Nye: Bush Goes Soft

Joseph Nye, an Undersecretary of Defense during the Clinton administration and author of Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, sees indications that President Bush is adopting more of a soft power approach in his second term.

The first term of U.S. President George W. Bush’s presidency was marked by unilateralism and military power. The United States was the world’s only superpower, so others had to follow. The result was a dramatic decline in America’s “soft” or attractive power. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said he did not know what soft power was. Now it is back in fashion in Washington.

Bush’s second inaugural address was devoted to the power of liberty and democracy. Such rhetoric is not new to American presidents. Harry Truman spoke of defending free people everywhere, and Woodrow Wilson spoke of promoting democracy. The neoconservatives in Bush’s first administration were in that tradition, but ignored the fact that both Wilson and Truman were also institution-builders who consulted other countries. In dropping that half of Wilson’s approach, they stepped on their own message, reducing its effectiveness.

While true in the sense that soft power is all about perception, the fact of the matter is that the administration very much tried to use diplomacy during the first term, simply failing in highly visible cases like Iraq.

Nye notes that the administration has ponied up more money for such things as international AIDS treatment and natural disaster relief but must go further:

At a minimum, Bush will need to pursue policies – in a more consultative manner – that seek a political solution in Iraq and progress in the Israel-Palestine peace process.

Here too, the early signs are encouraging. The 60 percent turnout in the January Iraqi elections, with scenes of voters risking their lives to go to polling booths, has led to hopes that a political settlement in Iraq may be possible. The elections are but a first step; the insurgency continues; civil war remains possible. Nonetheless, the elections may have softened some of the sense of illegitimacy that has clouded Bush’s Iraq policy.

Similarly, with regard to the Middle East peace process, the replacement of Yasser Arafat by a new Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian elections, and the meetings between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suggest progress. On difficult nuclear issues, such as North Korea and Iran, Bush has pursued multilateral consultation and coordination with other powers.

I would note that the Bush approach has been far more successful than that of the Clinton administration in this regard. (Although the idea that Clinton, who used military force, even outside UN auspices, quite frequently was a soft power-only guy is silly, too.) The Afghan, Iraqi, and Palestinian elections did not occur in a vacuum; they were a direct result of two wars–the ultimate use of hard power.

Soft power is quite important, too, a fact that Bush’s foreign policy advisers obviously recognize. But soft power is more than being known for giving money generously and playing nice within international organizations. Having a reputation for willingness to use hard power to fight tyranny also helps increase one’s respect abroad.

The U.S. was at the apex of its power right after World War II, when it had just led the defeat of Nazism, Fascism, and Imperialism, which it followed very quickly with soft power programs such as the Marshall Fund and Berlin Airlift. Perhaps we can achieve something similar in the early 21st Century, deposing the tyrannical regimes of the Middle East, encouraging the spread of democracy, and also pouring billions into humanitarian programs in the Muslim world. The massive tsunami relief programs are a huge start in that direction. Surely, aid money given to democratic governments we helped create will create more good will than money given to despots.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.