Shadow Government

How much is America liked, and how much does it matter?

By Peter Feaver The Obama team in the first month has made it clear that they believe they know how to do public diplomacy better than the Bush team did. They start off with an enormous asset: President Obama’s sky-high global celebrity status and a secretary of state who is no celebrity slouch herself.  They ...

By Peter Feaver

The Obama team in the first month has made it clear that they believe they know how to do public diplomacy better than the Bush team did. They start off with an enormous asset: President Obama’s sky-high global celebrity status and a secretary of state who is no celebrity slouch herself

They also have shown some refreshing willingness to try new things. Here I am referring not to Clinton’s "listening tour." Nothing is older than the global listening tour. However, it does appear that on Secretary Clinton’s "listening tour" she may be willing to say some interesting things, and that may shake things up in an interesting way.

On the debit side, I would list a continuing embrace of anti-Bush rhetoric that may have provided comfort during the campaign but will seem increasingly shrill and defensive as the dominant story of the first 100 days becomes continuity rather than change.

However, in her recent NPR interview, UN Ambassador Rice put her finger on a very important point about public diplomacy that is all-too-often ignored by the Pew poll watchers: public diplomacy is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end. Being the world’s BFF is all well and good, but if it does not yield greater global cooperation on the global challenges that matter, then it is not worth much.

I was struck by the different tone between, on the one hand, Ambassador Rice’s derisive dismissal of the previous 8 years of U.S. diplomacy, and on the other hand, her candid admission that, well, actually, the Obama administration does want the rest of the world to actually, um, do some things that President Bush tried to get them to do and so, well, in the end, we need them to do it.

I am unfairly paraphrasing, of course, because Susan Rice is one of the best sound-bite deliverers in the business, and she would never fumble around like that in a live interview. She is an A-team player, and as President Obama assembles the rest of his public diplomacy team, I hope they pick other A-team players like her and not flounder about. But regardless of who is on the team, the team will be judged by results — by the extent to which Obama is able to get the world to cooperate with the United States on core foreign policy strategies, and not by the extent to which he boosts Pew poll ratings: for instance, the extent to which NATO countries offer significant numbers of troops in Afghanistan rather than just expressions of "support."

We may even discover that the real Bush problem in this area was not inept public diplomacy but rather a bona fide conflict of interest among our friends and allies over key foreign policy challenges — a conflict of interest that derives more from the power disparities of the international system than from cowboy brusqueness. Such a discovery would not really surprise the new team because, last time they were in power, they encountered the very same phenomenon. They were accused of being a hyperpower. And a politically astute would-be president slammed them for wielding U.S. power arrogantly. Then he got into office and faced the very same accusations.

Soft power is the ability to get other states to do what you want by getting them to want what you want. If you do not get other states to do what you want, you do not have soft power, regardless of how popular you are. And if you don’t have much soft power and keep on asking for things without getting them, sooner or later you may not be so popular. Or you can try to stay popular by dropping your requests, as one report suggests might be happening with Obama and NATO troops for Afghanistan. It is hard to see how that course will do much for U.S. soft power or for U.S. national security interests.

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