Michael KreponHard and Soft Power

Lyric of the week:

There’s gonna come a time when the true scene leaders
Forget where they differ and get big picture
’cause the kids at their shows, they’ll have kids of their own
The sing-a-long songs will be our scriptures
We gotta stay positive
We gotta stay positive
We gotta stay positive
We gotta stay positive
–The Hold Steady, “Stay Positive”

T-shirt logo of the week:

“God is dead” – Nietzsche
“Nietzsche is Dead” – God
–worn by Hugh DeSantis while fishing for muskellunge at Lake Kesagami near the Arctic Circle

What makes the United States exceptional? One macro answer is the combination of hard power and soft power. Hard power is military muscle and effective employment. Soft power is the power of example, a power that invites emulation and that diminishes nations that fall short of the U.S. example. When U.S. influence in the world is greatest, America’s hard and soft power are also great. Under the America First of Donald Trump, U.S. hard power lacks conviction and its soft power has plummeted. America’s standing in the world has taken a severe hit.

George W. Bush squandered U.S. hard power in two unwinnable wars without exit strategies. Al Qaeda’s leadership needed to be defeated in Afghanistan, but then what? There was no good answer. The war to topple Saddam Hussein was a tragic error in judgement and execution prompted by false assumptions and shoddy intelligence. The principle beneficiary of this war has been Iran. The takeaways that others were supposed to learn from these wars were lost in the blowback.

When hard power is misused, soft power becomes a casualty. Joseph Nye described soft power as “the ability of a country to structure a situation so that other countries develop preferences or define their interests in ways consistent with its own.” Nye’s short form definition — “getting others to want what you want” — seems too narrow. A broader, non-transactional definition of soft power is a country’s attractiveness.

Likability matters. Soft power is evident in the domains of culture and sports. Jazz, hip-hop, the agility, speed and power of NBA basketball, and the rhythms of major league baseball are elements of soft power, creating lifelong affinities by drawing attention and emulation. The rosters of NBA and MLB teams are indictors of America’s international drawing power.

Likability extends to political leaders and their policies. The Bush administration’s reliance on hard power reflected the priority of preventing another 9/11, and for this, it was better to be feared than liked. The Obama administration also relied on hard power, exercised on a far lesser scale. Osama bin Laden was found and killed, and targeted drone strikes increased, but wars in Afghanistan and Iraq continued to defy success, no matter how narrowly defined.

Where the Obama administration excelled was in the exercise of soft power. No advertisement of American soft power was more compelling than a Democratic political system that elevated an African-American – the son of a wayward Kenyan father and a mother from Kansas — to the Oval Office.

Barack Obama was the living embodiment of the promise of America to achieve a more perfect Union. His name, his skin color and his background were different. His demeanor wasn’t stiff. He crooned Al Green tunes. He shot hoops and didn’t kill animals for sport or for food. Constituencies could relate to him that previously felt far removed from the White House. Obama struck chords that hadn’t been played by his predecessors.

Obama was a vessel that people at home and abroad could fill with their aspirations or their fears. For some, aspirations were so great that they were disappointed. Others couldn’t relate to Obama or were unalterably opposed to what they presumed he stood for.

Obama could be hard to situate. He came across as both an idealist and a pragmatist. He had a magnetic personality and yet he also seemed detached and aloof. He had intellectual depth, and yet he could connect with crowds. He mostly kept his cool and could flash a magnificent smile. The elevation of  America’s soft power abroad was one of the greatest accomplishments of his presidency.

Donald Trump is as transparent as Obama was hard to figure. Trump embodies egotism, gloss and self-dealing. All presidents have outsized egos, but none have been so large and as deformed as Trump’s. Never has a presidential personality so demeaned the office and diminished U.S. standing abroad. Trump’s intellectual curiosity is negligible. He doesn’t acknowledge what he doesn’t know, he dispenses with troublesome expertise, and surrounds himself with ingratiating company.

Trump ran on a platform of “America First” and he has proven it. The Republican Party is in the process of reverting to isolationist sentiment akin to the 1920s and 1930s, a process that Trump greatly accelerated. He shoots from the lip. Allies have been dissed. At first, they reeled; now they discount and compensate. Trump’s thundering pronouncements amount to nothing. He, like Obama, wants to bring troops home. Unlike Obama, Trump has an exit strategy for Afghanistan, and it’s as ugly as his exit strategy from northern Iraq.

Badly overused by Bush, carefully managed under Obama, America’s hard power has now been sheathed by Trump. America’s soft power has plummeted. With the State Department listing badly to starboard at Foggy Bottom, the free fall in America’s international standing continues apace.


  1. Mitchel Wallerstein (History)

    I couldn’t agree more–on ALL counts. The damage being done by this malignant narcissist to the international standing and relationships of the United States is incalculable. It will take at least a decade of stable, engaged leadership and diplomacy to re-build. Should the American people make the colossal blunder of re-electing the president, the damage may be generational at the very least.

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