Now we know what soft power can yield: a Nobel Peace Prize
By Peter Feaver Soft power is the ability to get others to do what you want by getting them to want what you want. President Obama built a larger soft-power asset base in a shorter amount of time than any other president. Yet it was not large enough to get other states to do what ...
By Peter Feaver
By Peter Feaver
Soft power is the ability to get others to do what you want by getting them to want what you want. President Obama built a larger soft-power asset base in a shorter amount of time than any other president. Yet it was not large enough to get other states to do what Obama wanted in the area of NATO commitments to Afghanistan, receiving released Gitmo detainees, contributing to the Israel-Palestinian peace process, nor, as of last week, granting Chicago the 2016 Olympics. Some of these were harder tests and others easier tests for soft power, but President Obama scored a goose egg on all of them, so much so that he became a punchline.
Until now. A presidency seemingly built around the popularity of the persona of the president has just demonstrated that soft power is not impotent: the Obama team wanted the president to win a Nobel Peace Prize and the Nobel Committee wanted to give him one. The only hiccup is that the Obama team wanted it someday and the Nobel Committee decided to give it to him today.
The awarding of this prize is so stunningly premature that even hardened Obamaphiles like David Axelrod could not spin themselves into a measured reaction. Reportedly, his response to the news that the world was stunned by this move was: "As are we."
There is no plausible case that can be made that President Obama has earned this award, not yet. If any of the various initiatives he has launched came to fruition perhaps then he might have a case. If he safely ridded the world of all nuclear weapons, or forged a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians, or thwarted Iranian nuclear ambitions. If he did any of those things, perhaps even Republicans would nominate him for a Peace Prize. But he hasn’t done them. All he really has done is give a few speeches expressing a sincere desire to accomplish those.
A Nobel Peace Prize is not just a consequence of soft power. It is also a major soft-power asset itself. So the the asset bubble which was evaporating after last week’s "Blame it on Rio" moment has just reinflated. But this has all the feel of a soft power asset bubble built on nothing. When will this bubble burst and what will be the consequences of it?
There is a danger in this for President Obama. As the Saturday Night Live skit demonstrated, his point of vulnerability is the apparent distance between his image on the one hand and his demonstrable record on the other. A premature Nobel Peace Prize makes the Chauncey Gardner parallel almost inescapable.
Bottom line: a Nobel Peace Prize would have been a fabulous capstone achievement for the Obama administration, but it may prove to be a very shaky cornerstone.
Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.
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