Pivot to Asia; Soft Power, 1 of many

Pivot To Asia; Force Projection, Part 3 is a discussion of hard power. Symmetry suggests that “soft power” is a symmetric opposite. At least, that’s what I thought when I finished with, “Next: hard versus soft.” But it’s not. Soft power encompasses every aspect of competition between societies. Perhaps, in outer aspect, in gaining allies by offering favors, there is a symmetry. But the deepest forms of strength and attraction stem from societal perfection.  If the U.S. was Shangri-La,  the world would beat a path to our door. In fact, to the poorest of the poor, the U.S. and Europe are, literally, “to die for.”

So the topic of “soft power” could fill a library. In various guises, it has occupied thinkers for centuries, and had practical use as well. In World Order, Henry Kissinger describes the use by the Celestial Empire of soft power to gain control of bordering barbarian tribes, by corruption with luxuries.  What finally stirred me out of lethargy is Reuters opinion by Barry C. Lynn, “Why China has the upper hand in the South China Sea.”

Lynn’s piece is in the style of “revealed truth“, so popular with religions, as the category seems to encapsulate complicated problems in facts so simple they have to be right. Simply by the history of the category of axe-grinding revealed truths, it is a good bet that Lynn is almost completely wrong. Historically, the category  has given humanity nothing but trouble, a long train of fallacious ideas, each lasting a few short years until the next, then replaced by another one of the same ilk but with opposite polarity.

The common denominator of these revealed truths is that they are things we can, presumably, act upon. The scary part comes first, followed by the invocation to act, which is usually left vague, as the writer himself is at a loss for the details.

The immediate predecessor of Lynn’s idea was the polar opposite. In the early 2000’s, when China was ramping up but not yet perceived as a threat, it became popular to replicate the opinion that the U.S. economy was now “post-industrial”, and had become an “information economy”, solidly based in intangibles.  At one point, some economic nabobs awarded the U.S. “maximum reutilization of capital”, applauding how quickly capital here was recycled into an endless loop of investment instruments. In 2007, it suddenly dawned on the same nabobs that the financial markets had succeeded only in creating an almost infinite web of interdependence, which, according to the now hot topic of long-tail catastrophe theory, is an accident waiting to happen.

It took about five years to do the post-mortem, learn the lessons, and forget the lessons, so we are ripe for a new revealed truth. Lynn worries that China makes so many of our basic needs, they could turn this place into something like Cuba before the embargo was lifted. But Lynn doesn’t mention finance at all. Finance, having been disgraced by the 2007-08 meltdown, is beneath consideration.

Finance is neither what financiers conceive it to be, nor as unimportant as Lynn might imply by omitting a direct reference. In omission, his article has a curious analogy to the survivalist nuts, thinking that they can survive the collapse of society if only they have enough toothbrushes and dry food to hold them over.

Money is an intangible, but intangibles do matter. When the Obama administration put the banks back together, it was not due to any love of banks. It was because, if they walked through the door of multiple too-big-to-fail failures, they were afraid of what lay on the other side. It is possible to destroy an economy by destroying confidence in the currency. And what is confidence, but a complete abstraction?

Mr. Lynn has a valid concern. But in naming that concern as the “why”, the article implicitly advocates direct action against that concern. In fact, Lynn’s issue is a part of an ecology of world trade, an issue without remedy of direct action.  With central banks desperately twisting the interest rate taps, a trade war would send us all to the bottom.

Formerly, the U.S. economy enjoyed unrivaled economies of scale. The rapid expansion of the U.S. in the 20th century gives unfounded basis to the religious devotees of C.B. MacPherson’s interpretations  of Thomas Locke, meaning, unbridled capitalism.

Of late, the U.S. concept of unbridled capitalism has taken some hits. There is mounting evidence that it cannot compete with state sponsored capitalism. Small scale efforts at state manipulation of the economy along the lines of Solyndra generally fail. Sometimes they succeed, as with the “Chrysler Corporation Loan Guarantee Act of 1979.” Sometimes they succeed brilliantly, as with Sematech.

But all of the above are a thimble-full compared to Lynn’s plaint. So now I shall give my magic prescription that will salve all your cares.

But then, I would be another axe-grinder. The competition of societies is the biggest topic there is. Whatever is done, it must be thoroughly analyzed in the context of total interdependence of all the dynamical structures of interaction between societies. Of these, the material concerns of Mr. Lynn are a small part.

How thoroughly must we analyze? A Moldavian professor advocated the  Russian method of testing bridges for structural integrity.  As he explained, they drive ten loaded dump trucks onto the bridge. If the bridge holds, it is sound. (A few years back, they lost ten dump trucks.) But an address of the Competition Between Societies is beyond that kind of analysis. A bridge stand still; societies are constantly in flux.

So now, here are some guidelines to stay out of trouble  with the next great idea(s):

  • The  total system(s) must be considered together.
  • Such changes as are promoted must  be imperceptible to the casual observer. Specialists must get bored watching the evolution.
  • Strategies must be persistent, implying more political cohesion and continuity than currently exists in the U.S.

Stock up on toothbrushes and light bulbs while they’re still cheap.