Posted by Rojas @ 6:42 pm on June 5th 2008

The false promise of soft power

There has been a lot of talk lately about the alleged “soft power” benefits of an Obama Presidency.

The arguments as to how an Obama election would re-brand the US on the global stage are essentially twofold. The first argument is that Obama’s open willingness to converse with both allies and enemies would be seen as a repudiation of Bush-style hegemonic weight-throwing. Brad frames the argument this way:

How different the possibility of Barack Obama. Barack Obama, along with say David Cameron (perhaps Sarkozy too, though more significant than both), could really function as the first 21st century politician in the Western World. I won’t belabor the point, lest anyone accuse me of Messianism, but the statement, both to ourselves and to the rest of the world, is there, and will exist long beyond any given marginal policy one way or the other.

The second argument is that Obama’s background is itself a powerful guarantor of American soft power. This is the “Wow, America elected a black guy!” school of thought expressed by, for instance, Andrew Sullivan:

The simple existence of Obama as a new president in a new century would in itself enhance America’s soft power immeasurably, just as a clear decision to leave Iraq would provide much greater leverage for diplomacy and military force in a whole variety of new ways. Obama would mean the rebranding of America, after a disastrous eight years. His international heritage, his racial journey, his middle name: these are assets for this country, not liabilities.

There is an extent to which I agree with these arguments, and I have even made them myself on occasion. I continue to believe them to be true…but only to an extent. My fear at this point is that many of us are beginning to dramatically overstate the amount and the extent of soft power that would be generated by an Obama win, and particularly that we are misdiagnosing the nature of that power in terms of its permanence and its applicability.

What is the nature of Obama’s soft power benefit? We’ll begin with line of argument number two—the “new face of America” argument. We have already seen joy expressed overseas at the success of Obama’s candidacy; we will see more of it as he comes closer to the Presidency. And while I am inclined to think that we will not lose all of the soft power that his campaign has engendered should he lose narrowly, it is fair to say that his election will generate more soft power than a narrow miss.

All that having been said, I think that when we assume that electing an African-American with an unusual name will change their opinions of us, we are falsely imprinting our own obsessions on the rest of the world. No rational observer of US policy is going to allow the identity of the person enacting these policies to trump their effects. What happens, on day two of Obama’s presidency, when he fulfills his campaign promise by doubling down in Afghanistan? Should we expect the Taliban, and fundamentalist Muslims in general, to be fine with this on the grounds that he’s not an old white guy?

Consider in particular those nations and organizations which define themselves in opposition to the US for cultural reasons—clerics of fundamentalist Islam, for instance. Why will religious conservatives and cultural nationalists overseas be happier about ingesting what they see as western cultural poison just because of the re-branding? If anything, a more appealing salesman makes it necessary to re-entrench against the threat. Not all soft power is equally functional, and the “magic Obama” brand is particularly irrelevant where specific challenges to cultural authority are concerned.

This leaves the first argument—the one which presumes that John McCain will continue Bush’s less astute diplomatic tactics and that Obama will bring about a sea change.

For starters, I reject the premise. For one thing, Bush’s no-negotiation policy was applied inconsistently to a select set of enemies—there was never any reluctance to engage, for instance, in multiparty talks with North Korea, yet doing so generated no soft power that anyone could recognize as such. For another, the very least that can be said of John McCain is that he supports coalition building as a response to threat—he believes in American primacy, as does Obama, but treats soft power and hard power as tools to be used in conjunction with one another towards the ultimate end of national greatness. There is no possibility that John McCain, as President, would have sought to initiate a war against Iraq. Nor is there any meaningful likelihood that he will intervene militarily in, for instance, Burma or Sudan. With Obama, as with Bill Clinton, that possibility is always open. Non-negotiation with a small set of specific actors—the only real difference in diplomatic policy between the candidates–simply does not matter enough to outside parties that reversing the policy would make a substantial difference in their perception of the US.

Even GRANTING the premise, however, it is very hard to imagine that the kind of soft power Obama would generate through negotiation with Hamas would outweigh the kinds of soft power he would lose through other policy changes. The single greatest force generating positive feeling towards the United States, among governments anyway, is trade. What’s going to happen to our “soft power” in Mexico when Obama demands that they choose between unilateral concessions and the scrapping of the trade agreement? How is the end of effort towards a hemispheric trade agreement going to play in Latin America? How will those massive agricultural subsidies for biofuels production, and the erection of new trade barriers to promote “green collar jobs”, play in the EU and in the developing world?

Long story short: it is true, to an extent, that Barack Obama’s background and diplomatic orientation represent soft power assets. Those assets, however, do not rise to the level of magic, as some seem to believe. Soft power is a complicated instrument, gained and lost for a variety of reasons—indeed, sometimes gained and lost with different partners at the same time, as a result of the same acts. It is, moreover, difficult to wield even when gained. We would do well to tamp down our expectations where the “re-branding of America” is concerned.

1 Comment »

  1. Had missed this.

    I agree with you that Obama’s soft power isn’t a magic bullet, by any stretch. But I also think you’re misunderstanding the nature of soft power, at least in so far as it’s concerned in this case.

    No rational observer of US policy is going to allow the identity of the person enacting these policies to trump their effects. What happens, on day two of Obama’s presidency, when he fulfills his campaign promise by doubling down in Afghanistan? Should we expect the Taliban, and fundamentalist Muslims in general, to be fine with this on the grounds that he’s not an old white guy?

    Specifically here.

    Nobody expects that a black guy with a vaguely foreign-sounding name is going to convince Taliban fighters to lay down their arms. Nobody expects that a pre-signaled unwillingness to hew the Presidency into an automatically generated standoffish attitude with, say, North Korea is going to substantively change overnight the relationship with that government (Bush, by the way, came around to multiparty talks with North Korea that involved the United States). Ahmadinejad is not going to greet the President with a smile and a cup of tea and start singing “Yankee Doodle Dandy” on Iranian television. China could give a toss.

