Soft power key to ‘pivot to Asia’

Asia is a top priority in the second Obama administration’s foreign policy and the U.S. policy in the Asia-Pacific is characterized by a “pivot to Asia.”

As part of the “pivot to Asia,” the United States is shifting its hard power – its military might – to East and Southeast Asia, including a plan to base 60 percent of U.S. naval forces in the region by 2020 and a strengthening of military alliances and strategic partnerships across Asia, with particular focus on Japan, Australia and India as the linchpins. “The Pentagon,” reports Anna Mulrine of the Christian Science Monitor, “is also putting money into developing a new ‘afloat forward staging base’ in the Asia-Pacific, which can be used for everything from counter-piracy to mine clearing to Special Operations Forces missions.”

To make the case for the shift to Asia, as Ashton Carter, former Deputy Defense Secretary and currently Co-Director of the Preventive Defense Project, conveyed to our allies in Europe, “Asia has no NATO, has not had a NATO, has had no way of knitting together countries and healing the wounds of the Second World War. Europe is a source of security and not a consumer of security in today’s world. A central reason for peace and prosperity in Asia has been the pivotal role of American military power in that part of the world.”

In today’s world, however, strategic contest among major powers is no longer merely a game of “hard power,” such as military build-up and restructuring of forces and bases. As Joseph Nye of Harvard University, who invented the term “soft power” some two decades ago, explains, “In today’s information age, success depends not only on whose army wins, but also on whose story wins. Under the new conditions, a soft sell may prove more effective than a hard sell. Power in a global information age, more than ever, will include a soft dimension of attraction as well as the hard dimensions of coercion and payment. Combining these dimensions effectively is called ‘smart power’.”

The United States was a smart power in the past. An over-militarized U.S. foreign policy in the first decade of the 21st century, however, has undercut America’s influence in Asia. The United States now has to focus on the task of rediscovering how to be a smart power in the Asia-Pacific again.

For a starter, Washington has to commit more funds and energy to an important “soft dimension” of the smart power in Asia – American public diplomacy. A public diplomacy by trained diplomats would only be a “diplomacy on steroids,” as Nye has suggested. A new public diplomacy, says Nye, “can no longer be confined to direct governmental contacts serving foreign-policy purposes. It is also about building relationships with civil-society actors in other countries and facilitating networks between non-governmental parties. In this approach to public diplomacy, government policy is aimed at participating in, rather than controlling, such cross-border networks. The evolution of public diplomacy from one-way communications to a two-way dialogue treats publics as co-creators of meaning and communication.”

Another key to the success of “pivot to Asia” is what former U.S. Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank Curtis Chin described as “Brand USA” “Asian demand for Apple’s iPhones and iPads exemplifies the region’s support for ‘Brand USA,” writes Ambassador Chin, “in contrast to the association of ‘Brand China’ with counterfeit goods, shoddy products or aggressive business practices. It is U.S. business tradition and culture that America’s pivot to Asia should more fully embrace.”

“Even as the shifting of military assets captures headlines,” proposed Ambassador Chin, “policymakers in Washington should not lose sight of the fact that U.S. companies and their products, behavior and employees are very much a part of America’s ‘soft power’ in Asia. As the United States continues to rebalance its policy in the Asia-Pacific region, it would be wise to leverage America’s corporate brand strengths and recognize the U.S. business community as an independent but critical partner in this ‘pivot’.”

The United States still possesses most of the attributes of a smart power. The challenge is to turn these “soft dimensions” of the smart power into concrete policy action and to convince millions of people in Asia to have faith in American leadership.

Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College’s China Program.