Center for Strategic Communication

This past week, Bruce Stokes and Richard Wike of the Pew Research Center wrote an op-ed for CNN discussing the results of Pew’s recent polling of America’s stature in certain parts of the world. Their title, “World to America: We want soft, not hard power” draws immediate questions.

First off: who is the world? The countries Pew polled do not reflect a number of regions where U.S. hard power is becoming more important and more desired.

U.S. naval vessels in the South China Sea. Courtesy: U.S. Navy

This includes countries in the South China Sea, such as the Philippines, which recently reaffirmed its defense agreement with the U.S. in case of a Chinese attack. China’s increasing expeditionary military capability in this region cannot be countered with soft power alone. In this case, hard power resources and treaties (like Law of the Sea) create a bed from which soft power can grow in this region. Their combined use, often referred to as smart power, ultimately decreases the likelihood of conflict.

Furthermore, considering American support for the Libyan rebels last year—and now calls for support from elements of the Syrian rebels—hard power is clearly still a desired trait from the U.S. It can also be argued that the appropriate application of hard power resources can provide soft power benefits. When people overseas face a threat, a hard power commitment from the U.S. can have immediate and sometimes long-term positive ramifications—though the full range of consequences must be considered.

That is not to argue that soft power is useless, but rather that it has its limits—especially when another actor is applying a hard power strategy.

Of course, the Pew polling does indicate important things for the U.S. to consider for the course of its foreign policy. One soft power area that the U.S. consistently ranks highly in is science and technology, and one that America should strive even harder to leverage. This month’s landing of the Mars Curiosity rover is a demonstration of why the U.S. is so admired in this area. Interestingly, according to Pew’s polling, in certain Middle Eastern countries American business practices are also generally admired.

Would more soft power be nice? Yes, but the realities of our world dictate that hard power is not on its way out any time soon.