Supporting soft power and hard power
September 16, 2020
By Scott Tilley, ASCF Senior Fellow
In the Pacific Theater during World War II, the American forces struggled to make inroads against the Japanese at the start of 1942. The tide began to turn during the Battle of Midway from June 4-7. This was just six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. What made this turnaround possible were two technical advances: code-breaking and radar.
The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) developed the first shipboard radar systems installed on aircraft carriers. Radar provided the fleet with advance knowledge of Japanese ship and aircraft locations. The Japanese had developed a sophisticated optical system that could see enemy ships even at night (rather like night goggles), which gave them an advantage during nighttime attacks. But the optical system still had to have line-of-sight to the targets, and the range was limited. Radar could “see” much farther, and when integrated with weapons systems, provided the U.S. unrivaled capability to strike Japanese targets without ever seeing (or being seen by) them.
Radar is an example of technical power.
Nation-states have traditionally relied on two forms of power to project their influence worldwide: soft power and hard power. American Security Council Foundation (ASCF) Senior Fellow Alan Dowd discussed each of these types of power in the July and August editions of The Dowd Report, respectively.
Soft powers are measures a country can use to influence events abroad. Examples of soft power include diplomatic relations, cultural dominance, political structures, foreign policy, and economic sanctions. It should be noted that some people consider economic sanctions a form of hard power, particularly if they are in the form of blockades (e.g., limiting oil exports).
Hard power includes military action, strict border controls, governmental and/or military alliances, economic sanctions, and various forms of coercive diplomacy. Hard power tends to have a more immediate effect than soft power, but the costs are much higher, and the risks potentially significant. Threats of military intervention are sometimes enough to accomplish strategic objectives, but this is not always the case.
Technical power is a newer form of political power that supports both soft power and hard power. For example, surveillance technology can be used to support diplomatic efforts (soft power). Artificial intelligence can be used to support drone swarms (hard power). As technology advances with ever-increasing speeds, the role of technical power will grow accordingly.
Indeed, technical power today is often the primary differentiator between adversaries. It is for this reason (among others) that America must maintain leadership in advanced research & development (R&D) in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Without a dynamic R&D agenda, in academia, government, and industry, other countries will leapfrog us, negatively affecting our soft and hard powers. History has shown that advanced economies are driven by technical innovation fueled by human capital; without it, world prominence is lost, standards of living fall, and the ability to project power diminishes.
This column focuses on the societal and national security implications of advanced technology in cybersecurity, space, and foreign relations. These three areas are increasingly important to our national interests. Advanced technology is sometimes difficult to understand, given its very specialized nature, but that doesn’t mean its impact will be any less profound in our lives.
Cybersecurity has emerged as one of the newest forms of hard power, and one that is exceptionally difficult to defend against. It’s no exaggeration to say that our economic infrastructure would collapse back to the horse-and-buggy era if our modern networked supply chain were destroyed through a malware attack. Cybersecurity is like a game of 3-D chess, with opponents constantly trying to predict the next moves across multiple dimensions.
We Americans were not first in space (the Russians were), but we were first to the Moon, and we’ve maintained that lead since the 1960s. But times have changed. Several countries have developed their own space program that now rivals ours. Thankfully, we have the advantage of a booming private aerospace sector (e.g., SpaceX) to inspire our national efforts. Space truly is the next frontier; the new United States Space Force is witness to the importance of our future space program.
Per aspera ad astra! (‘‘through hardships to the stars’’ )
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Photo credit: Bill Ingalls/NASA