» Download Audio
By Cindy Saine
14 January 2009
President-elect Barack Obama has indicated his administration is likely to be less reliant on the threat of military force to persuade and influence other countries, and more likely to use so-called "soft power," the attractiveness of a nation's ideals, culture and way of life.
|Barack Obama |
The sheer military might of the United States is unquestioned - U.S. troops are among the best trained and equipped in the world and they are stationed in some 130 countries. But as American military superiority has increased, its reputation and ability to persuade others appear to have taken a hit.
A recent Pew Global Attitudes survey shows that positive views of the United States declined in 26 of the 33 countries where the question was posed in 2002 and 2007, with even close U.S. allies critical of American foreign policy. Recent surveys show majorities in nearly all countries think it is time for U.S. troops to leave Iraq and Afghanistan.
Nancy Snow is associate professor of public diplomacy at Syracuse University in New York. She says the election of Barack Obama itself is likely to boost America's standing in the world, before he even sets foot in the White House.
"The world was holding its collective breath, hoping that the outcome would favor Obama-Biden," said Snow. "And it did. And I think there was an immediate downtick of the anti-American sentiment. Now how long that will last is another thing. Because now he has to govern. But just as candidate, a candidate of change, to use his words, really symbolically represented a release from a very unpopular president worldwide."
During his victory speech on election night in Chicago, President-elect Obama promised "a new dawn" of American leadership in the world.
"And to all those who have wondered if America's beacon still burns as bright - tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope," he said.
Mr. Obama has promised to take the nation in a different direction than the Bush administration. He has said he will close down the prison at Guantanamo Bay as one of his first acts in office, and declared the United States will not use techniques such as water-boarding to obtain information.
Nancy Snow say Mr. Obama knows that restoring trust is key.
"He said he wants to restore trust in government. He wants to restore trust in American leadership, both abroad, and at also here at home," she said. "I think what is required now through soft power, it includes non-violent practices of attracting people, through what you represent, and what you do, and that is the type of president he has said he would be."
Snow says Mr. Obama can make use of his excellent communication skills and his multi-cultural background to restore America's ability to wield soft power through diplomacy and development programs.
Kristen Lord is an expert on U.S. relations with the Islamic world at the Brookings Institution in Washington. She says she is optimistic Mr. Obama will immediately change the tone of dialogue with other countries, from a "go it alone" approach, to one of mutual respect and cooperation.
"When Americans show that they are willing to listen, when they are willing to engage, when they are willing to address some of the underlying challenges that Muslim societies are facing, perhaps paradoxically to some, that actually makes the United States more secure," said Lord.
At her Senate confirmation hearing, Mr. Obama's choice to be Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, vowed to move away from what she called the "rigid ideology" that many analysts have associated with President Bush's foreign policy.
|Hillary Rodham Clinton testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on her nomination, on Capitol Hill in Washington, 13 Jan 2009|
"I believe that American leadership has been wanting, but is still wanted. We must use what has been called smart power, the full range of tools at our disposal - diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural - picking the right tool or combination of tools for each situation. With smart power, diplomacy will be the vanguard of our foreign policy," she said.
Clinton said she and Mr. Obama would always try persuasion first, and would rely on military force only as a last resort. Mrs. Clinton said the United States needs to make more friends and fewer enemies, and called for the State Department to be fully empowered and funded to seize the many opportunities for leadership.
President Bush's former defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, was a well known skeptic of the notion of soft power, saying popularity is fleeting and should not guide U.S. foreign policy. Rumsfeld maintained the U.S. is strong enough to pursue its interests as it sees fit, and must accept that others will sometimes resent it.
Others caution that many people in the United States and abroad have such high expectations for Mr. Obama to resolve the world's many problems, that some measure of disappointment is inevitable.
But millions of people across the world are expected to watch the inauguration of the new president with a sense of pride and hope for a better future, and will look to Mr. Obama's administration for a new kind of American leadership.