Posted by Rojas @ 10:18 pm on December 26th 2009

The limits of soft power, part 262,471.

The strongest aspect of Obama’s administration to date has no doubt been his ability to conduct foreign policy. Actually, this is all the more impressive given that pretty much none of the anticipated soft power benefits arising from his personal popularity have materialized.

In retrospect, it was important that we get beyond Bush, but it wasn’t his willingness to antagonize people that was the problem. It was his administration’s inability to correlate ends with means. Obama hasn’t been an improvement because he’s popular; he has been an improvement because he’s an adult.

This bears remembering going forward, lest we fall into the trap of thinking America’s popularity ought to be seen as an end in itself.


  1. A major reason that Bush’s unilateralism was problematic is that listening to your allies is inherently a good thing. Bush et al weren’t thinking clearly following 9/11 and the weight of that attack caused them to make huge miscalcuations (1% and all that). I know a lot of people argue (or at least would have at the time) that Bush’s unilateralism was needed because the allies “just didn’t get it”, but it was quite the opposite. Hubris at its best (worst?).

    Whether it was explicit or not, Bush made the calculation that there was NOTHING he wouldn’t do to prevent a second 9/11 under his watch, the rest be damned. You could argue he was immature, afraid, bold, decisive, or whatever for this, but I believe that is what drove them off the rails. They simply refused to listen to other people precisely when they should have. The West Wing (yeah, I know) plot where the president abdicated when his daughter was kidnapped raised a similar point. Of course I’m not suggesting Bush should have stepped aside, just that the circumstances drove him and others into a particular state of mind.

    Honestly, I don’t know if anyone else would have done anything differently if they were in that position. What is scary is that so many people want to continue that trend (Guiliani the worst offender here, but others obviously as well).

    Comment by Jerrod — 12/29/2009 @ 2:30 am

  2. So every time a foreign leader doesn’t accede to an American demand, that’s proof that soft power either doesn’t work or Obama doesn’t have it? Does every time a foreign government cooperate with America indicate proof that they did so because they personally like Barack Obama? Hell, Andrew Sullivan is half-claiming that the example of Obama has spurred the makings of a revolution in Iran. Do you accept that?

    I don’t mean to be rude, but this is NRO level reasoning, and I have no idea why you insist on it. The contention was never that world leaders would be powerless to resist Obama’s wiley charms. It was that Obama being held in relatively high regard by the world’s population would contribute to a more positive atmosphere for American interests. There are a lot of OTHER contributing factors to that same atmosphere, however. Sometimes America’s relatively more positive image will push a decision across a threshold, most of the time it won’t, but as one of the very few things that the actual man holding the office effects, there’s absolutely nothing unreasonable behind contending that a guy in that office that the rest of the world likes would lead to more positive environment in which to conduct diplomacy and negotiations. Why you insist on breaking that down to a “See!? China said no! That proves soft power is a crock!” level argument is beyond me.

    Comment by Brad — 12/29/2009 @ 5:35 pm

  3. I have no idea what brought that on, Brad, but you’re overreacting massively to what I wrote here.

    The contention here is not that soft power is useless, but that it is substantially less useful than its adherents claim. I am not the one guilty of making huge claims, one way or the other, about soft power. That would be the Sullivans and the other Obama advocates who asserted that the presence of a popular President would radically remake America’s relations with the rest of the world.

    To quote the article I linked:

    Russia kept placing obstacles on the road to tougher sanctions against Iran; Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu refused to freeze all settlement activities as the administration demanded; the North Koreans said no to repeated attempts at talks; at the Copenhagen climate-change summit, the “agreement the United States reached with Brazil, China, India and South Africa lacked commitments to achieve its stated goals”; the Iranians didn’t show any sign of appreciation for Obama’s attempt to have more civilized conversation aimed at curbing their nuclear ambitions; the Cubans, with whom Obama had also vowed to have more constructive dialogue, now call the president “imperial and arrogant.” Not even Mahmoud Abbas, the very weak Palestinian president, was convinced to resume talks with Israel. This list is gets longer every day.

    And that’s not from NRO. It’s from Slate, a left-of-center publication. The factual claims listed are more or less inarguable, and the countries concerned are EXACTLY the ones where Bush’s critics claimed that his arrogance was the problem, and that Obama’s approach would change things.

    My point, and Slate’s, is that the empirical evidence does not support the claim that having a President people like is appreciably more productive than having a President people dislike. There have been enough assertions to the contrary, at this blog and elsewhere, that I felt the evidence was worth reviewing.

    Soft power is a means, and its pursuit involves opportunity costs–we forestall other avenues of achieving our ends when we make soft power our mechanism. It is time for us to consider where, and under what circumstances, those other avenues are worth pursuing. Realists recognize that nation-states are not solely motivated by affection.

