Shadow Government

When soft power meets hard choices

By William Inboden Soft-power skeptics and B-movie fans probably both found much to applaud in Peter Feaver’s post below on the International Olympic Committee’s "talk to the hand" rejection of Chicago and its implications for President Obama’s global soft-power appeal. In a similar vein, Karen Donfried and Mitchell Reiss have an excellent op-ed in Monday’s ...

By William Inboden

Soft-power skeptics and B-movie fans probably both found much to applaud in Peter Feaver’s post below on the International Olympic Committee’s "talk to the hand" rejection of Chicago and its implications for President Obama’s global soft-power appeal. In a similar vein, Karen Donfried and Mitchell Reiss have an excellent op-ed in Monday’s New York Times (global edition) pointing out the hard power realities — and the hard choices — that loom between Europe and the U.S. on the issues of Afghanistan and Iran. Donfried and Reiss (both of whom I had the privilege of working with at the State Department; the latter is also a Shadow Government contributor) in turn draw on some of the fascinating findings from the German Marshall Fund’s recent Transatlantic Trends Survey of European and American attitudes.

In brief, the Transatlantic Trends survey found an "Obama bounce" of staggeringly high proportions in Europe. As the German Marshall Fund’s Ron Asmus observed, "If Mr. Bush experienced an unprecedented drop in public support, Mr. Obama has produced a bounce not seen in trans-Atlantic polling on U.S. presidents since the 1950s." Support for President Obama jumped 80 percentage points in Germany, 77 points in France, 70 in Portugal, and 64 in Italy, in comparison with President Bush’s (very low) European approval ratings in 2008. In short, Europeans (especially Western Europeans) really, really love our current president. But why hasn’t that affection yet been translated into any significant policy changes by these same besotted Europeans — whether on Guantánamo detainees, NATO troops in Afghanistan, tightened sanctions on Iran, or even giving the Olympics to Obama’s "Sweet Home Chicago"?  Here is where the Transatlantic Trends survey offers some other revealing results.

Their personal adoration for President Obama notwithstanding, most Europeans are still far apart from most Americans on major security issues. Seventy-seven percent of EU citizens oppose sending any further troops to Afghanistan, and majorities of Europeans (West and East) want to reduce or remove their troops currently deployed in Afghanistan. On Iran, a strong plurality of Europeans (48%) are willing to increase diplomatic pressure but categorically rule out any possibility of using military force, while an equally strong plurality of Americans (47%) are willing to consider using force. This gap becomes a virtual chasm when it comes to the general question of whether the use of force can ever "be necessary to achieve justice": 71% of Americans agree, whereas a mirror-image 71% of Europeans disagree. It seems that Bob Kagan’s famous observation that "Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus" didn’t just apply to the Bush years, but describes a persistent transatlantic divide.

So although President Obama’s personal appeal to Europeans is genuine, also genuine is the European disagreement with the United States on both specific policies and the general nature of the international system. And when soft-power affections collide with hard-power interests, the latter carries the day.

Will Inboden is executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

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