The COVID-19 pandemic has appropriately stimulated some rethinking about threats, power, and national security. The public health crisis has demonstrated that many Americans can suffer and die from a threat that has little or nothing to do with the sorts of hard power that traditionally figure into discussions of national security. The virus is the most transnational of threats — knowing no territorial boundaries and unconquerable by any nation acting alone. Military power is useless against it.
Even the economic power of developed countries, although it offers some advantages in dealing with the pandemic, also entails vulnerabilities. Features of advanced economic status such as international air travel have hastened exposure to the virus. COVID-19 has knocked advanced economies, including that of the United States, into recession.
Probably the denizens of the world who are least vulnerable to the virus are subsistence farmers in backward, faraway places.
A related and more general point concerns the relative importance of hard and soft power in advancing U.S. interests and providing for the security and well-being of the American people. Hard power, including military power, has less to do with those objectives than often supposed. The well-being of Americans is threatened less by any hostile military force than it is today by a highly infectious virus and in the years to come by a changing global climate.
Soft power, by contrast, is still at least as relevant as ever. Soft power, as Joseph Nye explored the concept years ago, refers to getting people to want to do what we want them to do rather than forcing them to do it. Soft power has always had advantages of cost and effectiveness. It is cheaper and easier, with less collateral damage, to achieve our objectives when others willingly cooperate than when we have to spend resources and effort on coercion.
The nature of today’s most dangerous threats puts a premium on willing cooperation over coercion. Countering a worldwide viral pandemic is a prime illustration.
Consider also today’s competition between the United States and China, which some liken to the earlier U.S.-Soviet Cold War. Hard power is part of it, especially as it involves a specific tactical situation such as naval forces in the South China Sea. But unlike the Cold War, a nuclear arms race is not part of it — despite what the Trump administration’s handling of nuclear arms control might lead one to believe — with China having far fewer nuclear weapons than either Russia or the United States.
In the wake of China’s explosive economic growth and emergence in the top rank of world powers, any competitive advantage for the United States lies in the soft power area. That advantage would involve the attraction of being a liberal democracy, which China conspicuously is not. The power of that attraction can be seen in the determined resistance of demonstrators in Hong Kong, for whom the economic accomplishment of mainland China is not enough. But the United States has been losing such an advantage rapidly, and Chinese leaders know it.
The plummeting U.S. image
The loss is reflected in polls of foreign public opinion, which showed a precipitous drop in confidence in the U.S. president with the transition from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. That drop has carried with it a drop in overall approval and increased disapproval of the United States. This pattern has persisted over the first three years of Trump’s presidency.
The loss in U.S. soft power is partly a matter of what the United States does to other countries. That a dominant feature of Trump’s foreign policy has been the reneging on, or withdrawal from, international agreements to which the United States had been a party has obviously been a major factor in the loss of confidence in the United States, and in the loss of foreign willingness to reach new agreements with the United States.
The current administration has extended the damage of another pattern, which is the excessive use of economic sanctions in an effort to impose its will on other states. The special role of the U.S. dollar in international economics and commerce has been a major part of U.S. soft power — soft because people have wanted to use the U.S. dollar, not because they have been coerced into doing so. But Washington’s indiscriminate use of sanctions has led foreign states and businesses to look for alternatives to the dollar as a reserve currency and medium of exchange.
The loss in U.S. soft power also is a matter of what the United States is, and whether foreigners would like to emulate it. This dimension of foreign perceptions of the United States has two main elements, one of which is competence or the lack of it. The inept handling of the COVID-19 crisis has severely damaged the image of the United States in this regard, an image that already had become badly tarnished by deficiencies in maintaining a sound physical and social infrastructure.
Foreigners see not only deficient public health and infrastructure, but also a defective political system that has led to those outcomes. They see the problems as going well beyond Donald Trump, especially given the way in which one of the two major political parties, in the words of conservative columnist George Will, practices “Vichyite collaboration” with Trump, with “senators who still gambol around his ankles with a canine hunger for petting.”
Departure from values
Besides competence there is the matter of values, and whether the United States is living up to its own declared liberal democratic values — the same sort of values that have motivated those Hong Kong protestors. Here foreigners see in the United States an imperfect democracy becoming ever more imperfect, with such features as an electoral system that in two of the last five presidential elections has awarded the office to the loser of the popular vote. They see ever more aggressive use of voter suppression laws and extreme gerrymandering as means to keep a minority element in power. And now there is a Trump White House that attacks a free press, is undermining efforts to enable citizens to vote safely amid a pandemic, and even suggesting the November election might not be held at all.