    Comment by Rojas — 12/29/2009 @ 6:25 pm

  4. I can’t speak for Sullivan et al I guess, but my basic contention was: Having a President that the rest of the world, on balance, likes, is better than not. Meaning, it will help. It strikes me as incredibly naive on a number of levels to say that if world leaders keep saying “no” to things they’ve said no to before, nothing must have changed. For one, because it misunderstands thresholds (see our last conversation on this subject where I went in depth on this (someone have a link)? Secondly, because as you well know diplomacy is not necessarily or even mostly a yes/no position but involves a galaxy of small compromises, negotiation shifts, changes in what’s on or off the table, etc, which is mostly the point you’re talking about here it seems to me. And thirdly, your point about opportunity costs would be my point as well. We’ve been trying the hardline approach, more or less, until late in Bush’s second term, and I could throw nearly that same blockquote back at you (i.e. make up a list of the startling diplomatic and situational backslides under the previous President that Obama’s main contender, more or less, seemed very prone to continue if not worsen).

    But back to that second point, the crux of say your blockquote. What I keep finding sort of naive in your representation of the soft power argument is how, precisely, you think we thought this would work. Did you imagine that it was my idea (or Sullivan’s, or whoever), that, having gained office, Obama would head to China, flash a million dollar smile at their President, and he’d throw up his hands in amour and give us everything we wanted on climate change? Or that North Korea would stop nuclearizing and Kim Johg Il would instead begin writing pining sonnets to Barack begging for an invite to the Christmas party? Because you seem to be taking the absence of that kind of turnaround as proof of “the limits of soft power” or whatever.

    I would argue that the situation regarding Russia, Iran, Israel/Palestine, Af-Pak, and a few other places have softened considerably, and the counter-factuals in all cases had we elected a President of the McCain variety are interesting to consider (my hunch is we’d be nearing a hot situation with Israel, a cold warish one ala the Georgia situation with Russia, a lot more tenuousness regarding Af-Pak, and yes, an Iran that was a lot more internally stable against us (what they say at the top level was never going to change very much). China remains a tough nut to crack, and you’re right that the climate change business in particular is a failure on Obama’s part, but it’s early yet, and it’s unclear to me that ANY American President would have much luck there (hard or soft, when you have the less dominant position in negotiations, which the US was going to have no matter what, you’re going to get reamed). And then there are the not intangibles, but things it’s going to take a generation or two to be able to judge—has Obama led to a softening of Islamic radicalization/recruitment against us as the heat of opinion against the United States, in the moderate muslim world, softens? Has he provided a renewed and strong example of equality that will either give some pause or others renewed hope? Has he forced former allies to take a more nuanced approach and with more more concessions than the direction they were drifting before, which is just a hard no and grandstanding before domestic populaces that were moving their governments in that direction? Have the goalposts for the starting points in negotiations for various countries shifted in our favor (Israel is a good example of this; there is considerable pushback on settlement freezes, but this is better than being in a place where there is considerable pushback against, say, military strikes against Iran).

    I just don’t think you’re going to find an answer to your satisfaction here, Rojas, which is the nature of the beast. But the fact that people whose interests don’t align with us will continue to pursue those interests at our expense isn’t proof of anything. That’s the baseline for any diplomacy. And if the tar baby nature of the argument frustrates you, I’ll preemptively add this: you talk of opportunity costs, i.e. what “we’ve lost” by going with Obama vs. McCain, but A. you’re misunderstanding, I think, that soft power is an ephemeral positive that comes WITH whatever other negotiation strategy you pursue, and frankly many of Obama’s haven’t been some kumbaya liberal hippiness, but pretty center-left ala Clinton. Soft, in other words, doesn’t imply how hard one negotiates. But B. Again, you talk opportunity costs, but you don’t mention what taking some OTHER approach might have netted us. You take it as a matter of some faith that the fact that they said no is the worst possible outcome, or, more broadly, that where Obama has not succeeded, an alternative approach (left unspecified, see A) “might have been better”. Well yes, but it also “might have been worse”. So both arguments are going to be non-falsifiable. The fact that opportunity costs exist, in itself, says nothing.

    Comment by Brad — 12/30/2009 @ 3:55 pm

  5. You are arguing that your favored diplomatic approach will produce some form of benefit which is 1. non-observable, 2. not disprovable by any amount of empirical evidence.

    Why call it “soft power” or “smart power”? Why not just call it “faith-based diplomacy” and have done with it?

    It seems to me that it is perfectly reasonable to judge American foreign policy on the basis of tangible gains and losses.

    Comment by Rojas — 12/30/2009 @ 7:22 pm

  6. But the counter-argument you’re putting up is equally non-observable or not disprovable by any amount of empirical evidence, which I explained above. It is also, frankly, a little shallow. You would not accept it if I gave every instance of diplomatic success or positive world development as proof that soft power was the reason. Your counter-argument is exactly that level—every “no” is a direct refutation that soft power doesn’t work? I have a feeling you wouldn’t accept it in the affirmative—say, that the Iranian proto-revolution is a direct result of the Obama campaign that would not have come about if anybody but Obama were in office, or we would be in a worldwide economic Depression absent the bailout. Why should I accept yours in the negative?

