Softer Power

April 22, 2017

Vice President Pence is finishing up his tour of Asia with a visit to one of our staunchest allies in the region, Australia, with whom we have long enjoyed a special relationship. Prior to Australia, Pence spent time meeting with two other crucial regional allies, South Korea and Japan, as well as a visit to a rising regional power, Indonesia. Pence’s trip to Asia came on the heels of trips to the region by Secretary of State Tillerson and Defense Secretary Mattis. Pence’s ten-day swing through the region was mainly to reassure our allies out here in the face of recent threats from an increasingly belligerent North Korea. It was probably wise to send Pence in Trump’s place as his relatively more presidential look would play better to calm jittery allies versus Trump’s off-the-cuff and sometimes dangerous unpredictability. This trip was primarily motivated by security concerns in the region with the U.S. seeking to shore up regional alliances. In the grand scheme of things, it’s only natural to wonder what Pence’s trip means in the context of the formation of any sort of “Trump Doctrine” when it comes to foreign policy. Analysts have been trying to piece together various actions taken by Trump and his administration in the past few weeks, from a missile strike in Syria after Assad’s use of chemical weapons to blustering about reviewing NAFTA and other free trade agreements to threatening North Korea, to come up with a cohesive rationale for his decisions. Let’s put aside for a second trying to guess into which school of international relations Trumps’ actions fall into and try to make sense of all of this recent attention on Asia, a region Trump spent much of the campaign chastising for either not paying enough for its security or engaging in unfair trading practices. The realpolitik reason for this renewed interest is that North Korea poses a vital threat to regional and perhaps global stability, thus the U.S. needs to step in to ensure that things do not spiral out of control. But Trump’s way of stepping in, while hewing to some semblance of behavior what we’d expect during the flare up of an international crisis, still represents a very short-term view and is rather consistent with Trump’s manic and ego-driven approach to governing where notching up “wins” are more important than laying the groundwork for lasting success. When it seems to come to foreign policy in this administration, hard power is all the rage.

Speaking of wins, in an administration nearly 100 days in and sorely lacking in many, Trump did carry through on one campaign promise. He pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) almost immediately upon taking office, a free trade agreement that would have re-wrote trade rules for the region and ensured that the U.S. remained an integral part of Asia’s rise. Free trade agreements such as the TPP are one of the best examples of soft power, a crucial complement to hard power when trying to build lasting regional stability. However soft power is a lot more subtle than the hard power we’ve seen demonstrated by the Trump administration. It’s a lot easier to express awe at our military might as rockets hit an airfield than it is for negotiators holed up for months on end trying to hammer out a free trade agreement. However, I would argue that a free trade agreement such as the TPP encompassing approximately 40% of global GDP and 20% of global trade would serve as a crucial building block to greater regional cooperation and cement the U.S.’ commitment to the region. Yet it seems that soft power has no place in whatever Trump Doctrine is emerging and instead of being proactive and regional institutions for regional and global stability, we maintain a reactive posture in the region that has us and our allies on the defensive in the face of a rogue state and begging China to help us rein in this rogue state.

As we fast forward nearly three months from when Trump pulled the U.S. out of the TPP, we will have had three visits to the region by some of the most senior members of the Trump administration.  They have been out here trying to temper the North Korean threat by reassuring our allies that we’ll stand with them.  However, this is the problem with hard power.  It looks impressive in action, but its effects tend to be either temporary, unsettling to the global order, or both.  That’s not to say that hard power such as firing missiles to send a message after a gross violation of human rights and international norms is a bad thing.  What is a bad thing is when hard power is not balanced out with the more nuanced and less tangible benefits of soft power, which quietly does it work when we’re not baring our teeth in a display of hard power and goes further in ensuring enduring peace and prosperity.

