Obama’s Soft, Soft Power

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With U.S. troops marching out of Iraq and Osama bin Laden’s head on a pike, it will be difficult for Barack Obama’s detractors to characterize the president’s first-term performance on the international stage as indecisive, inexperienced, or weak-kneed.

Electoral ramifications notwithstanding, what worries Mark Lagon, who holds the International Relations and Security Chair at Georgetown University’s  foreign service master’s degree program, is that Obama’s seeming strength 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 World Affairs (Oct. 2011), 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 U.S. approach to the world–and that he would quickly remedy that defect.”

Since then, Obama has embraced unilateral military actions, has accelerated the use of unmanned drones, and has continued a number of the Bush administration’s most controversial policies, including rendition. Consequently, the United States lacks moral credibility.

“The Obama presidency has regularly avoided asserting meaningful soft power, particularly in its relations with three countries–Iran, Russia, and Egypt–where it might have made a difference not only for those countries but for American interests as well,” Logan writes. “His reaction to the challenges these countries have posed to the United States suggests that it is not soft power itself that Obama doubts, but America’s moral standing to project it.”

Have something to say? Send a letter to editor@utne.com. This article first appeared in the January-February 2012 issue of Utne Reader.

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