Authors: Joshua Cooper Ramo
I am in Beirut. There’s a funny trick to the light at this hour, a way in which a Mediterranean haze thickens sunlight as
it settles like paint onto rooflines and gathers in corners. You feel you are seeing the city a thousand years ago. It is
the sort of peaceful pause that both deepens your love for Beirut and makes you wonder at the arch particulars of its historical
fate. I am relaxing at a rooftop café, watching the sun drop into the ocean, that last light settling into bullet scars and
blast marks on the seaside buildings. Lena is sitting next to me, and she too makes you startle a bit at the collision of
history and spirit here, makes you fall in love with the city even as she perplexes you. She has dark eyes, an elegant smooth
neck stretching out of a turquoise silk blouse, and a ready smile. She has been shopping at the record store downstairs, picking
up the latest albums by Madonna and Gwen Stefani. Lena is smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, complaining a bit in passing about
work, the small annoyances of a job at a Lebanese TV station. The subject of our conversation turns to Lena’s hatred of the
United States and of Jews. With great passion, in between pulls on the cigarette, Lena is talking about the dream of destroying
One of the most appealing notions that emerged from the Soviet collapse was the idea that what B-52s, ICBMs, and years of
economic and political pressure had been unable to do,
episodes, Michael Jackson, Levi’s, and Coke had done in the space of a couple of years. Give Lena Madonna, and her heart
would follow. The idea was given an academic blessing by the then-dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard,
Joseph Nye, who labeled it “soft power” in an influential 1990 essay. “Hard power,” Nye explained, was guns and armies and
fighter planes. “Soft power” meant, in language only a political scientist could love, “the ability to establish preferences.”
Soft power was carried not in bombs but in television shows, music, and the dream of what a nation stood for. Hard power killed
people; soft power seduced them. And America, Nye said, had plenty of it. In fact, American cultural dominance seemed in some
ways more uncontestable than her military strength. Other nations had aircraft carriers and cruise missiles, but who else
Monday Night Football
and Disney World? The country’s cultural superiority, Nye suggested, should help guarantee its security for decades.
But there was a problem: soft power was one of those beautiful academic ideas that failed a lot of tests of practical foreign
policy, not simply the little paradoxes in places like Lena’s handbag, where Madonna albums and anti-American propaganda nestled
comfortably. Soft power felt right,
right to American ears — all the more so because it confirmed our suspicions about the superiority of our way of life and
bolstered our natural hopes for a peaceful future. It became, like Democratic Peace Theory, one of those vague, unprovable
notions that triggered a whole set of foreign-policy misfires. When, after all, had soft power ever really stopped a war?
Europe’s history is filled with tragic examples of countries that shared resonant values tearing vengefully into one another
with a loathing that no opera or philosophy or ballet could mitigate. “A conquering army on the border will not be stopped
by eloquence,” Bismarck — a Paris-lover who besieged the city — once observed. And armies weren’t stopped by even the deepest
cultural affinity. It was hard to see much soft power at work, for instance, as Japanese generals used Chinese characters
to ink page after page of orders to incinerate Chinese cities in World War II — before sitting down to a rice-heavy dinner
consumed with chopsticks in a spirit of Bushido that owed not a little to Chinese Ch’an Buddhism.
Listening to Nye’s stories of soft power at work, you could find yourself in some uncomfortable intellectual backbends. “Nicaraguan
television broadcast American shows even while the government fought American-backed guerrillas,” he wrote at one point, eager
to show soft power at work. “Similarly, Soviet teenagers wear blue jeans and seek American recordings, and Chinese students
used a symbol modeled on the Statue of Liberty during the 1989 uprisings.” If you wanted to, you
read the irrepressibility of American culture into these observations: “Even as they waged war against us, those crazy Central
Americans still watched our TV shows!” you might chuckle as you sat in Boston or Washington. “They couldn’t fight their real
love for our way of life, hard as they tried.” But you could also read this more simply and pick up a message that was impossible
to miss if you had actually spent any time in Managua or Moscow or Beijing with the people Nye had in mind. It was possible
kill American proxy-army soldiers. You could spend your morning applying to Harvard and your afternoon — as happened in Beijing
in 1999 after U.S. missiles hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade — stoning the U.S. embassy. The North Korean leader Kim Jong
Il grew up watching Clint Eastwood movies. Shiites may like Madonna. Bosnian soldiers murdering civilians while wearing Nikes
are not some weird historical anomaly —
How can they like the Houston Rockets and also murdering children?
Rather, they are highly personal expressions of the way in which collisions of power and modernity produce unpredictable
results. Soft power sounds good, it reassures us that there must be
great about our own way of living, but it doesn’t really make much sense if you think about it. Those murderous Bosnians
in their Air Jordans are an expression of the diversity that awaits us and that we have to plan for — not some weird exception.
The illusion of soft power has led to some disastrous miscalculations. Through several U.S. presidencies, for instance, American
foreign-policy leaders were seduced by the idea of a “moderate Iran” that needed only time and the gentle application of soft
power in order to emerge, like a butterfly sleeping inside a cocoon of fundamentalist hate. For most of the 1990s, Iran’s
support for terrorism and its relentless quest for an atom bomb were written off as soon-to-be-forgotten peculiarities of
a still-evolving nation.
Let soft power do its work,
the thinking ran. The United States pursued a policy of light pressure and incessant flirting, entranced by the idea that
Tehran’s hard-line mullahs would be pillowed into submission as mobile phones, Wi-Fi, and teenaged Iranian girls wearing lipstick
under their hijabs worked their magic.
Iran, meanwhile, did evolve — just not in the way it was supposed to: it started refining more uranium using better technology,
and it expanded its ties to Hizb’allah, deepened its connection with Syria, encouraged all sorts of mischief in Gaza and Iraq.
Opinion polls showed that even moderate Iranians thought the country should keep working on a nuclear bomb. As Iran patiently
accumulated the tools of regional influence and luxuriated in the power vacuum brought on by U.S. destruction of its neighbors
Afghanistan and Iraq, it developed both the tools and the trenchant mentality of a Shia superpower. It hardly mattered whether
the United States and its allies had been tricked or deluded. The result was settled: in substituting Levi’s for reality,
America and Europe had squandered a decade of opportunity to pry into Iran’s weakness.
Something interesting and important had been going on inside Iran. But, because we were looking at it the wrong way, through
a lens of soft-powered inevitability, we missed it. It would have been far better to have a policy that pushed in hard and
inventive ways on many fronts at once instead of hoping historical forces would work in ways we thought we could predict.
Later on we’ll see how surrounding a problem like Iran, swarming it with different policies, presents a radically new kind
of diplomatic pressure that is both responsive and flexible, that doesn’t count on any certainties. “Iran
become more moderate” is not a good basis for policy; it’s hardly a good basis for a wager. We can’t ever know for sure what
is going to happen inside the complex sandpile of Iranian politics and religion, so we’ve got to explore policies in multiple
creative ways all at once. It’s the difference between a linear “first we’ll sanction them, then we’ll wait for history to
work, then we’ll watch the government collapse” narrative and a campaign better suited for a nonlinear world. We’re not baking
cookies here; we’re trying to stress and press a complex system in many ways.
Of course, it’s distressing when we find our enemies ignoring what we thought were those surefire post–Cold War rules, those
just add cell phones
recipes for modernity. When researchers find that the vast majority of suicide bombers come from nonreligious, educated middle-class
families, we often have a hard time squaring the facts with the images of the world that we carry around. When voters in Venezuela
or Gaza choose governments different from our own in elections, we want to believe they’ve been misled or cheated. But really
these choices are signs of the strange interactions that have always existed and that now simply accumulate faster and in
stranger combinations. The end of the Cold War wasn’t proof that our way of life was inevitable. Rather it was the clearest
possible demonstration of the opposite, of the way that the smallest quirks can mark out great differences — and of how hard
we now must work to maintain the ideals and values we believe in.