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Forward, Not Backward

October 11, 2012

It’s been over three months since my last jaunt to China and part of me yearns to be back on the ground in the thick of things given how much has happened since I’ve returned – the government has finally set a date for the once-in-a-decade leadership transition (November 8th), Japan and China are rattling their sabers more loudly than ever over a bunch of rocks in the East China Sea supposedly sitting on abundant natural resources, the Chinese people are protesting in a more sustained and forceful manner over issues raging from the aforementioned Sino-Japanese dispute to environmental and labor issues, and Gu Kailai and Wang Lijun have been victims of the theatrical spectacle that has been Bo Xilai’s downfall.  Definitely exciting times in China.  Throw in a slowing domestic economy, a restless population in Hong Kong, and an American presidential election where China has once again turned into a scapegoat for candidates trying to falsely prove to voters they have the balls big enough to contain China and you have enough material for a ten-act play that would only barely scratch the surface of the complex forces at work in that part of the world.  Yet here I am in my bubble known as New York wishing I could just wander the streets of Guangzhou or be in a classroom in Linyi and just feel what is transpiring over there.  Instead I have to read all I possibly can and apply my own experiences and knowledge to try and make sense of what is going on over there.

I am an American and no matter how much time I spend in China, I will never be an insider.  Thus it’s probably more productive for me in the long run to figure out how to use what I have learned over the years to effect positive change in the U.S. – Sino relationship going forward.  Though I struggle with how to exactly do such a thing.  I have been lucky over the years to have been asked to teach in Chinese universities, attend conferences, provide testimony in front of a Congressional commission, and study both modern China and Mandarin.  What do I do now?  I watch an American foreign policy engaged in a tug-of-war between trying to cling to a past where America called the shots and everyone else stood at attention (case in point, see Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s Wall Street Journal op-ed on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East published on October 1st) and recognizing that America is one player among many that can no longer dictate how other nations conduct both their domestic and international affairs.  I think Aaron David Miller’s piece on FP.com responding to Mitt’s op-ed is spot-on when he writes:

The past twenty years of failed American policy on peacemaking and war making in this region [the Middle East] reveal the costs of failure and what it’s done for our image abroad.  This has nothing to do with being a ‘”declinist” or not believing in American ‘”exceptionalism.'” We are exceptional, but part of that uniqueness lies in understanding that the wisest policies are those that find the balance between the way the world is and the way we want it to be. Great powers get themselves into heaps of trouble when they commit transgressions of omniscience and omnipotence by thinking they know everything and can do everything, too.

Extrapolate Miller’s thoughts on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East to any other hot spot in the world and this principle of recognizing a balance between how things are and how we would like them to be can be applied.  Our approach to China should also hew to this principle of finding a balance, but instead we get a policy that appears to be reactionary and ill-informed.  Threats of labeling China a “currency manipulator”, slapping tariffs on Chinese goods, and standing in the way of Chinese investment in the name of political expediency ignore the reality that China has arrived as a power and America must learn how to live with that reality rather than try to set the clock back 20 years and invoke policies that apply to a world that no longer exists.  I have traveled and lived around the world and I will be the first to admit that as a privileged liberal arts college student, patriotism was the last thing on my mind.  Today I find myself more proud to be an American and an ambassador for the ideals and values our country is supposed to represent, but I also recognize that our power unfortunately has limits and we must think long and hard about how we maximize our impact upon the rest of the world.

Admitting that America has limits does not make me any less of an American than Mitt Romney who implores us that “[I]f the 21st century is to be another American Century, we need leaders who understand that keeping the peace requires American strength in all of its dimensions.”  I find such a call to arms more alarming than rousing, one dimensional as opposed to multi-dimensional.  It’s an over-simplistic approach to a world that is not a simple place to begin with.  Romney seems to mistakenly and rather naively believe that if we restore America’s economic strength and expand our military’s budget, we can start “shaping” events in the Middle East and beyond.  If only it were that simple – create robust economic growth and maintain a spendthrift military to restore order and sanity in the world on America’s terms.  Mind you that Romney has not put forth any policies to make those two pillars of his foreign policy a reality except for promising to expand the military’s budget, but that’s not my main point.

