Commentary

The Bush administration goes soft

The first term of U.S. President George W. Bush's presidency was marked by unilateralism and military power. The United States was the world's only superpower, so others had to follow. The result was a dramatic decline in America's "soft" or attractive power. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said he did not know what soft power was. Now it is back in fashion in Washington.

 Bush's second inaugural address was devoted to the power of liberty and democracy. Such rhetoric is not new to American presidents. Harry Truman spoke of defending free people everywhere, and Woodrow Wilson spoke of promoting democracy. The neoconservatives in Bush's first administration were in that tradition, but ignored the fact that both Wilson and Truman were also institution-builders who consulted other countries. In dropping that half of Wilson's approach, they stepped on their own message, reducing its effectiveness.

The tone at the beginning of the second Bush administration is different. As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said recently in Paris: "I use the word 'power' broadly, because even more important than military and indeed economic power is the power of ideas, the power of compassion, and the power of hope." Bush not only chose to visit Brussels, the capital of the European Union, on his February trip to Europe, but stated that what "we seek to achieve in the world requires that America and Europe remain close partners." Even Rumsfeld is trying to be conciliatory!

 Will Bush's new approach succeed? On a recent trip to Europe, I encountered both encouragement and skepticism. Many people welcomed the new tone, but wondered if it was simply sugarcoated cynicism. Words must be matched by deeds before people are convinced.

 One place to look to see if deeds are forthcoming is in Bush's latest budget. The budget cuts discretionary spending (other than defense and homeland security) by nearly 1 percent, and slashes as many as 150 domestic programs. Yet, in this climate of fiscal stringency, and outlines increased contributions to international organizations, the Millennium Challenge Account to provide assistance to countries with a commitment to making progress in poverty reduction, and the Global HIV/AIDS Initiative.

 Bush's new budget also includes an increase in funding for public diplomacy. The allocation for the State Department's educational and cultural exchange programs, including overseas research centers, libraries and visitor programs, is boosted by nearly 25 percent. As Bush's budget request to Congress puts it: "Rarely has the need for a sustained effort to ensure foreign understanding for our country and society been so clearly evident." This comes after a first term in which public diplomacy was a neglected stepchild, and a Pentagon advisory panel summed up the situation as a "crisis."

Even with these increases, there is a long way to go to improve America's standing. A recent nonpartisan report by the Public Diplomacy Council called for a new Agency for Public Diplomacy within the State Department, 24-hour English-language broadcasts by the Voice of America, and a fourfold budget increase over the next five years. The Bush administration still has much to do in promoting ideas, but early indications suggest a change from the neglect of the first term.

 But it will not be enough for Bush to start his second term with grand rhetoric about values and increased investment in public diplomacy. A country's attractiveness or soft power stems partly from its culture and values (where they are attractive to others), but it also grows out of a country's policies when they are seen as legitimate, consultative and inclusive of the interests of others. Unless the policies fit the values, the discrepancy will give rise to charges of hypocrisy. At a minimum, Bush will need to pursue policies - in a more consultative manner - that seek a political solution in Iraq and progress in the Israel-Palestine peace process.

 Here too, the early signs are encouraging. The 60 percent turnout in the January Iraqi elections, with scenes of voters risking their lives to go to polling booths, has led to hopes that a political settlement in Iraq may be possible. The elections are but a first step; the insurgency continues; civil war remains possible. Nonetheless, the elections may have softened some of the sense of illegitimacy that has clouded Bush's Iraq policy.

 Similarly, with regard to the Middle East peace process, the replacement of Yasser Arafat by a new Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian elections, and the meetings between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suggest progress. On difficult nuclear issues, such as North Korea and Iran, Bush has pursued multilateral consultation and coordination with other powers.

 Of course, this still leaves unresolved other multilateral issues, like the International Criminal Court and global climate change. There is little prospect that Bush will reverse his rejection of the Kyoto Treaty, but it will be interesting to see how far he accommodates British Prime Minister Tony Blair's efforts to make climate change a priority during Britain's period as chair of the Group of Eight major economies.

 It is much too early for a verdict on Bush's second-term policies. As he looks ahead to the verdict of history, he seems to realize that hard power alone will not consolidate his reputation, but he remains hostage to incidents and accidents that could drive even his best-laid plans off course. Nonetheless, the most striking thing at this point in Bush's second term is his belated discovery of the importance of diplomacy and soft power.

Joseph S. Nye, a former U.S. assistant defence secretary, is Distinguished Service Professor at Harvard, and author of "Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics." This commentary is published in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).

 

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