Soft Power

May 1, 1994

A pivotal question of strategy is when, how, and for what the nation will fight. Many of us believe that former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger had the definitive word on that in his 1984 doctrine, which held that US forces should be committed to combat to achieve clear military objectives when a vital national interest is at stake. In such instances, he said also, force should be committed in decisive strength.

The Persian Gulf War of 1991 followed that prescription to the letter and demonstrated the enormous good sense of it. During his short tenure as Secretary of Defense, Les Aspin rejected the Weinberger Doctrine and espoused a “Limited Objectives” approach, with less restrictive standards for the use of force. This concept was field-tested in Somalia, where humanitarian relief turned into armed peacekeeping. In October, eighteen US Rangers died there in an engagement that wasn’t supposed to be a war, trying to capture a warlord who was riding around on US aircraft a mere two months later.

Defense strategy is a subset of the broader national security strategy, which is why a document that is usually bland and read only by specialists is getting special attention this year. The February 1994 draft of “National Security Strategy of the United States” generated a spike on the political seismograph when it was leaked to the Washington Post. The surprise was a new term–“soft power”–written in by the State Department.

“Soft power” means emphasizing diplomacy, economics, and cultural relationships in a national security strategy broadened to cover such “transnational threats” as environmental change, AIDS, population growth, and decline in biological diversity. The State Department disavows any intent to lessen the strategic emphasis on military power, although the “international affairs resources budget” might need some adjusting.

“Soft power” is said to be the work of Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, a friend of President Bill Clinton since their Oxford days, when they roomed together as Rhodes scholars. His opinions count in this Administration. Furthermore, the new focus on “transnational threats” fits a pattern of ideas that have been floated intermittently over the past year.

From the beginning, the Clinton Administration demonstrated great affinity for the United Nations and its activist secretary general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who leaps from talk of “peacekeeping” and “peacemaking” to “expanded peacekeeping” and “preventive deployment.” He recognizes that the UN charter forbids intervention in domestic affairs, but he advocates it anyway. During the 1992 election campaign, Mr. Clinton said Mr. Boutros-Ghali should have the UN rapid deployment force he wants but that it should be organized on a “voluntary” basis.

Last year, UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright expressed her enthusiasm for “assertive multilateralism.” Concurrently, Morton Halperin, nominated for the newly created post of assistant secretary of defense for Democracy and Peacekeeping, argued that the US should act through international bodies to “guarantee” democracy and the results of free elections and should “surrender the right to intervene unilaterally” abroad.

Administration spokesmen retreated under fire to a more subdued position, but controversy rose again with a draft of Presidential Decision Directive 13, which would have committed American combat troops to UN command for international operations. A Senate resolution, passed by a vote of 96-2, put a damper on that by demanding that the President consult Congress before placing troops under foreign command.

In September, senior Administration officials, paced by National Security Advisor Anthony Lake, proclaimed the US foreign policy theme to be “enlargement,” featuring actions to promote democracy and market economies around the world. Mr. Lake’s hope was that “multilateralism may one day enable the rule of law to play a far more civilizing role in the conduct of nations.”

Administration officials are quick to reaffirm the traditional elements in the national security strategy. “Peacekeeping is not at the center of our foreign policy,” Mr. Lake said in February. “Our armed forces’ primary mission is not to conduct peace operations but to win wars. . . . This Administration has no intention of transferring troops into a standing world army.” Every couple of months, however, another surprise bubbles up. The latest is “soft power” for responding to “transnational threats.” These ideas seem to form a pattern, indicating some deep and persistent belief shared by many of those responsible for national security policy.

Perhaps we should not make too much of it, given the checks and balances of government. Perhaps we should accept at face value the repeated promises to preserve adequate military strength as an instrument of national security. Perhaps there is no submerged or fuzzy thought of sending US troops into engagements, “limited” or otherwise, that may be chosen and directed by international organizations.

Nevertheless, it is alarming to read works like “The Birth of the Global Nation,” which Mr. Talbott wrote for Time magazine in July 1992. He predicted with approval that within the next hundred years, “nationhood as we know it will be obsolete; all states will recognize a single, global authority. A phrase briefly fashionable in the mid-20th century–‘citizen of the world’–will have assumed real meaning by the end of the 21st.”