    What you’re misunderestimating, however, are the great unwashed masses (NOT “rational observers of US policy” as you probably mean it), the enormous middle ground, which make up the huge bulk of the earth’s population and, in particular, make up the huge bulk of the populations with which we need the most soft power (Europe, for instance, or the Islamic world). These are the people that have been most alienated, and most polarized, by our decided unwillingness to deploy soft power or rational diplomacy, and these are also people who, by and large, are going to shape the destinies of at least some of the significant problem areas (think the middle point muslims on the great natural distribution of Islamicism, for instance). You are NOT, I repeat NOT, going to ever win over radical Islamic Taliban fundamentalists, period. Not with Obama, not with Mohammed Ali, not with Borat, not with anybody. But that’s not your target audience. What you can do is win over, or at least make significant progress with, the giant sea of people that they work with, live with, do business with, have political arrangements with. That’s like saying that Hillary Clinton’s pivot on abortion (where she emphasized that how bad abortion is, and explaining her pro-choiceness in that context) was not worthwhile because she’ll never be able to get Ralph Reed to vote for her. Ralph Reed is not the point.

    What we have done in the Middle East especially is create an atmosphere of intense polarization MUCH GREATER than the polarization which exist there as a matter of generic white noise. Obama would of course not reserve that, but he would go a long way to walking that back. Suddenly, Hamas, trying to win an election in Palestine, or Ahmadinejad using us to push off against to rise to prominence, or Chavez using us to largely justify himself—Obama would not end any of that, to be sure, but suddenly, those arrows look a lot limper.

    The problem of Islamofascism, or the Middle East in general, is not going to be decided by the wingnuts (the Middle Eastern ones, I mean). It’s not going to be decided by changing their minds or by killing them all—neither is possible. It will be decided by where the Man on the Street moves.

    Europe is another example. Largely, we’ve had chilly relations with Europe because leaders couldn’t cozy up to the United States even if they wanted to (and my guess is, many of the leaders would). Suddenly, President Obama, every single leader in Europe has enormous political cover to reshape relations with us; they’d have cover to some extent with McCain too, by not being Bush, but nowhere near what they would with Obama.

    In any case, don’t think of it as a turn-around, because it won’t be. Think of it as a deflation, a massive letting-the-air-out-of-the-balloon for a global climate that is if not aligned against us, then certainly feeling the pressure of being polarized (that goes for our buddies as well as our enemies, incidentally; having populations generally favorable or disfavorable, or relatively less favorable or disfavorable, to our leader effects the political leadership in EVERY country, in hundreds of subtle, but salient, ways.

    As far as it goes, you’re right, Obama’s soft power advantage is no magic bullet. But I think this much is certainly true: all else being equal, on the whole, political leaders of other populations will find themselves being less supported in their opposition to the United States as a cultural construct, and more supported in being favorable. Simply as a function of who Obama is. How that plays out will vary wildly, in some places not play at all (again, I don’t think China could give a toss), and probably won’t be more than a relatively small immediate effect in practical terms—but a small effect on a very, very large system making it, in many ways that matter, a huge effect.

    This leaves the first argument—the one which presumes that John McCain will continue Bush’s less astute diplomatic tactics and that Obama will bring about a sea change…

    For the record, I reject THAT premise. Neither my nor Sully’s arguments are based on a McCain-bad/Obama-good dichotomy. McCain wouldn’t be as bad as Bush, I don’t think (who, in retrospect, was almost uniquely unsuited for the task of America’s Chief Diplomat, which is what the President is), and making this argument is in no way intended as a knock on McCain. He would, I’m sure, be a perfectly passable leader, not as good as Clinton, say, but nowhere near as bad as Bush. I think he’d do just fine.

    But Obama, at least in regards to the above chunk, would be a game-changer. The difference between our Presidents so far HASN’T been that huge; but then, they’ve all been, at least in some fashion, the same.

    .

    the very least that can be said of John McCain is that he supports coalition building as a response to threat—he believes in American primacy, as does Obama, but treats soft power and hard power as tools to be used in conjunction with one another towards the ultimate end of national greatness.

    That’s a very generous read. It almost sounds pretty diplomatically good, when you strip it of all its language, emotion, rhetoric, narrative, and impression like that.

    For the record, both candidates “treat soft power and hard power as tools to be used in conjunction with one another towards the ultimate end of national greatness”. The only difference is McCain wants to do that with a PARTICULAR EMPHASIS on hard power, probably no unusual skill at or advantage with the soft power end, and couch it in a “follow them to the gates of hell” style of rhetoric, with a Congress against which his favored wedge is how much tougher he is on the world, a base with a particular penchant for being molly-coddled only by grandstanding chest-thumping, and a base philosophy that favors remaking the world in our image by force if necessary, to the exclusion of all other political objectives if it comes down to it.

    What’s going to happen to our “soft power” in Mexico when Obama demands that they choose between unilateral concessions and the scrapping of the trade agreement? How is the end of effort towards a hemispheric trade agreement going to play in Latin America? How will those massive agricultural subsidies for biofuels production, and the erection of new trade barriers to promote “green collar jobs”, play in the EU and in the developing world?

    Could be, of course, that he’s able to finangle a lot more concession in our favor in those trade negotiations as a function of who he is, that the masses in those countries are more favorably disposed to him then they would be others, and that the leaders in question (Chavez, for instance) are denied a critical piece in the culture-clash arsenal with which to build up popular resistance.

    But I think Obama going buck-wild on reversing all free trade is as overstated as you think his soft power is.

    Comment by Brad — 6/11/2008 @ 10:54 pm

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