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Fighting Words

Former Utne Editor in Chief David Schimke on conflict, compassion, partisanship, and peace

Obama's Soft Power Outage

 by David Schimke

Tags: Barack Obama, Obama, Osama bin Laden, hard power, soft power, diplomacy, foreign policy, statecraft, unmanned drones, first term, Mark Lagon, Politics, World Affairs, David Schimke,


With US troops marching out of Iraq and Osama bin Laden’s head on a pike, it will be difficult for Barack Obama’s political enemies to characterize the president’s first-term performance on the international stage as indecisive, inexperienced, or weak-kneed—a strategy that helped unseat Carter and left Gore desperate for Florida’s electoral votes. Barring a domestic terror attack, in fact, hawkish Republicans will likely avoid serious foreign policy discussions and quietly cheer for the economy to continue its slumber.

The electoral ramifications notwithstanding, what worries Mark Lagon, International Relations and Security Chair at Georgetown University’s Master of Science in Foreign Service Program, is that Obama’s seeming strength (and good fortune, I might add) betrays a lack of inventiveness and depth—especially when it comes to projecting soft power, that combination of diplomacy and nonmilitary coercion essential to enduring influence and stability.

Writing in the October issue of World Affairs, Logan notes that when Obama initially took office he “made fresh start statements, such as his June 2009 remarks in Cairo, and embraced political means like dialogue, respectful multilateralism, and the use of new media, suggesting that he felt the soft power to change minds, build legitimacy, and advance interests was the key element missing from the recent US approach to the world—and that he would quickly remedy that defect.”

Since then, Obama has embraced unilateral military actions, accelerated the use of unmanned drones—despite the risk of untold civilian casualties—and has continued a number of the Bush administration most unpopular policies, including rendition and the suspension of habeas corpus domestic and foreign. Consequently, the administration lacks credibility on those occasions it does choose to engage in statecraft.

To prove the point, Logan looks in detail at events in Iran, Russia, and Egypt during Obama’s first term; countries where a “meaningful” expression of soft power could “have made a difference not only for those countries but for American interests as well.”

“[Obama’s] reaction to the challenges these countries have posed to the US suggest that it is not soft power itself that Obama doubts,” Logan concludes, “but America’s moral standing to project it.”

Source: World Affairs 

 Image by The U.S. Army, licensed under Creative Commons