Which type of power, hard or soft, do you think is more effective at changing the behavior of regimes like Iran and North Korea?

Whether hard or soft power is more effective is a contentious issue, but evidence increasingly points to soft power as the more effective of the two. The increasing military strength of Iran and North Korea means military confrontation is not a viable option. On the other hand, political and economic pressure were largely responsible for the collapse of Soviet communism and could be more effective in achieving regime change in these countries.

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America's adversarial relationship with North Korea, Iran, and Cuba dates from the 1950s. The U.S. fought the Korean War (1950–1953) against North Korea and its ally, China. In 1953, the CIA overthrew the government of Iran and buttressed the position of the Shah, who remained in power for twenty-five years. In recent years, North Korea and Iran have become much stronger; the former has acquired nuclear weapons and the latter has spread its influence throughout many countries in the Middle East. In 1959, Fidel Castro overthrow Cuba's corrupt pro-American leader, and Cuba's relationship with America has been confrontational ever since—except for a brief thaw under President Barack Obama.

Soft power has been tried intermittently with North Korea. South Korea has often employed it, and President Donald Trump attempted to befriend Kim Jong-un. These policies have failed because North Korea is as bellicose and threatening as ever. The fact that Korea is a divided country means that America's ally, South Korea, has an important role in helping to shape American policy. Seoul does not want another war, but soft power has not worked with Pyongyang.

Soft power was employed with Iran under President Barack Obama. Obama and other nations signed a multilateral agreement with Iran. In exchange for economic assistance and trade, Iran agreed to freeze its nuclear program. The agreement was imperfect, but it was working. Trump took the US out of the accord and allied the US with Saudi Arabia—Iran's arch enemy. Therefore, soft power has not been given a real chance to succeed with Iran.

Although both Iran and North Korea have been considered as enemies of America for a long time, there are crucial differences when you compare them to Cuba—another American adversary. The dissimilarity relates to politics in the United States. There is a vocal and strident anti-Castro faction in Florida. American politicians are loath to offend this group because Florida is an influential state, particularly in presidential elections. For instance, in 2020, Bernie Sanders was excoriated for stating that Castro achieved success with education in Cuba. Because of this hard line by anti-Castro Floridians, very few American politicians are willing to reconcile with Cuba. Iranians and North Koreans in America, on the other hand, have no clout. The pro-Israeli lobby is extremely powerful, and it opposes any reconciliation with Iran.

In 2020 and beyond, hard power, which is the application of military force, is not a viable option for the US. Both Iran and North Korea are too formidable, and Washington would not be able to forge an international coalition against them. Therefore, the only option is soft power. America needs to work with the international community to maximize trade and commerce with the three countries. Other nations are willing and able to work with Washington to implement this approach. Over time, this economic relationship could lead to democracies in Iran, North Korea, and Cuba. The success of soft power is far from assured, but a military confrontation against either Iran or North Korea would be disastrous. America has fought two expensive and inconclusive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan so far this century, and it cannot afford another. In addition, it should not be forgotten that military force did not end the Cold War. Economic, social, and political forces from within Cold War adversaries led to the fall of communism. Soft power would be easier to implement with Iran and Cuba than with North Korea. Cuba could be changed simply by permitting American tourists to inundate it. North Korea remains the most problematic and dangerous of the three nations. But soft power—despite its limitations—is the only way forward.

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