In a surprising turn of events, an old piece I wrote in 2004 for Foreign Policy on “America’s Sticky Power” became the most popular item on FP’s website on Tuesday.
Economic, or sticky, power is different from both sharp and soft power — it is based neither on military compulsion nor on simple coincidence of wills. Consider the carnivorous sundew plant, which attracts its prey with a kind of soft power, a pleasing scent that lures insects toward its sap. But once the victim has touched the sap, it is stuck; it can’t get away. That is sticky power; that is how economic power works.Sticky power has a long history. Both Britain and the United States built global economic systems that attracted other countries. Britain’s attracted the United States into participating in the British system of trade and investment during the 19th century. The London financial markets provided investment capital that enabled U.S. industries to grow, while Americans benefited from trading freely throughout the British Empire. Yet, U.S. global trade was in some sense hostage to the British Navy — the United States could trade with the world as long as it had Britain’s friendship, but an interruption in that friendship would mean financial collapse. Therefore, a strong lobby against war with Britain always existed in the United States. Trade-dependent New England almost seceded from the United States during the War of 1812, and at every crisis in Anglo-American relations for the next century, England could count on a strong lobby of merchants and bankers who would be ruined by war between the two English-speaking powers.
Why the sudden resurgence, you ask? Via Meadia doesn’t know, and, if his Twitter is to be believed, neither does FP Associate Editor David Kenner.But I’d like to think it’s because good ideas don’t die. The concept of sticky power I explored in that piece is the basis of the new geopolitical realities in Asia today; maybe somebody noticed.