By Robert D. Kaplan
Hard power has not been in vogue since the Iraq War turned badly in about 2004. In foreign policy journals and at elite conferences, the talk for years has been about "soft power," "the power of persuasion" and the need to revitalize the U.S. State Department as opposed to the Pentagon: Didn't you know, it's about diplomacy, not military might! Except when it isn't; except when members of this same elite argue for humanitarian intervention in places like Libya and Syria. Then soft power be damned.
The fact is that hard power is supremely necessary in today's world, for reasons having nothing to do with humanitarian intervention. Indeed, the Harvard professor and former government official, Joseph S. Nye Jr., who, in 2004, actually coined the term soft power in an eponymous book, has always been subtle enough in his own thinking to realize how relevant hard power remains.
As I write, the two areas of the world that are most important in terms of America's long-term economic and political interests — Asia and Europe — are undergoing power shifts. The growth of Chinese air and naval power
is beginning to rearrange the correlation of forces in Asia, while the weakening of the European Union in geopolitical terms
— because of its ongoing fiscal crisis — is providing an opportunity for a new Russian sphere of influence to emerge in Central and Eastern Europe. Of course, both challenges require robust diplomacy on America's part. But fundamentally what they really require is a steadfast commitment of American hard power. And the countries in these two most vital regions are not bashful about saying so.
Security officials in countries as diverse as Japan and Poland, Vietnam and Romania desperately hope that all this talk about American soft power overtaking American hard power is merely that — talk. For it is American warships and ground forces deployments that matter most to these countries and their officials. Indeed, despite the disappointing conclusions to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, rarely before has American hard power been so revered in places that actually matter.
Asia is the world's demographic and economic hub, as well as the region where the great sea lines of communication coalesce
. And unless China undergoes a profound political and economic upheaval — of a degree not yet on the horizon — the Middle Kingdom will present the United States with its greatest 21st century competitor. In the face of China's military rise, Japan is shedding its quasi-pacifistic orientation
and adopting a positive attitude toward military expansion. In a psychological sense, Japan no longer takes the American air and naval presence in Northeast Asia for granted. It actively courts American hard power in the face of a territorial dispute with China over islands in the East China Sea. Japan knows that, ultimately, it is only American hard power that can balance against China in the region. For South Korea, too, American hard power is critical. Though the South Korean military can ably defend itself against North Korea's, again, it is America's air and naval presence in the region that provides for a favorable balance of power that defends Seoul against Pyongyang and its ally in Beijing
. As for Taiwan, its very existence as a state depends on the American military's Pacific presence
Don't tell officials in the Philippines that American hard power is any less relevant than in previous decades. Like Japan, after years of taking the U.S. Navy and Air Force for granted, Manila is literally desperate for American military support
and presence against China, with which it disputes potentially resource-rich islands and geographical features in the South China Sea. Like Japan and South Korea, the Philippines is a formal treaty ally of the United States: that is to say, these countries matter. As for Taiwan, it is arguably one of the finest examples of a functioning democracy in the world beyond the West, as well as geopolitically vital because of its position on the main sea lines of communication. Thus, Taiwan too, matters greatly.
Vietnam, for its part, has emerged as a critical de facto ally of the United States. It is the single most important Southeast Asian country preventing China's domination of the strategically crucial South China Sea. And what is Vietnam doing? It is refitting Cam Ranh Bay as a deep-water harbor
, officially to attract navies from India, Russia and elsewhere; but especially to attract the U.S. Navy.
Malaysia plays down its close relationship with the United States, as part of a delicate diplomatic minuet to get along with both China and the Muslim world. Nevertheless, the number of visits of American warships to Malaysian ports has jumped from three annually in 2003 to well over 50. As for Singapore, one of its diplomats told me: "We see American hard power as benign. The U.S. Navy defends globalization by protecting the sea lanes, which we, more than any other people, benefit from. To us, there is nothing dark or conspiratorial about the United States and its vast security apparatus."
In 1998, the Singaporeans built Changi Naval Base solely to host American nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines. In 2011, there were 150 American warship visits to Singapore. Then there are the four American littoral combat ships that, it was announced in 2011, would be stationed in Singapore.
At the other end of Eurasia, whatever their public comments, diplomats from countries in Central and Eastern Europe are worried about any American shift away from hard power. In the 1990s, the security situation looked benevolent to them. They were in the process of joining NATO and the European Union, even as Russia was weakened by chaos under Boris Yeltsin's undisciplined rule. Following centuries of interminable warfare, they were finally escaping history, in other words. Now NATO and the European Union — so vigorous and formidable in the 1990s — look fundamentally infirm
. Meanwhile, Russia has been, for the moment, revitalized through a combination of natural gas revenues and Vladimir Putin's dynamic authoritarianism-lite. Russia once again beckons on the doorstep of Europe, and the Poles, Romanians and others are scared.
Forget NATO. With declining defense budgets of almost all European member states, NATO is to be taken less and less seriously. The Poles, Romanians and so on now require unilateral U.S. hard power. For years already, the Poles and Romanians have been participating in U.S. military missions in Afghanistan, Iraq and sub-Saharan Africa. They have been doing so much less because they actually believe in those missions, but in order to prove their mettle as reliable allies of the United States — so that the United States military will be there for them in any future hour of need.
Soft power became a trendy concept in the immediate wake of America's military overextension in Iraq and Afghanistan. But soft power was properly meant as a critical accompaniment to hard power and as a shift in emphasis away from hard power, not as a replacement for it. Hard power is best employed not when America invades a country with its ground troops but when it daily projects military might over vast swaths of the earth, primarily with air and naval assets, in order to protect U.S. allies, world trade and a liberal maritime order. American hard power, thus, must never go out of fashion.