The Rise of Blunt Power in the Strongman Era

The Rise of Blunt Power in the Strongman Era

Unipolarity melts, China rises, Europe stands tall, and the U.S. falls short – the rules-based international order is under siege. Civility and soft power yield to blunt words and sharp power. Can one map the way forward for world politics? 

One can certainly track where it has been: comity. The unfamiliar word nicely straddles the international and interpersonal. It refers to a mutually beneficial association of nations – and to civility. Multilateralism is comity’s lifeblood as decorum gently dispels fisticuffs from our lives. 

This comity has ‘republican characteristics’: namely, humanist values and a mixed representative government. Post-WWII, the U.S. and Europe championed the UN to enhance security and promote economic and political liberalization. Rich and powerful states (RAPS) invited poor and weak states (PAWS) to the game, paying for the party. PAWS received some benefits while RAPS received more, yet with more benefits came more responsibilities. In the modern day, however, many PAWS have now mastered the rules of the economic game – one need only look at the U.S. accusing an erstwhile one of siphoning off wealth through unfair trade practices as an example. 

Linked to unipolarity’s slow meltdown is populism’s burgeoning. Unlike workers in declining industries, elites in the U.S. and Europe benefit from globalization. As follows, blue-collar workers blame elites for their misfortunes. They believe political correctness blocks a blunt addressing of problems dumped on them by globalization and outsiders. As such, the blunt power of strongmen is attractive to these individuals. Rather than play with the potentially weak hands they are dealt, strongmen throw down their cards and demand a new game.

Evangelists of globalization in international trade and financial institutions decry populism. Blue collar individuals drift from “mainstream” media to more appealing social media influencers. Denigration of the rules of social propriety as products of “political correctness” leads to social collisions, and this erosion of civility removes gentle rule structures that avert outbreaks of hurtful behavior. Turning a blind eye to this denigration weakens the rule of law, in turn despoilng the world around us. 

Aspirants of strong leadership hand the keys to the common man. The common man opens doors to bluntness. With these doors open, bullies with bludgeons sneak in uninvited—internationally and domestically. In the Strongman Era, rulers weaken, rules clash, the unruly come out, and a chorus of blunt language appears. Today’s international strongmen all share some key characteristics: they espouse nationalism and personality cults, prefer pliant presses and judiciaries, abhor criticism, question liberal norms, seek extra-judicial punishment of offenders (like drug traffickers), pursue unlimited leadership terms, and muscle into sovereign territories. Norms of society and comity become dispensable.  

Generally, leaders seek regime security with words, weapons, and wares. As such, national leaders play an international political card game of sorts. The game has two well-known card suits: hard and soft. Soft power is nice as it relies on cultural and public diplomacy. Hard power is nasty as it expends blood and treasure for results. Worryingly, however, several commentators warn of the replacement of soft power with smart and sharp power. An example of sharp power is authoritarian Country A inducing members of its diaspora or citizens or political figures in liberal democratic Country B to advance A’s interests in B. While this is often labelled as soft power, behavior more akin to that of hard power tactics lies in the midst of these actions. On the other hand, a liberal democracy’s own judicious mix of hard and soft power (if successful) is known as smart power. Mixes of hard and soft used by authoritarian states are sharp because they are not only likely to cause social injury, but also very clever in seeking to subvert western democratic values. Whether an action constitutes smart or sharp power therefore lies in the intent of the action and the government of the state that carries it out.

A cursory glance at the hard-soft-smart-sharp array leaves one unbalanced and unsettled. Hard (coercion or inducement) and soft (attraction) are clear enough. But what of antonyms for smart and sharp power? “Blunt” is a candidate, meaning dull-minded and not sharp. It also means abrupt, direct, and insensitive. Blunt words can be candid, but can also bring out bludgeons. Adding “blunt” to the suit of cards allows for a somewhat accurate description of strongman polemics. Bluntness can stretch from being abrupt, direct, and insensitive to adopting a polemical manner of communicating. Blunt power combines soft power for one’s in-group and a lurking hard power for outgroups.

Diplomacy has been the handmaiden of hard power. It has sought to restrain belligerence by smothering polemics with the language of aides-mémoire and notes verbale. Today, however, social media lies at the fingertips of strongmen who favor blunt power. Although it is the platform of choice for the current U.S. president, Twitter is not a means of distribution of formal missives from one government to another. Tweets target multitudes of followers. They seek to attract attention through bluntness. And when attention is attracted, media amplifies them. There is little room for smothering tweets when ad hominem attacks on counterpart strongmen replace diplomatic niceties with an intent to shake the tree for diplomatic opportunities. The Trump-Kim exchange was a case-in-point. Yet, shaking the tree is an uncertain approach. Beating war drums heightens tensions and missteps may ensue. Interestingly, however, strongmen can also refrain from bluntness when dealing with other strongmen, jettisoning the principles of raison d’etat on which these strongmen claim to be based. This happens despite the chorus of protests at home and abroad in the case of a free country such as the U.S. 

A telling example of the interplay of polemics and politeness in the context of rising temerity in comity was the U.S. President’s Armistice Day visit to Paris. Overall, the imagery of this event was one of Franco-German rapprochement and European cooperation with a less-than-central place for the U.S. Speaking at Verdun prior to the event, President Macron argued for a joint EU military force (an old theme of his) because “the continent could no longer rely on protection from America.” There were echoes of De Gaulle’s force de frappe in some ways. President Macron warned of the evils of nationalism. He called it a "betrayal of patriotism." He urged all nations to uphold the norms of comity and stand together “against climate change, poverty and inequality.” President Trump seemed ill-at-ease, but his behavior on the international stage under the Arc de Triomphe was diplomatically correct regardless of his earlier tweeting. Ironically, President Macron soon thereafter faced nationwide protests from his own electorate after his environmental policies caused the price of diesel fuel to surge.

Because of the rise of blunt power, especially in the U.S., the global economic system has begun to change. Emerging economic powers (China, the EU, and Russia) continue to support the rules-based international economic system, even as the U.S. remains half-unhappy with comity-based rules. Through his “America first” rhetoric, President Trump flirts with the idea of a gated U.S. As a result, Europe has emerged as the “shining city on the hill” in upholding the liberal rule-based order, human rights, and free trade. As George H.W. Bush said, “politics does not have to be mean and ugly.” Comity is the price and prize for peace. 


Naren J. Chitty (Ph.D. SIS ’92) is a retired diplomat who was a diplomatic counselor in Washington, D.C. during much of the Reagan Administration. He is the Foundation Professor of International Communication and the Inaugural Director of the Soft Power Analysis and Research Center at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. His most recent book is the co-edited volume The Routledge Handbook of Soft Power which includes his chapter “Soft power, civic virtue and world politics.”