Thursday, February 22, 2007

Soft in the head

In geopolitical terms, soft power is a combination of cultural, financial and moral influences that that one country holds over others. There was a time when no country wielded as much soft power as the US. America was the preferred destination for the world's tired and poor. Its music could be heard in the dustiest cantina on the planet. The American way of life was a promise that better days could be had.

And then President Bush happened. Today, America is more likely to stand for Abu Graib than Elvis. Where were were once a force for stability, the US now promises war without end. American leaders where once revered around the world - now we're led by the punchline to a bad joke. Sullivan has been particularly poignant on the consequences of America's draining reserve of soft power:
Soft power can be over-hyped. It's no substitute for military prowess. But soft power still matters. Once, for all the residual anti-Americanism out there, it was a significant plus for the U.S. Bush has somehow managed to give the U.S. a soft-power deficit - in a war against some of the most barbaric, evil enemies we have ever faced. That really is an achievement. And it will take another generation to fix it. It's one reason Obama is so appealing, I think. Electing him after Bush-Cheney would amount to the strongest signal that America is moving past the Bush-Cheney era. That's a message the world is desperate to hear, and it would make enlisting more allies in the war against Islamist terror much easier.
The term "soft power" was coined by Harvard University professor Joseph Nye, who explains the term this way:
The basic concept of power is the ability to influence others to get them to do what you want. There are three major ways to do that: one is to threaten them with sticks; the second is to pay them with carrots; the third is to attract them or co-opt them, so that they want what you want. If you can get others to be attracted, to want what you want, it costs you much less in carrots and sticks.
Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney and other unindicted war criminals saw only sticks. Or perhaps their macho sensibilities discounted the effectiveness of any influence that doesn't involve blowing stuff up. Could they really be that cynical?

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