's Soft Power

EVER since the summit between Presidents Bush and Gorbachev last June, the press has been filled with accounts of declining Soviet power. While Soviet military might remains impressive, the Soviet economy is in deep trouble, for it has not joined the information revolution. Unlike the United States, whose share of world product has held constant since 1975, the Soviet share has declined over the last decade and a half, and the Soviet Union is becoming a one-dimensional power. Moreover, if Gorbachev were replaced by a hard-liner and his halting reforms reversed, the effect would accelerate Soviet decline and the erosion of the bipolar distribution of power that has marked world politics since 1945. A number of observers assume that the emerging world can best be described as multipolar, and some theorists have argued that the flexible shifting of alliances associated with the classical multipolar balance of power will be a new source of stability in global politics. But the development of a true multipolarity between, say, five countries with similar levels of power resources does not seem likely in the 1990s. Other major countries are likely to be deficient in significant power resources, and the mix of relevant power resources is changing. The Soviet Union is declining, China remains a less developed country, Japan lacks military and ideological power, and Europe lacks unity. The US economy is five times the size of a united Germany.

So the US is likely to remain ``No. 1,'' but being No. 1 won't be what it used to be. New issues in international politics - ecology, debt, drugs, AIDS, terrorism - involve a diffusion of power away from larger states to weaker states and private actors. Unilateral action and hard power resources such as military force cannot solve these problems. Instead, they require cooperative responses. The US and other countries will have to pay much more attention to the problems of organizing cooperation through a wide variety of multilateral arrangements.

About these ads

Traditionally, the test of a great power was war. While force still plays an important role in world politics, there are many instances where force is too costly for a great power to use in an age of nuclear weapons and economic interdependence. But there is also a second, more attractive way to exercise power. A country may get the outcomes it prefers in world politics because other countries want to follow it or have agreed to a situation that produces such effects. In this sense, it is just as important to set the agenda and structure the situations in world politics as to get others to change in particular situations.

This second aspect of power - getting others to want what you want - might be called co-optive or soft power, in contrast with the hard or command power of ordering others to do what you want. Parents of teenagers know that if they have structured their child's beliefs and preferences well, their power will be greater and last longer than if they try to rely only on active control. Similarly, political leaders and philosophizers have long understood the power that can rest on the attraction of one's ideas or the ability to set the political agenda and determine the framework of debate in a way that shapes the preferences others express. The ability to affect what other nations want tends to be associated with intangible power resources such as culture, ideology, and institutions.

Soft co-optive power is just as important as hard command power. If a state's power seems legitimate in the eyes of others, it will encounter less resistance to its wishes. If its culture and ideology are attractive, others will more willingly follow its lead. If it can establish international norms consistent with its society, it will less likely have to change. If a state can help support institutions that make other states wish to channel or limit their activities in ways it prefers, it may not need costly exercises of coercive or hard power in bargaining situations.

A notable example of the success of soft power was the establishment in the postwar period of liberal international economic institutions such as the World Bank and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which conformed with America's long-term interest in an open international economic order.

The universalism of a country's culture and its ability to establish a set of favorable rules and institutions that govern areas of international activity are a critical source of power, which is becoming more important in world politics at the end of this century. In such a world, support for human rights, democratic development, and multilateral institutions is not utopian idealism, but an important dimension of power. So also is preserving the openness of our economy and promoting justice in our society. Military power and hard power resources will remain important, but they will not buy as much for a nation as in the past. This is the Soviet problem today; it is important that it not become the American problem tomorrow.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.