Monday, January 31, 2005

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The Bush administration thinks about soft power

I've occasionally opined about the question of America's soft power -- whether the concept is useful, and assuming it is, whether it's on the wane.

With the Iraq election, I missed David Brooks's NYT column on Saturday suggesting that Bush administration officials were paying more attention to soft power as well:

The new mood has also brought a resurgence of soft-power thinking. Administration officials are trying to think big about what institutions can be used to implement the freedom agenda the president sketched out in his Inaugural Address.

When you ask exactly which institutions need to be created, they get more than a little vague, but you get a clear sense of their preferences. Bush folks have not developed any new love for the Security Council. Instead, they are much more interested in working with regional groups, like the Organization of American States.

Their favorite kinds of institutions are the kinds they created in response to the tsunami disaster: the kind with no permanent offices and no permanent staff, the kind that is created to address a discrete problem and then disappear when the problem is over. The phrase for this is coalitions of the willing. If you think the Iraq situation soured the Bush team on these sorts of coalitions, you're wrong.

The focus on ad hoc coalitions over more formal institutions will be the subject of a later post -- for now, I would strongly recommend that the Bushies read and absorb Andrew Moravcsik's provocative but well-sourced essay in Newsweek International warning that American soft power is fading fast. Some highlights:

The truth is that Americans are living in a dream world. Not only do others not share America's self-regard, they no longer aspire to emulate the country's social and economic achievements. The loss of faith in the American Dream goes beyond this swaggering administration and its war in Iraq. A President Kerry would have had to confront a similar disaffection, for it grows from the success of something America holds dear: the spread of democracy, free markets and international institutions—globalization, in a word.

Countries today have dozens of political, economic and social models to choose from. Anti-Americanism is especially virulent in Europe and Latin America, where countries have established their own distinctive ways—none made in America. Futurologist Jeremy Rifkin, in his recent book "The European Dream," hails an emerging European Union based on generous social welfare, cultural diversity and respect for international law—a model that's caught on quickly across the former nations of Eastern Europe and the Baltics. In Asia, the rise of autocratic capitalism in China or Singapore is as much a "model" for development as America's scandal-ridden corporate culture. "First we emulate," one Chinese businessman recently told the board of one U.S. multinational, "then we overtake."

Many are tempted to write off the new anti-Americanism as a temporary perturbation, or mere resentment. Blinded by its own myth, America has grown incapable of recognizing its flaws. For there is much about the American Dream to fault. If the rest of the world has lost faith in the American model—political, economic, diplomatic—it's partly for the very good reason that it doesn't work as well anymore.

Read the whole thing -- Moravcsik demonstrates the diminishing allure for America's legal system, economic system, and foreign policy.

As someone who thought of anti-Americanism as a temporary perturbation, I do think Moravcsik is massaging the evidence overstating his thesis a bit. The fact that other countries don't want to adopt America's constitution lock, stock and barrel doesn't mean a rejection the more basic values of liberty, democracy and capitalism. Our serious "soft power rivals" -- i.e., Europe -- look much more like us than was the case during the Cold War. Compared to the values schism that exists between the west and the Arab Middle East, differences over the size of the welfare state or the appropriate electoral system seem trifling Plus, as he notes in the essay, it remains the case that the United States remains popular "in the poorest and most dictatorial countries." This fact has not changed in quite some time -- it's just that there are fewer poor dictatorships than there used to be.

That said, Moravcsik's thesis cannot be quickly dismissed -- he's onto something that Bush officials should consider when talking about soft power.

posted by Dan on 01.31.05 at 11:57 AM


Quote from Rifkin: "emerging European Union based on generous social welfare, cultural diversity and respect for international law—a model that's caught on quickly across the former nations of Eastern Europe and the Baltics."

As a person from one of Baltic states, I note that my country has such features of "generous social welfare" as flat income tax and privatized Social Security. An government spending as a share of economy is much closer to US than to old EU.

posted by: Adrian on 01.31.05 at 11:57 AM [permalink]

What about "the Core's" soft power as a whole? Why the focus on America?

posted by: praktike on 01.31.05 at 11:57 AM [permalink]

I am somewhat mystified by the popularity of the "soft power/hard power" phraseology. Joseph Nye's book on the subject suggested some of its limitations -- his entire discussion never mentioned Christianity once, though American missionaries have arguably done more to spread the ideas and values we are familiar with than any other group in our society. Some of those ideas and values directly contradict those spread by Hollywood and other purveyors of what he described as "soft power."

Maybe our problem isn't so much that people overseas are rejecting American values. They may just be confused about what those values are.

posted by: Zathras on 01.31.05 at 11:57 AM [permalink]

I agree that Moravcsik's thesis is a little overblown. For instance, when he writes that the EU is based on "generous social welfare, cultural diversity and respect for international law," I don't see any inherent conflicts with the American ideal (OK, so we don't have as much social welfare- but this shouldn't really cause friction with Europe, it's a matter of preference. And no one really respects international law anyway... ;-)).

