West Wing From Superpower to Soft Power

America's foreign policy is changing. After watching the neoconservatives lead the US into war, presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama are both interested in returning to diplomacy. Even Bush's pistol is back in the holster.

By Gabor Steingart in Washington D.C.


US President George W. Bush has been looking away from the military for his foreign policy needs.
AP

US President George W. Bush has been looking away from the military for his foreign policy needs.

The trademark of American foreign policy under President George W. Bush has been that of the drawn pistol. But with presidential elections just around the corner and both Democrats and Republicans distancing themselves from the White House's bellicosity, that era is coming to an end. Indeed, the president himself has had a hand in launching the new age, albeit not publicly.

It was the privacy of a one-on-one meeting that allowed a foreign visitor recently to ask the US president for clarity. Did he really intend to bomb Iran during his remaining term in office? George W. Bush, whose fear of the possibility that Iran is developing nuclear weapons has led him to speak publicly of a World War III, responded clearly: "You can't bomb knowledge."

Many months before the actual changing of the guard in America, a political shift is underway. Its scope and extent remain unclear, yet the seeds of a new foreign policy have clearly been sown. The neoconservative strategy, which treated diplomacy as a waste of time and saw the military preemptive strike as America's fundamental right, has proven to be ineffective. Regardless of who moves into the White House in January, neoconservatism is not about to sprout any new shoots on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Reality has taught America a bitter lesson. Years after the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the wars in those countries are still raging. Bush has become an effective recruitment tool for radical Islam. And in the Middle East, where Syria remains strong and an economically prosperous Iran sees itself destined to become the region's preeminent power, war seems closer than peace.

Strong and Impudent

The United States is in a lonely spot, even in the West. When Tony Blair resigned as British prime Minister, the US lost its last European vassal. In Asia, home to half the world's population, America has many military bases but virtually no friends. To make matters worse, the weak dollar has made oil-rich Moscow and Tehran both strong and impudent.

A new order needs the failure of an old order to succeed. That was the way it was in the late 1960s, when the politics of détente began taking shape. The US's rollback policy, designed as it was to push back Soviet communism, failed to break the communists' backbone. Instead, it only strengthened the Soviet military. The Berlin Wall was built, the Cuban missile crisis took the world to the brink of a nuclear war and proxy wars in Angola and Vietnam exacted a high toll in human life before running their course.

Soon a new philosophy gained credence: Where there is talk, there will be no shooting. Then German Chancellor Willy Brandt went to Moscow, Richard Nixon paid a visit to Mao, and Ronald Reagan later achieved a spectacular disarmament agreement.

For the United States, the decline of the Soviet Union was not the boon many had been expected to be, and the world's sole remaining superpower became cocky and loudmouthed. But the neoconservatives' underlying principle was in fact flawed. They believed that the world was made up of good, evil and the weaklings from the place former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once called "Old Europe." They believed that evil could be isolated or even eliminated, while the weaklings could be ignored.

Hammer and Crowbar

The world, though, does not consist exclusively of good and evil. Rather, it is a place of differing interests and values. Clever politicians try to understand and balance these interests and values. Not every loudmouth can be declared a new Hitler. And not every critic of the United States is anti-American.

The aim of soft power politics, which has now captured the attention of political Washington, is to minimize differences, expand shared values and undertake as much as possible with other nations. It is a concept that once again avails itself of the entire toolbox of foreign policy, not just the hammer and the crowbar.

According to Joseph S. Nye, Jr., the former chairman of the US National Intelligence Council and the man who coined the phrase, the politics of soft power, while involving military power and economic strength, also bring a third dimension into play: a nation's cultural assets. Accordingly, the pursuit of soft power politics means being a role model, talking, negotiation, using incentives as well as threats, cooperating and sanctioning, opening the door, slamming it shut and then opening it again. It also means blocking, bluffing and, if nothing else works, bombing.

"Paradoxically, our willingness to talk makes it even easier to pursue tough policies," says Dennis Ross, a former Middle East coordinator in the Clinton administration.

Negotiation is always worthwhile, even if agreement is practically impossible, say the proponents of soft power. One of their mantras is a Chinese proverb: You should shake the hand you cannot cut off. Conversely, the saying also means: If you have the opportunity, swing the ax.

Devoid of Tensions

China's ascent has given a new attractiveness to the concept of soft power. In addition to its astonishing economic prowess, the country can also boast an extraordinary foreign policy. Its approach is patient, peaceful, non-ideological and almost indiscriminate -- and has been extremely successful in recent years.

Beijing consciously cooperates with both democracies and dictatorships, levels no ideological accusations against anyone, and cooperates economically with the United States and militarily with Iran and Russia. The country's relationship with all of the world's major powers is almost devoid of tensions.

The Chinese Communist Party calls its foreign policy doctrine "peaceful ascent," an approach that forces foreign policy to take a back seat to economic growth. Avoiding conflict is considered to be in China's best interest. As a result, the dollars earned in the exporting business are also used to cultivate foreign relations. Dictators in Sudan and elsewhere are among the beneficiaries.

China offers an instructive example of an approach America once valued: Loyalty can be bought, and even peace is sometimes merely a question of price. This realization, though not particularly attractive, is useful nonetheless. "With this charm strategy, China will change the world," says Joshua Kurlantzick, a visiting scholar with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is his newest book, "Charm Offensive."

Back in the Holster

Cool pragmatism is also returning to America. Barack Obama may be calling his rival "John McBush," hoping to stigmatize him as the current president's political heir. And McCain may accuse Obama of being naïve for wanting to negotiate unconditionally with Iran, Cuba and North Korea. Nevertheless, the similarities are already beginning to emerge from the fog of electioneering.

Both candidates support international cooperation. Both see the use of force as the last and not the first instrument of foreign policy. Obama sees himself as the proponent of a new foreign policy that would emphasize America's status as a role model, favoring the carrot over the stick. And John McCain, as much as he is courting conservative Republicans in the run-up to the party's convention, is no neoconservative.

Unlike Bush, McCain opposes torture in CIA prisons, wants to close the US detainee camp at Guantanamo Bay, and supported talks with Hamas, not exactly a peace-loving group, after its 2006 election victory in the Gaza Strip. For the first time, McCain has even suggested that he would support withdrawing US troops from Iraq, but not until 2013. When it comes to Iran policy, McCain not only supports the European governments' talks with Tehran, but also favors contacts between the United States and the Iranian government, though not at the presidential level.

If there is one encouraging signal coming from Washington in the turbulent days of the election campaign, it is this: the zeitgeist has shifted. America wants to cooperate with the rest of the world again instead of imposing its will on other countries.

Even Bush is clearly no longer the man he presents himself to be. Without any presidential fanfare, lower-level talks are underway with the government of Bush's archrival in Tehran. The pistol has returned to its holster.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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