    Comment by Brad — 12/30/2009 @ 10:49 pm

  7. And let’s also be clear, you’re saying “judge American foreign policy”, but in fact are judging something different—the campaign argument that Obama being who he is and playing the role he does and having the interests/rhetorics/emphases that he does would be a net plus. And then you’re conflating the two as one in the same. Yes, judging American foreign policy as a ledger of yes’s and no’s, to some extent, makes sense. Judging the thought that having a black guy people like as President is helpful on the same metric?

    Comment by Brad — 12/30/2009 @ 10:54 pm

  8. Brad, by the standard you are establishing here, there is no basis for criticism of ANY President’s foreign policy, or indeed, policy of any sort. Which kind of makes me wonder what the point of having a blog would be.

    If you don’t think that soft power is likely to produce observable benefits, then your principal argument ought to be with those Obama advocates who claimed, in no uncertain terms, that it WOULD produce said benefits. Such as, for instance, the Obama administration:

    Obama and Biden are willing to meet with the leaders of all nations, friend and foe.They will do the careful preparation necessary, but will signal that America is ready to come to the table, and that he is willing to lead. And if America is willing to come to the table, the world will be more willing to rally behind American leadership to deal with challenges like terrorism, and Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programs.

    So, yes, by the administration’s own metrics, there IS an empirical mechanism for evaluating the success of a soft power approach—not whether our foreign policy succeeds in its aims, but whether other nations agree to support it in the pursuit of those aims. And, as is documented by the Slate article linked in the original post, that isn’t happening. We’re not getting additional support in our counter-terrorism strategies; on the contrary, we are more alone in Iraq and Afghanistan than ever. We’re still facing exactly the same opposition we’ve always faced when it comes to meaningful restraints on nuclear proliferation.

    This does not, of course, make soft power useless. It can certainly be said, where the internal struggle in Iran is concerned, that it is more difficult for the regime there to play the population off against Obama than it had been to play them off against Bush. But then, I’m arguing about limits to the soft power approach; I’m not arguing for its extinction.

    The question we ought to be asking is whether, in cases like Iran, we gain more by pursuing soft power than by the more confrontational means that the pursuit of soft power seems to preclude. We also ought to be considering whether the foreign policy of the United States is the most desirable source of soft power in situations like these. Mechanisms like student exchanges and cultural exports tend to do well at exploding the “Great Satan” myth; we don’t necessarily have to take policy options off the table in order to defuse hardliners’ attempts to paint the US in a negative light.

    Too much of the approbation of the Bush regime was directed at its willingness to be unilateral or confrontational; not enough approbation was directed at its simple diplomatic incompetence and reactive approach. By the same token, too much optimism has been generated by Obama’s ability to draw crowds in Europe, win prizes from demented Scandinavians, and boost the numbers in global public opinion polls about the US. We need to base our carrot/stick decisions on evidence of what does work, not on vague sentiments about what should work.

    Comment by Rojas — 12/31/2009 @ 1:07 pm

  9. I can agree with most of that I suppose. What I don’t agree with is the assertion that Barack Obama’s ephemeral positives—first black man elected President (with a muslim background no less), propensity for sweeping rhetoric of inclusion rather than “Us vs. Them” American greatness nonesense, multicultural and cosmopolitan tokenism (though really more than tokenism), what have you—are or have been meaningless, or not very meaningful, whichever construction you use.

    I can argue a lot of the specific examples that Slate article gave—I think Russia is much closer to the negotiating table on non-proliferation than they would have been with another approach, I think the muslim world finds itself, as you said, kneecapped a bit in Great Sataning our every endeavor (not that they don’t still try and don’t still succeed), I am fairly bullish about Israel (in that I think their “no” on a settlement freeze is still farther along the playing field than a “no” on, say, not firebombing Gaza or Iran would be, which is roundabout where I think they would be with some other President of the McCain/Bush variety), etc. etc. So I don’t think even by those cherry-picked examples that “none of the advantages of soft power have materialized”, even barring, again, my litany of points about how one would expect soft power to materialize, or not.

    And again, I don’t like this lazy confluence of the sort of soft power I talked about in my endorsement of Obama with the carrot/stick hardline/softline sort of thing that you’re kind of weaving back and forth in the definitions. You can be a hard nosed son of a bitch and still have a certain cachet that would be unavailable to a soft-hearted peacenik who nevertheless exudes “same old same old” to the rest of the world. In that sense, I’m not disputing at all the carrot/stick dynamic you’re talking about in your last post. I’m trying to cleave that a bit with the simple idea—and you’re right, it is a bit a matter of faith—that conveying a different image to the rest of the world matters (particularly at a pivotal point where our image in the world had become so toxic). That is of course a limited thing—no one that I’m aware was arguing that Obama’s blackness (or whatever) would turn all nos to yes—but that doesn’t mean it’s non-existent.

    Frankly, that isn’t a very big point on my part, which is why I keep being befuddled that you’ve taken it as a whipping boy. I have a hunch we’re sort of arguing two different things.

    Comment by Brad — 12/31/2009 @ 4:02 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.