As much as Europe dislikes Bush, I don't see them moving away from American democratic ideals anytime soon.

posted by: Brad Reed on 01.31.05 at 11:57 AM [permalink]

Seems that Gentleman doesnt know much about the path of recent Europe: zero or very low grow specially in France and Germany, dismantling of some social security support, private hospitals in Sweden etc. Some Eastern European countries seems to be more "neoliberal"( an European word that usually means evil Milton Friedman & Friends economics ) than US. Well i would say that US is increasing socialist in some areas and Europe is getting more caspitalist (sadly the European concept of capitalism usually means supporting those that already are in the game , not the new kid on the block with a new idea)

posted by: lucklucky on 01.31.05 at 11:57 AM [permalink]

Thanks for linking Andrew's piece. Provocative indeed! As a Canadian, we sit somewhere between the American & European "models" (if there can said to be just one of the latter), and also can/usually do offer an interesting take on the American experience, in all realms. Unequivocally, those outside the U.S. are increasingly resentful of it and its power, surely a by-product of the (de)evolving exercise of both its hard & soft power. I think what Andrew is getting at (subtly) is along the same lines as John Ikenberry: essentially, by going alone, and assuming its model is the only way to go for others, the U.S. is risking a further unravelling of the international system, and the accompanying economic, social and political instability. In other words, there *could* be a better way to balance American national interests without undermining itself & the international environment, its allies, etc.

posted by: Mike on 01.31.05 at 11:57 AM [permalink]

In response to the comment above by "lucky", I think one of the article's presicent points is that while yes, there are more free market reforms happening in Europe in some sectors -- and these are certainly for the better in many respects -- Europeans are still getting a better balance in life overall than Americans are, without abandoning core principles. Again, as a Canadian, we've done the same thing while managing to create a strong (deficit-free) economy -- ok, not without major problems but finding a reasonable balance nonetheless.

posted by: Mike on 01.31.05 at 11:57 AM [permalink]

Of course, the cynical view is that "cultural diversity and respect for international law" is mere code words for "we're free now, and have no overarching enemy to worry about, so we don't care if others are oppressed. Stability above all." It's the Europeans who are rushing to lift the arms embargo with China, to trade with Iran and the mullahs, who always wanted to trade with Libya, who are most willing to sell out Taiwan, who don't want to confront dictatorships, who were hesitant about the Ukrain issue, etc. Certainly the US has many areas of hypocrisy or supporting quite nasty regimes for realpolitick reasons, but it's nigh-impossible to think of an area where these countries have been more supportive of human rights than the US; they've mostly been just more hypocritical, not less, and more willing to make deals in the name of stability.

Stability looks pretty good-- and for obvious and understandable reasons-- when your own situation is positive and free.

I don't care if the world looks up to us, so long as they're free. I would rather have a France which despises us than an Iran in bondage that hates us.

posted by: John Thacker on 01.31.05 at 11:57 AM [permalink]

To be added to the Western European fecklessness is their recent willingness to ban Cuban dissidents from being invited to consular parties.

posted by: John Thacker on 01.31.05 at 11:57 AM [permalink]

Anyone who calls Jeremy Rifkin a "futurologist" is ignorant of his writings. He's a Luddite socialist.

posted by: ech on 01.31.05 at 11:57 AM [permalink]

The article is for the most part tiresomely irrelevant. So it turns out that as countries get richer they get a taste for European luxury goods over cheap American consumer brands? Katie bar the door! The one real threat to what actually *matters* in the "American model," the attraction of China/Singapore autocratic capitalism, is mentioned in passing, while the rest of the article plays up endless contrasts with Europe as if they were some sort of threat. Thailand wants to follow, say, Sweden as a model? South Africa likes "German" federalism? Who gives a damn? How does that make the slightest difference for us? It's if countries start to follow contemporary China as a model that matters.

posted by: rd on 01.31.05 at 11:57 AM [permalink]

"The fact that other countries don't want to adopt America's constitution lock, stock and barrel doesn't mean a rejection the more basic values of liberty, democracy and capitalism."

Of course not. Moravcsik's point, if I understand him correctly, is that America gained a fair amount of "soft power" from being viewed as the model embodiment of those values, and that America is now losing that power. His thesis concerns to American power, not the power of ideals that have traditionally been associated with America.

posted by: Kenneth Almquist on 01.31.05 at 11:57 AM [permalink]

"Those outside the U.S. are increasingly resentful of it and its power, surely a by-product of the (de)evolving exercise of both its hard & soft power."

I suppose that some degree of resentment of U.S. power is inevitable. I expect that many people outside the United States are nationalistic enough to wish that it was their country, rather than the United States, that was the most powerful country in the world.

But when people view the United States as a threat to world peace, that is something else. The challenge for the United States is to convince people around the world that U.S. power is, on balance, a good thing--or at least not something that they have a large stake in opposing.