On top of this has been the administration’s reliance on, and advocacy of, force to suppress popular demonstrations focused on the issue of police abuse of minorities. Foreign regimes that have themselves been subjects of criticism for brutality and infringement of political and civil rights are having a field day with this development. The Chinese regime, hard on the anniversary of a brutal suppression of demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, has been delighted to call attention to what happened to demonstrators in Lafayette Square. Beijing has been working both sides of this propaganda opportunity, using it simultaneously to point out brutality by U.S. authorities and to argue that its own use of brutality is as much of a necessary law and order measure as what Trump is talking about.
The Iranian regime has joined in the fun. A Twitter account attached to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei says, “If you're dark-skinned walking in the US, you can't be sure you'll be alive in the next few minutes.” Foreign Minister Javad Zarif contributed a Mike Pompeo comment about demonstrations in Iran that was edited to refer to demonstrations in America.
Images that have emerged from the middle of Washington, DC invite such foreign exploitation. The multiplication of barricades in an expanding perimeter around the White House expanded so far that the purpose clearly went beyond physical protection of the residence and had at least as much to do with keeping popular protests out of eyesight and earshot. Washington Post reporters described the scene as one that “resembles the monarchical palaces or authoritarian compounds of regimes in faraway lands.”
Then there is the use of armed security personnel with no identifying insignia, making accountability for their behavior difficult or impossible and rendering them indistinguishable from non-official thugs. This practice brings to mind Russia’s use of “little green men” in unmarked uniforms to seize Crimea, while also recalling the secret police in many authoritarian countries.
The United States still has enough power, of course, to shape many words or actions of foreign governments. But the loss of admiration, trust, and confidence is not far below the surface. Here the most representative image may be that of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who, when asked by a reporter what he thought of the recent events south of the border, was speechless for twenty seconds. He obviously was struggling between the need for honesty and a need not to offend the current rulers of the colossus to the south.
When Trudeau finally spoke, his first words were about the “horror and consternation” with which Canadians were observing events in the United States. Coming from one of the closest friends and allies of the United States, that is not the kind of perception from which soft power is made.
Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He is also an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy.
A group of policemen form a line in front of a burning car during the recent protests in Washington DC in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, 5/30/2020. (Photo credit: bgrocker / Shutterstock.com)
Left-to-right: Senator-elect Ted Budd (R-N.C.); Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Senate Minority Leader; Senator-elect Katie Britt (R-AL); and Senator-elect J.D. Vance (R-OH) pose for a photo before meeting in Leader McConnell’s office, at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, November 15, 2022. (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA)
The so-called GOP “civil war” over the role the United States should play in the world made headlines earlier this week when the Senate finally passed a national security supplemental that provides $60 billion in aid for Ukraine and $14 billion for Israel.
The legislation, which was supported by President Joe Biden and the overwhelming majority of the Senate’s Democratic caucus, proved more controversial among Republicans. Twenty-two GOP Senators voted in favor of the legislation, while 27 opposed it.
An analysis of the votes shows an interesting generational divide within the Republican caucus.
Each of the five oldest Republicans in the Senate — and nine of the ten oldest — voted in favor of the supplemental spending package. Conversely, the six youngest senators, and 12 of the 14 youngest, opposed it.
Equally striking was the breakdown of votes among Republicans based on when they assumed their current office. Of the 49 sitting GOP Senators, 30 were elected before Donald Trump first became the party’s presidential candidate in 2016. Eighteen of those 30 supported the aid legislation. Of the members who came to office in 2017 or later, only four voted to advance the bill, while 15 voted against.
The difference in votes among those elected since 2016 is likely partly attributable to Trump’s unconventional approach to foreign policy. The Republican party establishment during the Cold War and Global War on Terror is often associated with hawkishness, including towards Russia. While the party has always carried some skepticism toward foreign aid, some of the most significant spending increases have taken place during the presidencies of Republicans Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Trump, however, won in 2016 in part for his open disdain for mission creep after the GWOT, what he called the failed war in Iraq, and foreign aid he believed made countries dependents rather than reciprocal partners and allies.
“[Trump] certainly created the cognitive space,” Brandan Buck, a U.S. Army veteran and historian of GOP foreign policy, tells RS. “He's more of an intuitive thinker than a person of principle, but I think him being on the scene, prying open the Overton window has allowed for a greater array of dissenting voices.”
Others have argued that the trends are perhaps also indicative of the loyalty that Republicans who assumed their offices during the Trump presidency feel toward him. Trump spoke out forcefully against the legislation in advance of the vote.
“WE SHOULD NEVER GIVE MONEY ANYMORE WITHOUT THE HOPE OF A PAYBACK, OR WITHOUT “STRINGS” ATTACHED. THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA SHOULD BE “STUPID” NO LONGER!,” the former president wrote on the social media platform Truth Social the weekend before the vote.