The good news, as we’re about to see, is that this same energy offers tremendous hope. The world isn’t being paved over by
a smooth, universalized system. And that very ability to evolve systems that fit the needs of different peoples and cultures
and to encourage real diversity in thinking will help us solve many of the problems we face. Of course all of this has to
be constrained in a framework of basic rights, which we’ll discuss as a crucial part of deep security. In a way, the most
gripping part of Gorbachev’s own story was that he saw the hope that sandpile forces could bring, even though he could never
quite figure out how to master them. It’s not going to be easy to change ourselves or our ideas enough to take full advantage
of these forces either, not least because we’ll be trying to do so even as we are faced with a world that feels ever more
chaotic, out of control, and threatening. But this is precisely why we’ve got to abandon the easy idea that history is somehow
“on our side” and that the end of the USSR showed that all we need to do is wait. Those thousand flowering isms now on the
way will challenge our values. And if we don’t accept the need to move now, to act, to change our ideas, well, then, there’s
a good chance we’ll end up like Gorbachev in the photo that hangs in my house — alone, deep in the wilderness, staring at
the footsteps that led us here and finally knowing the answer to that haunting question:
what is it like to lose an empire?
In the fall of 2002, at a military fair in the southern Chinese port city of Zhuhai, you could find for sale, near the stands
that were selling miniature plastic helicopter toys and harmless general-aviation seats, a small box that promised, for the
cost of tens of thousands of dollars, to undo many billions of dollars of weapons development and about forty years of military
history. If you saw the box for sale there, stared at the little collection of transistors and transmitters inside, and you
didn’t know any better, you might simply have figured that it was the mild and friendly dream invention of one of China’s
eager new entrepreneurs, produced with the same clever enthusiasm as a mobile phone or plastic car parts. You would have been
The Zhuhai military show was not a must-attend stop for the heavyweights of international arms dealing. Though China was a
rising power, the country was mostly known for its cheap AK-47s, which probably killed more people in conflicts around the
world every year than any other weapon — with the exception of off-years like 1995, when the AK’s nearest low-cost competitor,
the machete, killed nearly a million people in Rwanda. In any event, China wasn’t generally known for peddling particularly
impressive weaponry. The Chinese military had a doctrine of developing what they called “assassins’ maces” — computer viruses,
antisatellite weapons, microsubmarines — which would use high tech to knock out bigger powers (read: the United States) that
might one day attack China. But those packages were certainly not for sale. Among other things, the assassins’ maces were
likely packed full of technology that had been lifted from the United States, France, Russia, and other countries, in violation
of nearly every national-security export law on the books in those nations. The Chinese, whose country had been invaded by
nine different nations between 1839 and 1949, were noticeably, sensibly reticent about sharing much of their way of war. That,
in a way, was what made the innocuous little box on sale at the Zhuhai fair so unusual.
Before we can understand the importance of what the box contained and what it means for us in a sandpile world, we need to
understand something about modern warfare — or at least the kind of modern warfare that has been fought by the United States
and its allies since World War II. From the earliest African battles of that war to the most recent skirmishes in Iraq, America
has held as a matter of nearly religious doctrine the idea that war demands control not only of the ground but of the air.
This idea was once seen as so absurd that it cost its leading advocate, a forward-thinking army general named Billy Mitchell,
his job in the Army Air Service after he suggested in 1919 that airplanes were the future of war (and, in 1925, predicted
an eventual Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor). But by the end of World War II, this apostasy had become dogma: the United States
was pumping out more than 100,000 warplanes a year and had crystallized a killing doctrine in which the airplane was indispensable.
The idea lived on into the Cold War and beyond through ideas like the Pentagon’s AirLand Battle doctrine, in which nearly
a million men and billions of dollars’ worth of machinery were designed (who knew if it would work?) to produce a harmonious
concert of airplanes, satellites, and unmanned aerial vehicles. The U.S. military would no more go to war without air superiority
than you or I would drive a car without the windshield.