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The soft power scorecard: Europe 1, America 0

The soft power scorecard: Europe 1, America 0

By Peter Feaver

It has been interesting to see how quickly the Obama administration has retreated from some of the more extravagant soft power claims that greeted it during the honeymoon period. A few short weeks ago, you could find newspapers touting how "U.S. Offers Goodwill, and Expects Something in Return." Nowadays, one is more apt to find "Obama May Find Europe Reticent on Some U.S. Goals."

In fact, as Der Spiegel put it, "Europe’s Obama Euphoria Wanes." President Obama remains a wildly popular public figure and everyone, heads of state included, would like to get their picture taken with him. But when it comes to the tough issues of the day — the ramp up of commitments in Afghanistan or coordinating global stimulus packages — the Obama team and its fans in Europe are not quite the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers team that we had been promised. Or rather they are more this than this.

Some Obama critics might blame the apparent inefficacy of soft power on the Obama team’s rookie mistakes, whether it is needless insults, botched gifts, or the vacancies in key posts. I think such a view is unfair to the administration, and wrongly implies that if only it could hit its own "reset" button, it could reclaim the honeymoon. But the truth is, the issues that bedevil Obama are the very same ones that bedeviled President Bush, and having a more popular leader at the top may not do much to change the underlying conflicts of interest.

On many issues, our European partners are more like "in-laws" than "allies." In-laws are people who share a common identity, even a shared long-term and enduring covenant, and this common identity is strong enough (usually) to outlast many frequent (and sometimes stormy) conflicts of interest. Allies submerge their conflicts of interests in order to accomplish an overriding goal, typically victory against a common enemy. In-laws will continue to meet at family reunions (what is the G-20 if not a family reunion?; perhaps a dysfunctional family reunion?), but they may only agree on where to stand for the family photo. We should all be grateful for in-laws (I am deeply grateful for mine, in case they are reading), but we should not be surprised by conflicts. And we should attribute failures of cooperation to those underlying conflicts of interest rather than to boorish diplomacy.

Many people thought the election of Obama would yield a soft power bonanza, but it hasn’t worked out that way. Soft power is the ability to get other states to want what you want, and it is distinguished from hard power, which is the ability to get other states to do what you want (even if they don’t want to). Obama at the start undoubtedly has more soft power at his disposal than Bush did at the finish, but so far this has not produced much greater European cooperation on American goals. The atmospherics and optics are more positive, but the actual results are not.

Does this mean soft power is overrated? Perhaps some are naïve about what it can do, but I would characterize the naiveté more as a misunderstanding — specifically, a failure to understand that soft power operates in both directions. We are seeking to exert soft power on others, and others are seeking to exert soft power on us. Viewed this way, in recent months we have witnessed a fairly impressive display of transatlantic soft power, but it has traveled mostly east to west, rather than west to east.

Not too long ago, America wanted Europe to:

  • adopt more American approaches to addressing the global financial crisis;
  • shoulder more of the military and economic load in Afghanistan; and
  • accept more responsibility for holding the detainees currently at Guantanamo Bay.

And Europe wanted the opposite — for America to:

  • adopt more European approaches to addressing the global financial crisis;
  • shoulder more of the military and economic load in Afghanistan; and
  • accept more responsibility for holding the detainees currently at Guantanamo Bay.

These conflicts of interest have been worked out not with hard power tools of threats and intimidation but with soft power tools of shaming and suasion. And the results so far are:

  • America is going to adopt more European approaches to addressing the global financial crisis;
  • America is going to shoulder more of the military and economic load in Afghanistan; and
  • America is going to accept more responsibility for holding the detainees currently at Guantanamo Bay.

My purpose here is not to critique the results. So far, they are more or less what I expected, and I can imagine far more disastrous foreign policy moves than the ones Obama has made thus far. But we should not miss the opportunity to learn a bit of realism that should be obvious to anyone who served in a position of responsibility in American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. Soft power is a useful component of foreign policy, but it is a means to an end, not an end in itself. And if you make "being liked" a centerpiece of your foreign policy, you will find your soft power eroding and the soft power of others growing.

I am pretty sure the Obama team — the one running foreign policy now, not the one running for office last fall — already understands this. And I am pretty sure they are going to return from Europe understanding it even better.