James Holmes

Taiwan Does Smart Power Right

While Taiwan simply can’t match its larger neighbors with ‘hard power’, it has other options to enhance its international standing.

I have never been a big fan of the concept of “smartpower,” which came into vogue among American foreign-policy pundits with our change of presidential administrations a few years back. It’s a catchy new label for the age-old, commonplace, and yes, smart idea that statesmen should use all of the tools in their toolkit—diplomatic, informational and ideological, military, and economic—to advance the national interest. Shazam! as a hillbilly (and, as a descendant of hillbillies, I say that in the kindest possible way) used to say in a cornyoldsitcom. Who’d’ve thought of that?

Smart power is old wine in a new bottle. Still, the formula says something useful about Taiwan and China. All nations are not created equal. Few countries boast the elements of strength in the same amounts or the same proportions. If a country finds itself short on one component of national power, it has to use the others to make up for the shortfall, or reconcile itself to a power mismatch vis-à-vis its rivals. Taiwan can no longer keep up with its chief competitor, China, which overshadows the island by economic and military measures. That compels Taipei to compensate with the diplomatic and informational/ideological implements—rendering its power as robust, as balanced, and as smart as possible.

Softpower”—an older idea from Harvard professor Joe Nye, one of the originators of smart power—offers the island one way to buttress its standing. To boil it down to its essence, soft power is a “power of attraction” by which one nation influences others. Beguiling traditions, culture, and institutions impress others. Those who represent attractive nations presumably get their way more readily in diplomatic circles. (And yes, it is hard to trace hard results to soft power. You can’t deploy a battalion or air wing of soft power to back up diplomacy.) Taiwan’s free government, the industry of its people, and its freewheeling cultural life comprise wellsprings of soft power.

But there’s more to it than that: islanders are confident about their society’s virtues. Outreach works best when it’s effortless. You seldom encounter the bombast on Taiwan that you often do when dealing with the mainland. Hard sell bespeaks insecurity. Few officials rhapsodize about the glory that is Formosa. Instead they encourage newcomers to walk around, see the sights, and meet the people, and trust that the island will sell itself. And so it does. The military balance is one thing. The soft-power balance favors Taiwan—lopsidedly.