New Delhi: The United States and Iran are poised on the edge of war but there’s unlikely to be one. A minority of Iranians belonging to the hard line clergy may want conflict but the majority would not and, apparently, Donald Trump is also opposed to bloodshed. The US media speaks of the American president being upset with his national security advisor, John Bolton, and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, for getting ahead of themselves in seeking war with Iran. Donald Trump, according to the latest reports, has made it clear to Pentagon that hostilities with Iran must be avoided. He is said to be particularly upset with the war hawk, John Bolton, whose days as NSA, going by the record of the Trump administration, appear to be numbered.

At the same time as Donald Trump is walking away from a war with Iran (on that count, it makes him nicer than George W. Bush), he is wading into deeper geo-economic conflict with China. On top of levying a twenty-five per cent tariff on $250 billion worth of Chinese goods, he has threatened the same levies on $350 billion more. Further, he has blacklisted the Chinese telecom major, Huawei, from the US market, and those countries keen to preserve political, economic and military ties with the United States have to follow suit or risk being cut off from the mainstream. More Chinese companies are in the Trump administration crosshairs and there is bipartisan consensus in Washington that China’s rise and its threat to the free world must be resisted.

More than thirty years ago, Joseph Nye, a US political scientist, coined the term “soft power” to sum up such of the United States’ USPs as liberal democratic politics, free market economics and commitment to human rights. With the Soviet threat contained and the Cold War brought to a close, it was Nye’s estimation that US soft power would produce a transformation in the world order that hard power alone could not effect. Although US hard power consistently failed after World War II in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, and it couldn’t bring about total victory in Korea, the earliest of the Cold War proxy conflicts, US soft power has not lived up to its promise as a transformative geopolitical tool. Almost no country has aligned with the United States because of soft power. There was recognition that soft power had no future without the complement of hard power. But even joined this way, the whole concept of soft power has run out of steam. To prolong its life, it was renamed “smart power”, and Hilary Clinton of all people was supposed to be its most talented practitioner. It now looks as though the future of “smart power” has gone down with Clinton.

This leads to a question. Could geo-economics be a replacement for soft power, given that soft power has an economic component in the form of free market economics? The point is really not about finding a replacement for soft power but if hard power can be mellowed and made more successful in its application by the addition of another variable. Starting out, geo-economics does appear more successful than soft power, and in case of China, it shows a potential to alter behaviour that would be impossible to conceive and obtain with the pure application of hard power. Soft power was mostly about the attractiveness of the United States to the rest of the world, a sort of passive feature. You could contest that premise and indeed vigorously oppose it. Geo-economics is a little more complex and a lot less self-indulgent. It concerns the economies of nations seen in a geopolitical context. Why does the trade war prosecuted by the United States appear to hurt China more than the US? Because China is terrified somewhere about losing the material wealth created over forty years of struggle. China’s wealth is the basis of its geo-economic power. Donald Trump threatens that.

But does geo-economics have limitations as soft power did? What is its equation with geopolitics? Can it function on its own or has it always to be paired with geopolitics? Geo-economic conflict has a chance of succeeding when the target state is rich and structurally vulnerable. China is a fit case. Without prosperity, the Chinese communist party will lose its leadership role, opening the way for democracy which party bosses dread. However, in a low income and not so vulnerable country like Iran, geo-economics has its limits, and so does geopolitics. US sanctions meant to kill Iran’s nuclear ambitions will not have the desired effect. At the same time, the full application of geopolitical pressure, meaning war, would be catastrophic for the region and beyond and not merely Iran. Moreover, there should be no easy exit from the war with Iran for the United States. Donald Trump is sensible not to spoil for war.

But would his withdrawal from the brink constitute a victory of sorts for Iran? Not really. As long as the US sanctions stay, Iran will find itself banned from doing international commerce. The pain of this could provide an incentive to open negotiations with the Trump administration which is even more likely should he win a second term. If that happens, it would constitute a victory of geo-economics made supple by geopolitics. Geo-economics and geopolitics complement each other better than soft and hard power do. If geopolitical processes have to succeed in the long term in the sense of strategy, they must be joined with geo-economics. It is now virtually impossible to conceive of international relations without the joint but varied application of geopolitics and geo-economics. Since war is a highly risky proposition with the spread of nuclear weapons, geo-economics may largely shoulder the burden of geopolitics and keep it peaceful.