Putin, Xi Jinping, Erdogan, Trump… “Hard power” is reshuffling the geopolitical cards.
In 1990, Joseph Nye invented the notion of soft power to refute the argument that America was in decline. He said that the USA was not regressing, but there was a change in power which put the emphasis on influence that could persuade rather than on strength that would constrain. The internal collapse of the Soviet Empire, followed by wars lost in Afghanistan and Iraq, seemed to confirm the supremacy of soft power. However, it has to be said that the second decade of the 21st century is bringing hard power back into favor. The early 21st century has been marked by a number of brutal events that have been world-changing – affecting demography, the economy, the digital world, climate and politics – and have come fast on each other’s heels. Hence the demands by individuals and populations for protection. The leaders of the major world powers, democracies or démocratures [a combination of democracy and dictatorship], now put strength at the top of their list. Putin is their model. It was he who began the return to favor of the charismatic leader, the cult of personality and presidency for life. In power since 1999, he has just obtained his fifth six-year mandate, with 77% of the votes in an election skewed by widespread fraud. His regime is based on the merging of government and the intelligence services with the energy and raw materials monopolies. He ensures his survival by massive propaganda focused on keeping down opposition and extolling Russian imperialism – which inevitably involves demonizing the West. Violence is sacrosanct, whether it be used to terrorize or assassinate dissidents, to bring the arms race into the arena (with regard to nuclear weapons, drones and lasers), to increase military operations in Georgia (2008), the Crimea and the Donbass (since 2014) and Syria (since 2015), or to use social media to manipulate crucial elections in foreign democracies.
In China, Xi Jinping has changed the Constitution in order to give himself an unlimited term of office as President. The swing to an imperial presidency goes hand in hand with the ambition to achieve world leadership by 2030, benefiting from the air pocket left behind by the USA. Beijing is deploying a global strategy, which combines the strengthening of the Communist Party’s monopoly and giving the benefits of growth to national companies and employment, controling the China Sea, and extending its model via the new silk roads. The Chinese démocrature and its “total-capitalism” are thus tending to become a new norm – in Turkey under Recep Erdogan, in the Philippines under Rodrigo Duterte and in Egypt under Marshal Sissi.
Personal power and the cult of strength are not the prerogative of démocratures, as we can see in Donald Trump’s United States. In one year, he has destroyed more than a century of American soft power. Even though all of its military interventions since 2000 have resulted in failures, the military budget has been increased to 726 billion dollars whilst the State Department’s budget has been reduced by 37%, leaving only 9,400 diplomats in office abroad, as against 270,000 soldiers. Tax reform, financial deregulation, investment control and increased numbers of trade sanctions – the most recent being to make China reduce its trade surplus with the USA – have become the weapons of protectionism. The levers of US influence, trade agreements, alliances and multilateral institutions are being systematically dismantled.
The priority given to hard power is deepening the tensions between nations, whether this concerns trade wars, monetary wars or risks of armed conflict. A new arms race is being instituted, bringing with it a 10% increase in military budgets. It is quite true that strategies based on hard power alone are doomed to failure in the long term, as in the case of the failed demographic and economic program in Russia. It is quite true that it is easy to take pawns when one starts a war, but it is much more difficult to end a war and to make peace – in Syria as in Afghanistan. But although, in the long term, hard power may be going down a dead end street, it produces some formidable immediate successes, like those won by the totalitarian states of the 20th century.
Any illusions we may have had about the advent of market democracy and of an international community have been dashed. The world remains a jungle to which the monsters have returned. If you venture into it unarmed, you are labeling yourself as easy prey. Machiavelli rightly said that, “Among other evils which being unarmed brings you, it causes you to be despised.” Europe must read the warning signs that are being sent by strong men and their politics of power. It must rearm militarily, politically, intellectually and morally.
(Column published in Le Point, 22nd March 2018)