Putting aside Romney’s lack of specifics for a second, it’s this hubristic and one-note approach to American foreign policy that is most problematic.  We don’t live in a unipolar world where America merely needs to reclaim her mantle and we certainly don’t live in a world where a one-note approach predicated on solely restoring America’s greatness is going to do anything to move the needle in that direction for us.  The world is a nuanced and complicated place, which almost makes it sound manageable when reduced to two seemingly simple adjectives.  However, the only way to tackle this type of world is with a proactive foreign policy.  Proactive does not mean throwing our military might around the world and shoving our values and ideas down other people’s throats.  It means listening and understanding what we’re up against and maximizing the tools at our disposal to create a framework where America’s tangible and intangible support is valued and sought out.  Being a bully is not the way to get people to ultimately listen to you because once the bully hangs up his boxing gloves. it’s as if he never existed and the playground will revert to the chaos that preceded the bully.  The same goes for the world stage.  America cannot merely bully with its military and dollars without understanding where other regimes and their people are coming from and ascertaining what we’re up against before blindly throwing our might around.  Once we begin to understand, we need to begin crafting a framework that builds relationships co-opting our existing allies and cultivating new ones based on mutual respect and understanding.  It’s not an overnight process and it’s certainly not easy, but it requires us being proactive and getting out in front of events rather than merely reacting to them.

Where does China fit in a proactive foreign policy?  Take the vaunted trans-Atlantic alliance that was the bedrock of Cold War-era foreign policy.  America had a grand strategy predicated upon principles that were transparent and engendered support from multiple parties.  Granted it was a seemingly simpler time with a bipolar world engaged in a Cold War divided between the Soviet Union and the U.S., but the important thing during that time was that American foreign policy was guided by a framework that actually required some forethought and was used to guide our actions around the globe.  One can argue that the framework was merely containing Communism, but that initial goal required carefully balancing relationships around the world and trying to use our resources in the most effective way possible.  We live in a seemingly more complex world, but that same forethought and commitment to clearly articulated principles is required, hence what I like to call a proactive approach. If we believe all of the pundits, we are increasingly moving into a new bipolar world with China and America each heading up a pole.  Even if we are not moving to a purely bipolar world, China is going to be an increasingly important power on the world stage and we are still left reacting to her every move.  This approach is the opposite of proactive.  We need to re-evaluate our relationship with China and try to better understand where she is coming from as a rising power, warts and all. and construct a grand strategy for working with her during her rise instead of just playing tit-for-tat on the global stage and coming across as a bunch of awkward adolescents trying to figure out the contours of their relationship.

Romney reiterated his foreign policy “ideas” in a speech this past Monday and it was a lot of the same.  He wants to restore America’s greatness and blamed Obama for making America weak.  Putting aside the election politics of the moment, one flaw on both sides of the aisle is a lack of thought and wherewithal for dealing with the world as it is today.  We respond to things, whether they be in the Middle East, Asia, South America, or even Europe.  Rather than trying to make America great by restoring her past glory, we should be thinking prospectively how to keep America great by playing to her strengths that reflect the reality of today’s world.  Perhaps my role in all of this craziness is to figure out how to bring my China experience to the forefront to continue helping  in some small way to bridge the gaps in understanding.

I never thought that I would be writing about 9/11 nearly 11 years after it happened and while sitting in Linyi, but here I go.  It all started yesterday when Ms. Jiang, the woman from Linyi University who is responsible for the international programs, picked us up for a farewell dinner.  She took us on a scenic tour of the city along the river and then down some side streets that I had not been down, including one that went past one of the best schools in Linyi.  Like most Chinese cities, there were quite a few plots of land cleared of old buildings and waiting for new ones to take their place.  As we were driving down the street, one of the plots still had debris from the previous building that had been demolished, including a large portion of the front of what looked like a two or three story market.  From the back seat of the car, John (one of the other professors from UNH), remarked to me that I probably had not seen anything like that (meaning the demolished building) since September 11th.  As soon as I heard his comment, I had a visceral reaction.  I tensed up, turned around, and told him that I thought his comment was highly inappropriate and not something that I expected to hear out of his mouth.  What was most remarkable was that he did not apologize or even act as if he realized that his comment had affected me deeply.  He just continued prattling on about how there were so few new buildings in New York and even went so far as to ask me where I was for 9/11.

