Interesting figures out this week from worldpublicopinion.org indicating just how far Obama still has to go to repair the damage wrought by the previous administration. FiveThirtyEight.com and PBS do a similar job chewing over the numbers, each drawing out the headline figures showing that, though Obama’s personal popularity is way ahead of that of George W. Bush, America’s numbers are still flat-lining. So, what to make of them. On one level, these figures do not really tell us anything new. What they do is underscore what we already know; contra the claims of the previous administration that “they hate us for our freedom”, the real driver of anti-Americanism is dissatisfaction with American policy, not any deeper ideological or philosophical antipathy. On the extremes, of course, there is very real ideological hostility, but the great mass of people across the world retain a deep sense of affection and admiration both for the American system of government, and for its broader ideals.
The well known Pew Global Attitudes survey, mapping opinion across 54 countries from 2000 to 2008 pointed to much the same set of conclusions. Its key finding, for those that were minded to hear it, was that it was opposition to key elements of George W. Bush’s foreign policy that sent U.S. favourables plummeting, not any implacable opposition to freedom or to the American idea. This was true even of America’s closest allies. Deep levels of dissatisfaction with American policy in Britain, France and Germany did not turn them into enemies overnight. Like much of the rest of the world, Germany, Britain and France remain supportive of American leadership, they simply want a different kind of American leadership. What they want is a less abrasive diplomacy, a more restrained strategic posture, and above all a demilitarised policy.
The background to these disagreements is familiar enough. Throughout the Cold War, the various elements of the policy mix worked in something of a tandem; economic, development, aid and security policy were for the most part mutually supportive elements in a coordinated strategy. Then, somewhere near the end of the Clinton presidency, around the time talk of America’s ‘unipolar’ moment begins to surface and the intellectual groundwork for the Bush presidency is being laid, policy becomes overly militarised. Elements in the mix become dangerously unbalanced. Far too much emphasis is placed on the military aspects of power, the humanitarian and development aspects of policy are derided as ‘social work’, George W. Bush famously claims that “we don’t do nation building”, and a foreign policy consensus spanning forty years and ten administrations is cast aside in favour of a much more muscular and assertive strategy.
In response, around the time of the Iraq war, Joseph S. Nye, Jr., former Assistant Secretary of Defence for International Security Affairs under President Clinton, begins to develop the concept of soft power. Soft power refers to all the non-military aspects of power. On one level, Nye’s distinction is unhelpful. By separating out the international development and aid functions and bundling them together under the umbrella term ‘soft’ power, he invites exactly the kind of sneering, dismissive response one would expect from foreign policy hawks pumped up on American military supremacy. But the concept is sound. The key is not to focus on one element or aspect to the exclusion of the other, but rather to find the right blend of elements, the right policy mix. Smart power is the ability to combine all the different elements of your power - both hard and soft - in support of your strategic objectives. It is a conception of power, and of strategy, that aims to bring all the various elements of American power to bear. Its aim is to add a strategic dimension to the aid and development functions so that they more fully cohere with national security objectives.
Starting out from the central principle of Amercian foreign policy, namely the commitment to the Kantian peace and democracy as a constituent element of it, the broad strategic objective is to move from closed systems to more open ones, to move the developing world towards better governance; to transition out of pre-modern forms of governance towards stable democracies, or at the very least systems that are in some sense representative, recognise basic human rights, and allow for peaceful transitions of power. This for the simple reason that open systems rationalise behaviour, making for more responsible actors on the international stage. Governments that act responsibly at home, act responsibly abroad. The idea that the military is the only instrument capable of nudging these societies along the path towards better governance is, of course, absurd. And yet for eight long years under the failed presidency of George W. Bush, policy focused on this aspect of power to the almost total exclusion of every other facet of our capability.
Thankfully, we are now moving away from that kind of lopsided reliance upon and exaggerated faith in, hard power. The downside of the new approach is that we are no longer talking about the headline-catching stuff. And so support for the strategy will be that much harder to maintain. For a commentariat used to instant results, this will come as a shock. There are no quick fixes, no magic bullets; repairing America’s battered image is no mere cosmetic exercise. This is not foreign policy as usual. This is not foreign policy as the neoconservatives conceive it. It is not foreign policy as show business. It is not Hollywood movie, nor is it bedtime story. There are no simplified or simplifying narratives. This is foreign policy for grown ups, it is the hard slog of diplomacy, containment, international development and aid work; the unfashionable stuff, the messy stuff that doesn’t fit into easily into the news cycle. The only stories this strategy generates are the kind that send news editors on the foreign desks to sleep. It doesn’t sell newspapers and no big money defence contracts hinge on it so there is no support in the media or parliament for it. But it is vital work. It is the nuts and bolts of diplomacy and it is a crucial element in our national security policy. That is why it was so encouraging to hear news this week that Secretary Clinton is to launch a new development initiative.
We will have to await the details of the announcement to more fully assess the likely impact, but slowly, surely, the Obama administration is edging towards a fully integrated aid, development and security policy. This is a welcome development, but also a return to an earlier, more rounded conception of power, and of strategy, that is sorely needed. It is the conception of power that won the Cold War. It is the conception of power and of strategy that has underwritten American security for the best part of sixty years and it is a conception that got lost in the heady triumphalism surrounding the unipolar moment and the devastating confusion and loss of 9/11. Slowly but surely the Obama administration is restoring a measure of balance to American grand strategy. My closing thought is simply this: while they are doing it they deserve not to be shouted down, sniped at and second-guessed, least of all by the architects of the failed Bush policy.
Actually, Tom, some military historical trivia matters a lot--and here’s why - Having recently disparaged "brass buttons" trivia by some military historians, I was interested in the distinction drawn by the well-knownWest Point hist...
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