The vote cannot only be explained by ideology, as some typically hawkish allies of Trump, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) ultimately voted against the package. Graham is a staunch supporter of Israel, has voted for previous Ukraine aid packages, and in the past called aid for Ukraine “a good investment” and “the best money we’ve ever spent.” By the time the vote on the most recent spending package came around, Graham was lamenting the lack of border security provisions and echoing Trump’s argument that aid to Ukraine should be a “loan.”
Meanwhile, Senators took note of the generational gap, and the debate spilled over into the public. .
“Nearly every Republican Senator under the age of 55 voted NO on this America Last bill,” wrote Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.), 48, on the social media platform X. “Things are changing just not fast enough.” Schmitt was elected in 2022.
“Youthful naivety is bliss, the wisdom of age may save the west,” retorted Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) “Reagan may be dead, but his doctrine saved the world during less dangerous times than these. If the modern Marx (Putin for the youngsters) restores the USSR while we pretend it’s not our problem, God help us.” Cramer, 63, was sworn in in 2019, making him one of the handful of recently elected senators to support the aid legislation.
“I like Kevin, but come on, man, have some self-awareness,” Sen. J.D. Vance fired back. “This moment calls out for many things, but boomer neoconservatism is not among them.”
Vance, who at 39 is the youngest Republican member of the Senate, noted in his post that “the fruits of this generation in American leadership is: quagmire in Afghanistan, war in Iraq under false pretenses.” He said younger Americans were disillusioned with that track record.
Buck, who served several tours in the Afghanistan war, and whose research includes generational trends in U.S. foreign policy thinking, pointed out that there is strong historical precedent for believing that age and generation affect how members of Congress view America’s role in the world.
“It's certainly not unusual for there to be generational trends in foreign policy thinking, especially within the Republican Party,” Buck told RS. Following the end of World War II, he said, it took “a full churning” of the conservative movement to replace old-school non-interventionist Republicans and to get the party in line with the Cold War consensus. “I think what we're seeing now is something similar but in reverse with a generation of conservatives.”
He added that the failures of the War on Terror resulted in a deep skepticism of the national security state and the Republican party establishment. Opinion polling and trends show that the American public that grew up either during or in the shadow of the disastrous military campaigns in the Greater Middle East is generally opposed to military intervention and more questioning of American institutions.
“All the energy on FP [foreign policy] in the GOP right now is with the younger generation that wants fundamental transformation of USFP [U.S. foreign policy],” noted Justin Logan, director of defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, on X. “The self-satisfied, insular neocons who loathe their voters’ FP views are a dying breed.”
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Volodymyr Zelensky speaks at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 17, 2024. (David Hecker/MSC)
MUNICH, GERMANY — If U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris dominated the first day of the Munich Security Conference with her remarks, today it was German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s turn.
It was not only Zelensky who understandably devoted his whole speech to the Ukraine War but also Scholz, too. The German Chancellor, while boasting that his country will devote 2% of its GDP to defense expenditures this year, remarked that “we Europeans need to do much more for our security now and in the future.”
In a brief but clear reference to Trump’s recent statements on NATO, Scholz said, "any relativization of NATO’s mutual defense guarantee will only benefit those who, just like Putin, want to weaken us.” On the guns and butter debate, which is particularly relevant in Germany due to negligible economic growth, Scholz acknowledged that critical voices are saying, “should not we be using the money for other things?” But he chose not to engage in this debate, noting instead that “Moscow is fanning the flames of such doubts with targeted disinformation campaigns and with propaganda on social media.”
The Russian capture of the city represents the most significant defeat for Ukraine since the failure of its counter-offensive last year. On the loss of Avdiivka, Zelensky said that Ukraine had lost one soldier for every seven soldiers who have died on the Russian side. This, however, is difficult to reconcile with the reports about the rushed Ukrainian retreat, with a Ukrainian soldier explaining that “the road to Avdiivka is littered with our corpses.”
Throughout his speech, Zelensky repeatedly referred to the importance of defending what he called the “rules-based world order” by defeating Russia. If there was one take-away that Zelensky wanted impressed on this audience: “Please do not ask Ukraine when the war will end. Ask yourself why is Putin still able to continue it.”
He also seemed to suggest that it was not a lack of available weapons and artillery but a willingness to give them over to Ukraine. “Dear friends, unfortunately keeping Ukraine in the artificial deficit of weapons, particularly in deficit of artillery and long-range capabilities, allows Putin to adapt to the current intensity of the war,” Zelenskyy said. “The self-weakening of democracy over time undermines our joint results.”
The future of NATO was one of the main topics of the day. European leaders were in agreement that Europe needs to spend more on defense, and occasionally appeared to compete with each other on who has spent the most on weapons delivered to Ukraine or in their national defense budgets.
With NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in attendance, one of the panels featured two of the most talked-about names to replace the Norwegian politician in the 75th-anniversary summit in Washington in July: EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and caretaker Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. According to a report by the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, President Joseph Biden and his Secretary of State Anthony Blinken favor the German leader, but in Paris, London, and Berlin, the Dutch politician is preferred.
The participation of the Netherlands in the initial U.S.-UK joint strikes against Houthi positions in Yemen on Jan. 11 was read in some quarters as a sign of Rutte’s ambitions. The Netherlands was the only EU country to join these initial attacks.
A G7 meeting of foreign ministers also took place Saturday on the sidelines of the conference. In a press briefing that followed, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani — who currently presides the G7 — reiterated the group’s support for Ukraine. The current situation in the Red Sea, as is often the case in the West, was presented by Tajani as a topic divorced from the Gaza Strip. The Houthis started their campaign against ships in the Red Sea after the beginning of the war in Gaza, claiming they want to force an end to the conflict.
There is no certainty that the end of the war in Gaza would put an end to Houthi attacks, but presenting the situation in the Red Sea as being nothing but a threat to freedom of trade is considered by experts to be a a myopic approach.
Nevertheless, Italy will be in command of the new EU naval mission ASPIDES, to be deployed soon in the Red Sea. The mission is expected to be approved by the next meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers on Monday. When asked whether he could ensure that ASPIDES would remain a defensive mission, the Italian Foreign Minister said ASPIDES aims at defending merchant ships and that if drones or missiles are launched, they will be shot down, but no attacks will be conducted.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing and is being updated.
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Vice President Kamala Harris at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 16, 2024. (Lukas Barth-Tuttas/MSC)
MUNICH, GERMANY – The 60th year of the Munich Security Conference opened today with much of the early energy surrounding remarks by Vice President Kamala Harris.
The vice president noted that it was nearly two years since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. She said that when Putin unleashed his troops along different fronts in February 2022, “many thought Kyiv would fall within a day.” It is also true, as she pointed out, that “Ukraine has regained more than half the territory Russia occupied at the start of the conflict.” (Russia held about 7% before the invasion, 27% right after, and about 18% today.)
However, by choosing the first months of the war as the starting point of her speech, Harris sought to avoid the obvious. Namely, that in the year that has gone by since her last visit to Munich, the Ukrainian army has been losing ground. Yet, her remarks regarding Ukraine today did not differ much from her speech in 2023.
Harris seemed dedicated to keeping to the administration’s recent script, which is warning against heralding in a new era of “isolationism,” referring to President Biden's likely presidential election opponent, Donald Trump.
As president Biden and I have made clear over the past three years, we are committed to pursue global engagement, to uphold international rules and norms, to defend democratic values at home and abroad, and to work with our allies and partners in pursuit of shared goals.
As I travel throughout my country and the world, it is clear to me: this approach makes America strong. And it keeps Americans safe.
Interestingly, the U.S. has been accused of thwarting "international rules and norms" in its unconditional support of Israel’s war on Gaza, which has killed upwards of 29,000 Palestinians, mostly of them civilians, since Hamas’s Oct. 7 invasion of Israel and hostage-taking. Christoph Heusgen, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, asked Harris whether a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine was achievable. Harris answered that “the short answer is yes… but we must then put the discussion in context, starting with October 7.” Not 1948, not 1967, but October 7, 2023.
Her prepared remarks on the situation were very brief, overall, saying:
In the Middle East, we are working to end the conflict that Hamas triggered on October 7th as soon as possible and ensure it ends in a way where Israel is secure, hostages are released, the humanitarian crisis is resolved, Hamas does not control Gaza, and Palestinians can enjoy their right to security, dignity, freedom, and self-determination.
This work — while we also work to counter aggression from Iran and its proxies, prevent regional escalation, and promote regional integration.
October 7 was the topic of a conference side event hosted by Brigadier-General Gal Hirsch, Israel’s Coordinator for Hostages and Missing. In his opening speech, he called for a Global War on Kidnapping inspired by George Bush’s War on Terror. Hirsch was short on the specifics, and Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz did not develop the concept further when he followed Hirsch at the podium. During the event, several hostages released during the short ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in November 2023 described their harrowing experiences in captivity. Relatives of the remaining hostages accompanied them.
Meanwhile, in a morning event, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis discussed how to increase defense spending in a time of economic stagnation. Mitsotakis, whose country has always spent significantly more than the expected 2% of the GDP required by NATO, stated that defense policy cannot be done on a budget. Lindner, meanwhile, remarked that Germany is on the way to spending 2% of its GDP on defense. Economic prosperity, the German Liberal minister noted, should avoid tradeoffs between social and defense policies. This is certainly a difficult equation to square since the German government just announced it was reviewing its forecast for GDP growth in 2024 from 1.3% down to 0.2%.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing.