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Is Soft Power Dead?

With an activist Supreme Court creating a gap between democratic rhetoric and reality in the U.S., and Russia and China eager to flex military muscle, the full-force return to hard power looks bound for dominance.

Photo of the U.S. flag and the Chinese flag

U.S. flag and Chinese flag

Dominique Moïsi


PARIS — Russia's war in Ukraine rages on, tensions are erupting in the South China Sea and now abortion rights are being stripped away in the U.S.: Looking around the world, we have to ask: what is left of the notion of soft power?

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How can we talk about the power to convince when the power to coerce is increasingly the norm? And when there is such a gap between rhetoric and reality in the U.S. and in Russia and China, hard power almost seems to have become part of soft power?

“We will lead the world not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example,” Joe Biden said the day after his election. But what kind of example was he talking about? That of the Supreme Court’s judges, whose decision promises a terrible future to women and to all those who still wanted to believe in an enlightened and liberal America?

Or the former president who prepared with absolute audacity and cynicism what can only be described as a coup attempt? American democracy was saved by the courage of men and women, most of whom were Republicans, who put their duty and honor before their loyalty to their party: Men and women for whom obedience to the Constitution was a sacred duty, almost religious in nature.

The fading American dream

Of course, in terms of hard power, the U.S. remains, by far, the world’s leading military power. Its defense budget is equivalent to the military budgets of the nine countries who spend the most in this area after the U.S. Its economy is still (for how long?) the largest in the world. The U.S. is less the stuff of dreams. What if it was, in its least liberal form, a glimpse of our future? But it still provides food for thought to those who would take the risk to directly attack it.

If America’s soft power is no more what it used to be, its two main rivals, China and Russia, have not benefited from it. Russia has deliberately sacrificed the little soft power it had on the altar of the hardest power there is. And China, whether deliberately or not, seems to be going the same way.

Wealth and economic growth were as much part of China’s soft power than its hard power. Ever since Xi Jinping came to power, this is no longer the case. Chinese leaders seemed to be inspired by the example of Guizot to mobilize their population behind them. “Enrich yourself” was their doctrine. By emphasizing the goal of political control over enrichment internally and the assertion of power externally, China has contributed to the triumphant return of geopolitics and the relative fading of geo-economics.

Xi Jinping’s inspiration: Joseph Stalin

Everything is happening as if Xi Jinping’s inspiration was Joseph Stalin: the exercise of the most centralized power possible, whatever the cost. Jeopardizing Hong Kong’s financial position or mobilizing with increasingly aggressive politics against Taiwan. The U.S. is in decline, Europe is, at best, chaotic. Russia may be an ally on the verge of weakening in Ukraine, but it is diverting the world's attention from Chinese ambitions.

The U.S. is in decline, Europe is, at best, chaotic.

In this respect, the parallel with the Korean War (1950-1953) is useful, and not only for its temporary conclusion: the division of the country. In the beginning of the Cold War, the USSR used Chinese soldiers to advance its pawns. Today, it is almost the other way around.

Everything is happening as if China was using the Russian army to advance its ambitions. And this at a time when demographers go as far as to say that the Chinese population has already shrunk by nearly 120 million in recent years. Chinese-style state capitalism could work as long as there was a minimum of balance between these two terms. From the moment the state controlled everything, this unlikely model was doomed in the long run by its internal contradictions.

Photo of U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese Preside Xi Jinping during a video call at the White House

United States President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping

Sarah Silbiger/Pool Via Cnp/CNP/Zuma

Two leading powers going in the wrong direction

The two leading world powers both seem to be going in the wrong direction, each in their own way. America gives people less reason to dream and China is sacrificing soft power for hard power.

Will it be enough for a new beginning?

In the context of global warming, Washington and Beijing should focus first on their internal problems and contribute together to reinventing multilateralism. This is clearly not the direction China has taken. And one can wonder whether the U.S., as if frozen in ever more radical positions is capable of implementing the objectives pursued by the best among them.

It is likely that the 2024 presidential election will pit two new figures against each other: Trump cannot escape justice nor Biden his age. But will it be enough for a new beginning?

What do all these developments mean for Europe? At a time when Putin seems to be basing his actions on Peter the Great, and when Xi Jinping seems fascinated by Stalin’s personality, do we have any other choice than to keep close to an America that — in spite of its excesses and limitations — essentially shares a common set of values with us?

The declining soft power of the U.S. is not a threat to us, but China and Russia’s hard power is.

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