Thursday June 20, 2024

Hard power is pivotal

By Javid Husain
March 21, 2021

Dazzled by the achievements and attractions of the Western culture and the appeal of its liberal values, some Pakistani analysts have started propagating the mistaken notion that in international politics soft power is pivotal.

The proposition is based on a superficial and flawed analysis of history and international politics, which can lead to misleading policy conclusions. A deeper look at the history of the rise and fall of nations would reveal that in the ultimate analysis their destiny was decided by the balance of hard power comprising military prowess, economic and technological strength, scientific advancement, and political vitality.

Generally speaking, only when rising nations reached a high stage of economic progress did they allocate increased resources to cultural refinement, thereby adding the element of soft power to their hard power and making their societies attractive for the rest of the world. Undue emphasis on the promotion of soft power before building hard power would amount to putting the cart before the horse.

As initially elaborated by Joseph Nye of Harvard University, soft power can be defined as the ability of a country to attract and co-opt so as to get other countries to want what it wants in contrast with the hard or command power of ordering or coercing others to do what it wants. Soft power involves shaping the preferences of others primarily through the appeal and attraction of its cultural values and accomplishments, political institutions, economic model, and higher academic institutions.

Joseph Nye in his book, ‘Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics’ points out that "A country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries – admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness – want to follow it."

The reality, however, is that soft power alone has little chance of success in persuading other countries to fall in line with the wishes of the country exercising it unless it is sufficiently backed by hard power. History is a witness that countries that emerged as major powers with dominant influence in world politics did so by building up their economic power accompanied or followed by the strengthening of their military muscle. It is only when they acquired a high level of economic and military power, the basic ingredients of hard power, that they started influencing the behavior of other countries to their advantage through the sheer weight of their national power. Soft power came later in most cases to add to the attraction of such countries in co-opting others to their cause.

Britain emerged as the dominant power of the 19th Century primarily because of its economic and military strength which enabled it to establish its global supremacy with the British empire extending from the Far East to Americas.

It relinquished the top position in the ranking of world powers at the beginning of the 20th century when the US surpassed it in both economic and military power, not because there was any diminution in Britain’s soft power which remained more or less the same as it was earlier. Since then, the US has remained the most powerful country in the world, a status which was based primarily on its overwhelming economic and military power and confirmed by its victories in World Wars I and II as well as in the cold war in which it was pitted against the Soviet Union.

Of course, America’s soft power in the form of the attraction of its cultural and artistic accomplishments, its liberal values, its economic model, its outstanding universities, and its advancement in sciences, over and above its hard power, has served to make it the most influential country in the world. But in the absence of its formidable hard power, its soft power would not mean much in international affairs. Whenever there is a critical issue of peace and security, it is the US’s hard power in the form of its economic and military strength which plays the decisive role in the calculations of the international community. It is, therefore, with good reason that the US is spending over $750 billion annually to maintain and strengthen further its formidable military arsenal which enables it to project its power across the remotest corners of the world.

In view of the critical importance of hard power, the US is rightly concerned over the dramatic rise of China’s economic power followed by the steady increase in its military strength. The US now views China as its main competitor because China’s GDP in purchasing power parity terms has already surpassed that of the US and even its GDP in nominal dollar terms will overtake America’s before the end of the current decade. In the military field also, China is fast catching up with the US as its military budget may exceed America’s by 2035. It is this combination of China’s rapidly growing economic and military power which worries American policy makers, not its achievements in terms of soft power which may come later.

Hard power alone, despite its lack of attraction, would carry weight in international affairs. However, soft power alone without the solid base of hard power would amount to little in global politics. The foregoing has important policy implications for Pakistan. Contrary to what the protagonists of soft power advocate, Pakistan’s foremost goal should be to build up hard power at this stage of its development.

Within hard power, top priority should be given to the goal of rapid economic growth as well as scientific and technological advancement, which should be declared our supreme national aim, while maintaining credible security deterrent at the lowest level of armed forces and armaments. Unfortunately, it is precisely in the areas of economic growth and scientific/technological advancement that Pakistan is lagging behind India which poses long-term threat to Pakistan’s security.

Over-emphasis on soft power to the neglect of hard power, especially at this stage of our history, will cause irreparable damage to the country’s security and prosperity in the face of the grave challenges confronting it internally and externally.

The writer is a retired ambassador and president of the Lahore Council for World Affairs.