“I think we overestimate our soft power. Americans understandably like to think of themselves as a model for the world, as a society that other societies want to be like. To some extent, this is true, but we tend to exaggerate the extent to which our soft power really shapes others’ policies.”—Richard Betts
In recent interview on the Council of Foreign Relations site, Richard Betts, author of American Force: Dangers, Delusions, and Dilemmas in National Security, discussed how proposed cuts in defense spending might shape U.S. policy abroad.
Richard Betts believes that defense could and should be cut given the current economic situation in the United States. He calls for a “mobilization strategy,” which would offer a more modest and less expensive approach to our role in the world:
The United States should move towards more of a “mobilization strategy”—which means that we should take advantage of the reduced threat to our security that came with the end of the Cold War, and have a more modest view of the need to intervene abroad as long as direct threats to our national security are limited. We should orient our military planning and organization to what might be called a “readiness to get ready,” that is to focus on training, research and development, organizational structures and their maintenance, and all of the infrastructure for military power that can be used as a base for rapid buildup when conditions change and the world situation deteriorates.
This more restrained approach, Richard Betts argues, is largely shared by the American public if not elite policymakers.
Richard Betts concludes by dismissing the notion that a cut in defense will result in a greater emphasis on “soft power”:
It’s not obvious that there are unexploited options for diplomacy that we haven’t taken just because we have relied so heavily on military power. We should want diplomacy to be as active and inventive and effective as it can be, but I doubt there is some sort of new impetus that we could realistically expect diplomacy to provide. And foreign aid is not going to be easy to increase in a time of budgetary stringency.
Also, soft power is not something easily wielded as an instrument of policy. If it exists, it exists more in the minds of people who observe what happens in the United States from day to day. Also, I think we overestimate our soft power. Americans understandably like to think of themselves as a model for the world, as a society that other societies want to be like. To some extent, this is true, but we tend to exaggerate the extent to which our soft power really shapes others’ policies.