View Full Version : 'Soft power': Can Obama's global appeal help restore US clout?

11-24-2008, 11:13 PM
The Obama presidency could be a good test for the theory that America's power to attract goodwill - its "soft power" - is a key element of its influence around the world.

Mr Obama's election was hailed as momentous from Australia to Zambia. Even Venezuela's Hugo Chavez called it "historic".

America's international standing, which has plummeted under George W Bush, will be sky-high when his successor takes over in January.

The question is: To what extent will his worldwide appeal restore America's clout? Mr Obama clearly thinks of it as a crucial asset.

During the campaign he told the New York Times: "If you can tell people, 'We have a president in the White House who still has a grandmother living in a hut on the shores of Lake Victoria and has a sister who's half-Indonesian, married to a Chinese-Canadian,' then they're going to think that he may have a better sense of what's going on in our lives and in our country."

Foreign policy scholars, however, are less sure about what the new president's stellar image can achieve - and some believe his foreign fans could be in for a disappointment.

Joseph Nye, the Harvard academic who coined the term "soft power", agrees that Mr Obama has it in spades, but says it will not automatically lead to foreign policy triumphs.

"The fact that you have an African-American son of an immigrant become president shows that the American democracy still works," he told the BBC News website.

"Now if we wind up failing to co-operate on climate change or getting into a war which is unpopular, Obama's personal symbolism isn't going to overcome that."

Soft power, Mr Nye believes, provides an "enabling environment". Actual policies, he says, will determine whether US influence has been durably restored.

Unknown quantity

So far, however, Mr Obama has given few clues about what those policies might be - apart from stating his determination to consult America's friends and readiness to engage with its foes.

"I don't think we've elected a president since Jimmy Carter about whose thinking we know so little," says Richard Perle, a leading hawk and an influential voice in the Pentagon in the early years of the Bush administration.

"We'll learn," he told the BBC News website. "But right now, if you ask a dozen people to describe Obama's foreign policy you get a dozen different answers."

The president-elect does not obviously belong to any of the foreign-policy tribes that have vied for influence in Washington in recent decades - the "liberal internationalists" who are keen on multilateral action, especially in the humanitarian field, the "realists" who seek a stable world order through deals with rival powers, or the "neoconservatives" who believe force is the only language hostile tyrannies ultimately understand.

Mr Obama has no truck with "neocons" - but neither does any other politician these days, including Mr Bush, so this is not much of a clue.

The new foreign policy team includes a mix of Clinton-era "liberal internationalists" and realists. What course Mr Obama will steer is unclear.

This uncertainty explains why experts are reserving judgment about Mr Obama's chances of diplomatic success.

"This is a tremendous opportunity, but he needs to be careful how he takes advantage of this opportunity," says senior diplomat and Princeton University scholar Robert Hutchings. "Goodwill alone won't translate into acquiescence to US initiatives."

Mr Hutchings, a self-described "moderate realist", is urging the new administration to work out a "grand bargain" to reshape the world order with both allies and rivals - as the Nixon or Bush Sr administrations did in the early 1970s and early 1990s respectively.

"Now we're in a moment too where there is both an opportunity and a necessity to think big," he says.

The liberal Mr Nye and the realist Mr Hutchings are unsure whether Mr Obama will capitalise on his overseas popularity. The neoconservative Richard Perle is downright sceptical.

"People interested in the wrapping will undoubtedly be pleased," Mr Perle says. "For people interested in what's in the package when you unwrap, there may be a lot of disappointment."


One source of disappointment, and early erosion of soft power, could be continuity on many issues.

The Bush administration, despite a reputation for "unilateralism", has in recent years worked with international institutions and consulted allies.

With respect to Iran and North Korea, the policy has been to negotiate while keeping military options open. Mr Obama is not materially departing from this script.

Even on Iraq, he has qualified his early advocacy of a quick pullout, saying it needs to be "responsible and phased".

Richard Perle does not believe that the failed policies of the past will be turned into success simply because a more attractive leader pursues them.

Mr Perle is calling for a more robust stance. But his scepticism is shared by some doveish analysts.

Harvard University's Stephen Walt, who regards US policies on Iran and Syria as too confrontational, fears a "real backlash" if there is no substantial change.

"People will say the Americans elect a very different president and then American policy goes on in much the same way," Mr Walt says.

"There's actually some risk that some people will think the problem is more fundamental than even who the president is."

No easy options

John Mearsheimer of Chicago University is even more pessimistic, and doubts that Mr Obama can deal effectively with the main crises currently faced by the US.

Keeping troops in Iraq, he argues, will not help in the long run, and withdrawal will lead to more sectarian fighting. "Either way, Obama will have failed," Mr Mearsheimer says.

"There is no clever strategy for Iraq, as there is no clever strategy for Afghanistan. If there was a clever strategy the Bush administration would have found it."

Mr Mearsheimer - who wrote a controversial book with Mr Walt on what they see as the undue influence of "Israel Lobby" on US policy - also doubts that there will be change on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"The lobby does not allow American presidents to put any pressure on Israel," he says. "That one won't be solved either."

Perhaps the key to avoiding disappointment in the new administration is for foreigners to keep their expectations in check.

According to Dana Allin, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, few Europeans expect transatlantic relations will be transformed under Mr Obama.

Nevertheless, he says, the change will set a positive mood. "We now have a centre-left (US) government doing left-left things, about which many Europeans will be a lot happier," Mr Allin says.

Soft power may be an important asset for Mr Obama, but don't expect wonders from it.


What do you guys think? Having a President who is liked by many in overseas is gonna do you greater good or you guys just gonna go "I don't care"? :chuckle:

11-25-2008, 03:08 AM
They just know he is a sissy, that's why they like him.:coffee:

11-25-2008, 09:28 AM
They just know he is a sissy, that's why they like him.:coffee:

You know, coffee stunts your growth...

11-25-2008, 10:26 AM
What do you guys think? Having a President who is liked by many in overseas is gonna do you greater good or you guys just gonna go "I don't care"? :chuckle:

Taking Obama out of the picture and speaking in general terms.....

First of all... it's not an even playing field...and that takes away most of any advantages such "popularity" would bring.

For instance...Foreign leaders who even appear to look for approval from the United States are negatively considered "puppets"....but American leaders who look for approval from foreign countries are considered "global realists" in a positve manner.

Secondly....I think it is VERY dangerous for any country to look at other countries approval in regards to how they judge their leaders. It's next to impossible to properly pursue the political needs of your country when you desire to win a global popularity contest.

Would it be desireable to have a leader that appeals to the global community without compromise?....sure.

Is it possible?....probably not.

11-25-2008, 11:40 AM
I think the most important aspect of all this is that we are left with nothing but speculation. Nobody really has any idea WHAT this guy is going to do, so all we can do is guess.

11-25-2008, 11:55 AM
You know, coffee stunts your growth...

So that's what happened to me then? Oh well, saves me money when buying pants :noidea: