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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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.