Nearly three decades ago, American political scientist and former Clinton administration official Joseph Nye put forth an idea in the pages of Foreign Policy. He called it soft power, a notion that caught fire and went on to define the post-Cold War era.
Nye argued that, although the United States seemed relatively weaker than it had been at the end of World War II, the country still had a sole source of power to bring to bear. Beyond using military power “to do things and control others,” Nye later explained, “to get others to do what they otherwise would not,” the United States could draw on its soft power—its noncoercive power—to cement its leadership position in the world.
Hard power was easy to measure, of course. We can count the number of missiles and tanks and troops. (As Soviet leader Joseph Stalin is famously said to have asked, “How many divisions does the Pope have?”) But what was the content of America’s soft power? Nye put it into three categories: cultural, ideological, and institutional. In these areas, the world would want to be like the United States. And that pull, in turn, would help the nation shape the world. “If a state can make its power seem legitimate in the eyes of others, it will encounter less resistance to its wishes.” That is, he argued, “if its culture and ideology are attractive, others will more willingly follow.” For Nye, the basis of U.S. soft power was liberal democratic politics, free market economics, and fundamental values such as human rights—in essence, liberalism.
In the quarter-century that followed Nye’s conception of soft power, world affairs played out within the broad contours of his predictions. After the United States won the Cold War, American liberalism had unparalleled appeal around the world. Everyone wanted to vote, everyone wanted jeans, and everyone wanted free speech—so much so that the political theorist Francis Fukuyama coined the phrase “the end of history” to capture the idea that whole world was careening toward a political endpoint already reached by the West.
In the decades between the 1980s and 2010s, the number of liberal democracies (as defined by Freedom House) grew from around 100 to close to 150. The number of free market capitalist economies, based on rankings published by the Wall Street Journal and the Heritage Foundation, grew from over 40 to close to 100. Never before in human history had so many countries given up so many old political and economic arrangements for one new system. Nye might have called it soft power. I call it the great conversion.
In the realm of international relations, just as Nye advocated, the United States led a drive to establish and enlarge international institutions that would support its new order, such as the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. It also expanded its system of alliances to bring former competitors further into the fold.
Things played out similarly in Europe, where the European Union played a role similar to that of the United States. For an entire generation, the world watched in amazement as scores of countries willingly gave up increasingly large portions of their sovereignty to subject themselves to shared sets of rules based on the same liberal values. Brussels’s proposition dovetailed perfectly with Nye’s; all member states and potential member states wanted what the Western European core wanted. In fact, at one point, it seemed as though everyone wanted what Western Europe wanted: even Turkey, a large Muslim country with a very different culture and set of values, and Ukraine, which risked war with Russia in its attempt to join.
Until recently, in other words, it really did look as if the 21st century would belong to the United States, the West, and their global soft power empire. But it was not to be so.
Several things went wrong. For one, the products didn’t really suit the customers. From the “third wave” democracies of the 1970s and 1980s to the Eastern European states that rushed to join the EU and NATO after the Cold War to, most recently, the countries that weathered the Arab Spring, liberal democracy has had a hard time sticking. In many cases, moreover, it brought about rather catastrophic outcomes for the people involved.
One theory for why is that the neoliberal economic revolution, which was part and parcel of the soft power era, weakened states instead of strengthening them. The market was never a uniting force—the idea that it could be an all-encompassing mechanism to provide growth, good governance, and societal well-being was an misapprehension to begin with. The German sociologist Wolfgang Streeck elaborated on this idea at a conference in Taiwan this summer. Soft power globalization, he warned, is simply “outpacing the capacity of national societies and international organizations to build effective institutions of economic and political governance.” In turn, “increasing debt, rising inequality, and unstable growth” is leading to “a general crisis of political-economic governability.” That crisis has resulted in internal revolts on soft power’s home turf. Streeck calls it “taking back control.” You might call it the rise of America’s Donald Trump, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, or Italy’s Five Star Movement and the League.