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Is upping ‘soft power’ deployment the key to U.S. global leadership?

International development expert believes battle for world leadership is a competition for soft power influence

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Jesse Hyde, editor of Deseret Magazine, moderates a discussion with Daniel F. Runde and Bonnie Glick, in Salt Lake City.

Jesse Hyde, editor of Deseret Magazine, moderates a discussion with Daniel F. Runde and Bonnie Glick, left to right, at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 2, 2023.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

In a piece he authored in January for the Deseret News, Daniel Runde cites “soft power” as a term coined by political scientist Joseph Nye Jr. that describes power wielded by persuasion, not force.

On Thursday, Runde, the senior vice president, and William A. Schreyer, chair in global analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., was in Salt Lake City, along with his colleague Bonnie Glick, to delve further into the soft power concept and how he believes it has replaced military might as the primary driver of competition among the world’s superpowers.

“We are in a new age of great power competition with China and Russia,” Runde said. “I don’t know if we’re going to call it a Cold War, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but we’re edging our way up toward something like that. But most of our competition is going to be in the non-military realm.”

Runde and Glick, senior advisers with the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, were featured speakers at an invitation-only event Thursday organized by the Deseret News and hosted by the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

How China, Russia wield soft power

Runde touched on recent examples of China and Russia wielding their soft power influences in the developing world including strategic moves made amid the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Runde said the two superpowers used their unproven, domestically developed vaccines as a diplomatic weapon to win favor with countries facing resource challenges that were desperate to find ways to combat the virus.

Those opportunities arose, Runde said, in part because of the lack of international medical support from the U.S. and other Western nations at the time.

“We can’t shut ourselves off from the world,” Runde said. “We are interdependent whether we like it or not. We’re going to meet the hopes and aspirations of partner countries in the developing world or they’re going to take their business to China or Russia.”

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Thomas Holst, Praopan Pratoomchat, Andrea Brandley, Heidi Prior and Cindy Wilmshurst, left to right, take part in a discussion at an event hosted by Deseret Magazine at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 2, 2023.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Glick believes that calling the contest for top global influencer among the U.S, China and Russia a competition misses the mark because while the U.S. conducts international policy under “rules by which we are transparent,” China and Russia operate out of a different playbook.

“I don‘t call it a great power competition because a competition implies that you are playing the same game and playing by the same rules” which is not, Glick said, the case when it comes to China and Russia in the global soft power game.

Should the U.S. help developing countries?

Runde said the great power contest will not be fought in Beijing or Moscow, but rather in Naypyidaw, Palau, Guatemala, Buenos Aires, Kiev and Antananarivo. And it’s one he believes will require a major rethinking and revamping of U.S. soft power tools.

This idea is also at the heart of Runde’s new book, “The American Imperative: Reclaiming Global Leadership Through Soft Power,” published in December.

In it, Runde makes the case for “conservative internationalism” and writes that U.S. policymakers underutilized foreign development as a “lens to view strategic challenges” for too long. He notes that while the U.S. government has made moves to elevate international development efforts to the same level as defense and diplomacy over the past decade, it “must do far more.”

Runde believes the U.S. should take a bigger role in aiding developing countries in the areas where those nations’ leaders see the most need, including projects like roads, energy/hydroelectric development, digital infrastructure and more.

“What most countries want from us … are things like access to innovation,” Runde said. “They admire our system of higher education. There are some challenges with our system of higher education but, net-net, it’s one of our greatest assets in the world.

“They want to be our trading partner. They would like us to show up and be a partner diplomatically and, yes, they’d like us to be a security partner, too. They would love to do business with the United States, if they could.”

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Natalie Gochnour, director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, speaks during an event hosted by Deseret Magazine at the institute in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 2, 2023.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Utah’s role in soft power influence

Runde also highlighted Utah’s potential to play a growing role on the global stage and in the implementation of soft power influence.

“Utah is a mineral superpower,” Runde said. “Utah is a higher education superpower. Utah is a tech hub. Utah is a place with a lot of interconnectivity, with many people who speak foreign languages and a sensitivity and understanding that the rest of the world is important to us and that we’re interdependent.”

So, how should the U.S. go about growing its international influence through deployment of soft power assets?

Runde says it will require a long-term strategy and plenty of domestic and international cooperation.

“China and Russia have the ability to fill the voids that the U.S. and our partners leave behind,” Runde said. “We need to make an intentional decision to work with our partners to take a 20- or 30-year approach to respond to the non-military challenges of China and Russia.

“And it’s not all just government. It includes business, civil society, religious institutions, institutions of higher education and philanthropy, but also we need to work with our partners,” he said. “All great things that we’ve ever accomplished as a country, we’ve accomplished in partnership with others.”

Runde also noted that his ideas about the necessity of the U.S. outperforming Russia and China in the global soft power battle is not about punishing the citizenries of those countries, but rather about thwarting the oppressive tactics of their leaders.

“We need to understand that we have a challenge without necessarily demonizing the others,” Runde said. “We don’t have a problem with the Chinese people. We don’t have a problem with Russian people. We have a problem with the Chinese Communist Party leadership and we have a problem with Vladimir Putin’s murderous regime.”

Thursday’s discussion was part of a series of ongoing events organized by the Deseret News in Utah and across the country. Deseret News Executive Editor Doug Wilks said the Deseret Elevate series is aiming to “serve as trusted conveners to help develop solutions for issues facing society.”

“We cater to readers hungry for a reasonable, conservative viewpoint,” Wilks said during introductory comments at Thursday’s event. “As part of these efforts, we are pleased to host Deseret Elevate forums convening experts from various walks of life to address and offer solutions for complex issues facing society today.”