Yesterday’s incident instantly took me back to that time.  I was living in Hong Kong at the time, working as an investment banker at Salomon/Citigroup, and it was evening in HK when the events transpired back in New York on what was a most perfect late summer day.  Being 7000 miles from home when something unprecedented of that magnitude happens is indescribable, so I am not even going to try.  What I can do is tell you what happened in my office in Hong Kong because of course we were working past 8pm on a Tuesday night as investment bankers.  As word of the attacks spread, most of us were either on the phone trying to connect with loved ones back in the States or watching the events live on big projection screens in one of our conference rooms.  The Hong Kong office of Salomon had quite a few Chinese nationals working there and they were also watching the events unfold back in New York.  When the first tower fell, many of these Chinese bankers began clapping and cheering as if their national soccer team had won the World Cup, like what was happening was some spectator sport.  One of my American colleagues was so angry at the combination of the towers collapsing and the apparent glee of the Chinese bankers that he punched a wall.  I also remember feeling angry and intensely American at that moment, scared of what this moment meant for the future of my country and wholly cut off from my Chinese colleagues.

John’s comment yesterday immediately brought me back to that moment when my Chinese colleagues were clapping and cheering as the first tower fell and I felt alone.  In all my time back in China since that moment, even when U.S. – China relations were at low points, when I would be asked where I was from and I replied “America” or 美国 (Meiguo, meaning beautiful country), the reaction was always largely positive.  I am not one for the sacred or taboo, but to joke about an event like 9/11 feels like crossing some invisible line.  Perhaps I am overreacting, but I just think back to that day many years ago when there was a feeling of glee from my Chinese colleagues that America had received her comeuppance and I wonder if that feeling still persists among Chinese people.  Having lived abroad relatively long periods, I have learned that many people are able to separate their love of Americans and all things American from their distaste for the country’s leaders and policies, something especially apparent during the Bush years.  But how sincere is this separation and what is to prevent distaste for one from seeping into the other.  Whenever I travel and live abroad, I try to be the best ambassador for the States that I can be, taking a balanced view to America’s policies and avoiding any of the typical “Ugly American” behavior.  Yet sometimes I cannot avoid this feeling of intense patriotism and the need to defend my country from unwarranted attacks, which is not something that easily jives with my liberal and largely unpatriotic tendencies.  The fact that John, someone who made the choice to leave China to raise his family in the States with a job in American academia, a comfortable existence in suburban Connecticut, and a son at a top American college would choose to make such an insensitive comment just baffles me.

The comment also raises the larger issue that I touched on before about whether the professed love of America by the average Chinese person is genuine.  It also raises the question about soft power, which I think is one of America’s greatest tools in its foreign policy arsenal.  American brands and culture are everywhere around the world and have pervaded even the most remote corners of the planet.  We all have a story about being in the middle of nowhere and then stumbling upon something that reminds them at home, whether it’s a song, movie, or product.  Secretary of State Clinton has made repeated comments about the strength of American soft power and its importance in the overarching umbrella of American foreign policy, but those more hawkish on American foreign policy tend to pooh-pooh this part of our diplomatic efforts.  Living and visiting China, I think it’s folly to downplay the importance of soft power.  If it was not important, China would not be trying to do the same thing and harness its soft power to extend its influence around the world.  It’s why Xinhua, the Chinese government’s news agency, opened its North American headquarters in New York’s Times Square in 2011 and announced plans to launch a 24-hour global English-language news channel.  When our main rival is seeking to project its own soft power around the world, I think it’s a clear sign that this part of foreign policy should not be ignored.

All of the various exchanges that American institutions and companies have established with Chinese counterparts are part of extending the reach of soft power and provide tangible and meaningful interactions for many Chinese people who only know about Americans from what they see in movies and TV shows.  Will more soft power eliminate reactions like those from my Chinese colleagues all those years ago when the Twin Towers collapsed?  Perhaps not completely, but such power will go a long to building links between people and tapping into that universal human feeling of sympathy and understanding.  As for John’s comment, he’s a nice guy and has been very welcoming, so I am not taking it personally, but I must admit that I did look at him a little differently when we met to go to class this morning.  I think my change in how I view him is merely because I am just incredulous that someone could make a comment like that, especially to an American who he knows has strong ties to New York.