What the Covid-19 crisis teaches us about smart power

BERLIN • If power relations have changed in the past, war was usually the cause.

The collapse of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, the two world wars and the Cold War turned existing orders upside down. The contests were fought with men at arms, tanks, artillery and other military hardware. Power was often determined by who had the biggest and most lethal arsenals. In this light, membership in the nuclear weapons club was considered the mark of ultimate power.

But with the coronavirus crisis, power is redefining itself. While sheer military firepower has its place, it is no longer enough. Instead, far-sighted leadership that is able to anticipate emerging threats, manage competently the curve balls in any crisis and come up with results without alienating the public or abandoning its values - these are increasingly coming to the fore as markers of respect or soft power, to use the term coined by American political scientist Joseph S. Nye.

Seen from this perspective, a government that first of all serves the well-being of its people and serves it well is more of a successful actor on the global stage than one bulging with weapons or economic muscle but is otherwise ham-fisted or shambolic in response to crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic.

Judged by this yardstick, none of the big powers - China, Russia and the United States - has acquitted itself well.

Both China and Russia first reacted to the virus with varying degrees of denial, allowing the contagion to spread in the meantime, before imposing extremely harsh shutdowns.

And the US? It is paying the price for mismanagement by a president who first minimised the threat, looked to miracles and dodgy cures and went gunning for scapegoats when no miracles were forthcoming. With a death toll significantly higher than in any other country, America's evident disarray has led to author George Packer to ask in The Atlantic magazine recently whether the US is a failed state.

Former US secretary of state, Dr Henry Kissinger, noted in a commentary in The Wall Street Journal: "Nations cohere and flourish on the belief that their institutions can foresee calamity, arrest its impact and restore stability. When the Covid-19 pandemic is over, many countries' institutions will be perceived as having failed.

"Whether this judgment is objectively fair is irrelevant. The reality is the world will never be the same after the coronavirus. To argue now about the past only makes it harder to do what has to be done."

Governments would do well to heed Dr Kissinger's words.

The coronavirus crisis will not be over once the contagion has subsided. Rather, that is when the political reckoning begins. Citizens will hold their governments accountable for what they did - or left undone. The verdict will be especially harsh if ignorance, incompetence or neglect has been in play.


The lessons drawn from dealing with the pandemic are just as salient in the debate over how to fight climate change.

Although climate issues are currently taking a back seat to the Covid-19 pandemic, they have not gone away and are likely to flare up again as temperatures rise in summer, sparking off a new round of fires and droughts.

What is true for the coronavirus is also true for the climate challenge: Both are existential threats even if one is a slow-burn crisis.

Governments which refuse to act on the abundance of warning signs of climate change are failing in their duty to protect the electorate - a fundamental reason for the existence of states - and should be held similarly accountable at the ballot box.

To be sure, disaster preparedness, the development and maintenance of well-functioning social safety nets and investments in scientific research cannot be done on the cheap.

However, being less flashy than state-of-the-art weaponry, these are often given less consideration in budget allocations. As this pandemic has shown, money spent on them is as vital to national security as military hardware, if not more.

To avoid any misunderstanding: Hard power, in the form of military capabilities, is important and will remain important so long as there are other state actors which do not hesitate to rely on arms and the use of force to further their interests. Europe learnt this the hard way in 2014, when, in a surprise coup, Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula and menaced the eastern part of Ukraine in a hybrid war.

That said, the Covid-19 crisis is a stark reminder that power consists of so much more. A fixation on higher military expenditure does not do justice to today's realities.

The annual defence spending target of 2 per cent of gross domestic product, as advocated by Nato heavyweights such as the US, is too limited to serve as a proper benchmark for assessing a member's commitment to the alliance.

Why? Because the West derives a considerable part of its strength from its political and social attractiveness - which is achieved through soft power.

When Nato members such as Germany, the Netherlands or France invest billions in the fight against poverty, climate change or pandemics, the sums spent contribute at least as much to stability as the purchase of new tanks and fighter jets.

The next time Nato finds itself arguing over money, this should be taken into account. It is time to broaden the perception of what power really is: a combination of both hard and soft, which then translates into smart power.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 30, 2020, with the headline 'What the Covid-19 crisis teaches us about smart power'. Subscribe