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Is Soft Power a Breakthrough?

My TechCast Project ( has published breakthroughs for years, usually for emerging technologies. This is our first “social breakthrough”—social trends that reach a critical tipping point that transforms society. Think of the Collapse of Communism, the Women’s Movement, and the Tea Party.

President Obama’s foreign policy raises the question, “Will soft power prove to be another breakthrough?” When the leader of the world’s most powerful nation shows a commitment to engagement, sanctions, and diplomacy to avoid war, it seems a shift in international relations may be entering the global mainstream.

The Republicans, Big Media, and almost everybody else thinks Obama is timid in foreign policy, while many love Putin’s show of strength in Ukraine. Obama has certainly make mistakes, and avoiding action on crossing red lines has left many wondering “What would America fight for?” (Economist, May 3, 2014) This may not mean that Obama is weak, however, but that people are confused over the changing use of power.

Soft power is poorly understood because it represents an historic shift in international relations. The concept was defined by Joseph S. Nye, Jr., as the move from war to  engagement. (Soft Power: The Means To Success In World Politics, NY: Public Affairs, 2004). The top ten nations using soft power are the UK, US, France, Japan, Sweden, Australia, Switzerland, Canada, and Italy, so Obama is not alone.

Consider some long-term benefits of America’s soft power policies:

SYRIA  The slaughter of civilians goes on, but Obama may be wise not to get sucked into what looks like a great civil war between Shiites and Sunnis. Putin has earned the condemnation of the world by helping Assad continue the slaughter, while Obama eliminated chemical weapons in Syria without firing a shot.

IRAN  After decades of futile sword rattling by American hawks, Obama’s policy of engagement has finally brought Iran to the bargaining table, and it looks like a solution may be possible.

UKRAINE  Putin may be enjoying his display of bravado, but he has demonstrated that Russia remains a backward nation bent on cold war violence. Apart from the energy companies rushing to tap Russia’s gas and oil, who would want to invest in an economy based on extractive industries, corruption, and force? In contrast, Obama’s patient use of sanctions has taken the air out of Putin’s sails and avoided escalation.

Soft power doesn’t provide the satisfaction of a decisive victory, but when has that been possible since WW II? The indecisive outcome of wars in North Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan show the futility of expecting triumph.

Soft power is also difficult and messy, and force may be necessary at times. Yet, the idea is compelling because collaborative problem-solving is often more productive than the alternative. All parties can win and it’s far better than war.

This is especially true because the world has become too complex and turbulent to tolerate conflict. Think of the enormous costs of having the US Congress in gridlock for years. And the massive threats of climate change, energy, financial collapse, and terrorism require working together if the world is to survive.

There is also a comparable trend toward the rise of a collaborative business model. But TechCast’s forecast for Democratic Enterprise is not promising, showing only a 27% probability of arriving and suggesting resistance to the change.

We will be following this trend at and reporting on future prospects. Stay tuned.

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