Drezner links to an earlier article by him in which he argues that anti-Americanism amoung our traditional allies is a tranistory phenomenon. "The practical realities of a unipolar world compel most governments to cooperate with America to advance their own interests." Sure, but if most of the world thinks that this is a bad state of affairs, I'm not sure it can be sustained indefinitely.

posted by: Kenneth Almquist on 01.31.05 at 11:57 AM [permalink]

A political culture dominated by the permanent campaign might be expected to emphasize national self-congratulation and the avoidance of criticism save of one party by the other. It isn't a question of presenting a false impression to foreign audiences, but rather of ignoring foreign audiences altogether.

To the extent the American government has a problem in this area it goes rather deeper than the attitude of a few Bush administration appointees toward permanent international institutions. International leadership requires people who regard it as a full time responsibility, and such people find it hard even to get elected to Congress these days, let alone getting as far as the White House.

posted by: Zathras on 01.31.05 at 11:57 AM [permalink]

You are all aware of the fact that Europe
is inevitably going broke. The only reason
things don't 'seem' as bad as truly they are
is because we American Taxpayers are footing
the bill for Europe's security.

I'm amazed that Moravcsik doesn't mention
the world's largest Democracy - India. That
is the capitalist model that is most likely
to overtake the USA. But, culturally, Indians
don't like to 'toot their own horn' the way
the 'Middle Kingdom' does.

The President must have scared the crap
out of the left with his speech. Freedom
is coming. And they will either get out
of the way, participate, or be left in the
dust-bin of history.

posted by: pragmatist on 01.31.05 at 11:57 AM [permalink]

Moravcsik recycles an awful lot of conventional wisdom. The last I checked, happiness surveys favored the US over most of Europe, not the other way around. The alternative models to the US one are as threatening as Japan Inc. was in the 1980s. People were absolutely convinced that Japan was going to take over everything. It didn't turn out that way because Japan had been cooking its books in a massive way that makes our current problems in that area seem puny.

Europe has similar problems. Their biggest problem is that they aren't making an awful lot of biological Europeans so they're going to have to import them and they're absolutely awful at assimilation.

A great deal of the statistics that are bad for the US are a problem in part or wholly because immigration, while ultimately (post assimilation) strengthening society with fresh blood, drive down all sorts of statistics of health and well-being. Until the mid-to-late '90s, every newly arrived Romanian I met had need of some pretty hefty dental work. Those repairs impacted US health statistics, though they were no reflection at all on the US system.

Right now, the US is going through a period of trial. Its model is being challenged and pretty much all of the challengers as well as the incumbent are at significant risk of crashing and falling as Japan did. These are pretty high stakes bets and the game won't get settled for at least the next couple of decades.

While I think that Moravcsik has his finger well placed on several US weaknesses, I don't think he really understands that the alternative systems have their own weaknesses. Every potential world hegemon has faced a moment when the world was groping toward an "everybody else" coalition that was devoted to knocking down the world beater. Until that coalition breaks apart because some or all of the alternate models prove unsustainable in reality, US soft power will weaken under that coalition assault. This one sided analysis means that Moravcsik's predictions are very far off from what is most likely to happen.

Moravcsik has a very out of date notion of the lag time between adopting seed corn eating social welfare policies and when the bad consequences of those policies start to hit the visible economy. The lag times for such things are long and Europe is only now starting to seriously feel the strain.

Other "charges" like his throwaway line about US "ugly racial tensions" are simply not credible. It isn't that the US doesn't have racial problems, but that Europe has them so much worse. When was the last time a black athlete was openly mocked for his skin color in the US? You'd measure that in decades. For Europe, you can measure that in days or weeks.

In the end, faults are only to be found in the american model. Failure is only an option for the US. The failure of the American Dream is something that is known a priori, apart from investigation. That makes the article just one more tiresome exercise in wish fulfillment.


posted by: TM Lutas on 01.31.05 at 11:57 AM [permalink]

I find it a tad humorous that to demonstrate how irrelevant America and its ideals have become, the South African dude quotes... Abraham Lincoln. Hmm.

posted by: Marc on 01.31.05 at 11:57 AM [permalink]

The problem with USA is they seems to have too much rules, also i point the problem with the courts.they are turning a very good health system, the most responsive and with better life expectancy in cancer for example in a expensive one where some people find it better to take an holidays in some Hospital in India for some operation. With Europe the state is also inneficient in my country Portugal the governement tired of trying to fix the National Health System to end the waitings list, started sending Cirugic Vouchers to
some patients. That way they can also choose in private sector.

posted by: Lucklucky on 01.31.05 at 11:57 AM [permalink]

Today Le Figaro french newspaper came with articles sympathetic of Bush. In one it snipes against EU released declaration sarcastly saying that EU congratulated whole world and himself for the election success but not the USA. In another with declaration of Sunnis voters in Baghdad.

posted by: Lucklucky on 01.31.05 at 11:57 AM [permalink]

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