U.S. needs 'soft power' leader, and he could be our man

May 21, 2008|By THOMAS F. SCHALLER

RIO DE JANEIRO - Is Sen. Barack Obama the future "soft power" president of the United States?

My current trip to Brazil and one a few months ago to Saudi Arabia - two countries that could hardly be more different - have convinced me that he would have a chance for a transformative global impact.

"Soft" may sound weak or pejorative, but it's not. Unlike American "hard" power, which is exercised through our military and economic clout, soft power relies on our moral, notional and cultural exports. It derives from our ability to persuade the planet with our values, products and identity.

To use the shorthand of acronyms, ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) are hard power; KFCs (Colonel Sanders' global fast-food chain) are soft power. Consider that the Marriott hotel on Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana Beach, from which I write, has The Simpsons on its cable package and a McDonald's a few blocks away.

So what makes Mr. Obama potentially America's first soft power president? To begin, there's his color and his name.

Saudis I met were both fascinated by the prospect that America could elect a black man with the middle name Hussein, and generally convinced it could never happen. In Brazil, a country whose elites are European in descent and mindset but that also features a huge population of Afro-Brazilians, there is a similar feeling of cautious optimism.

Then, more significantly, there is Mr. Obama's potentially pathbreaking foreign policy doctrine, explained by Spencer Ackerman in a recent cover piece for The American Prospect. Mr. Obama and his foreign policy team emphasize "dignity promotion" over "democracy expansion."

If that notion itself sounds a wee bit soft, think again. What Mr. Obama believes is that in societies paralyzed by dehumanizing poverty, ethnic and tribal violence, or lacking safe or abundant food and water supplies, not only is there little hope of democracies emerging, there's a much greater chance to germinate terrorist ideas. A refugee with an empty belly is not much interested in discourse on constitutional theories of checks and balances.

Meanwhile, back home, the Bush administration fertilizes rising anti-American radicalism with its reckless bad-neighbor policies. In his speech last week endorsing Mr. Obama, former Sen. John Edwards talked about the walls that divide us here in America - but then argued there's also a wall distorting our global image. "The America as the beacon of hope is behind that wall," said Mr. Edwards. "And all the world sees now is a bully. They see Iraq, Guantanamo, secret prisons and government that argues that waterboarding is not torture."

A 2007 British Broadcasting Corp. survey in which people around the world were asked to rate 12 major countries in terms of their positive and negative influence revealed that America's negative rating (51 percent) was third worst, between "axis of evil" members Iran and North Korea.

As to those who say they don't care what foreigners think - or worse, who seem to wear anti-Americanism, whether deriving from Paris or Karachi or Addis Ababa, as some sort of badge of honor - this is a myopic and dangerous way to look at the world.

The fact is, the U.S. must thaw the chilling effect of the Bush years. Our security depends on it; our markets do, too.

Because reputations are easy to destroy but difficult to rehabilitate, an Obama victory this November will not be a panacea. But it may provide the United States a chance for a fresh start - a reason for nations that not long ago respected America because it set an example for the world to renew their beliefs in the world's lone remaining superpower.

For citizens of the world who are familiar with the sight of our Golden Arches or the sound Windows XP makes when they boot their Dell laptops, Mr. Obama is an emerging global icon. And, with apologies for commodifying him, he may yet prove to be America's next great export.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears regularly in The Sun. His e-mail is schaller67@gmail.com.

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