O ne irony of the Obama presidency is how much it relies on hard power. The president came into office proposing a dramatic shift from George W. Bush’s perceived unilateralism, and most of his predecessor’s hard-edged counterterrorism tactics and massive deployments in wars abroad. Yet after three years, Obama has escalated forces in Afghanistan, embraced the widespread use of unmanned drones to kill terrorists at the risk of civilian casualties, kept Guantánamo open, and killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in a thoroughly unilateral fashion.
What he hasn’t accomplished to any great degree is what most observers assumed would be the hallmark of his approach to foreign affairs—a full assertion of the soft power that makes hard power more effective. His 2008 campaign centered on a critique of President Bush’s overreliance on hard power. Obama suggested he would rehabilitate the damaged image of America created by these excesses and show that the United States was not a cowboy nation. Upon taking office, he made fresh-start statements, such as his June 2009 remarks in Cairo, and embraced political means like dialogue, respectful multilateralism, and the use of new media, suggesting that he felt the soft power to change minds, build legitimacy, and advance interests was the key element missing from the recent US approach to the world—and that he would quickly remedy that defect.
Yet President Obama’s conception of soft power has curiously lacked the very quality that has made it most efficacious in the past—the values dimension . This may seem odd for a leader who is seen worldwide as an icon of morality, known for the motto “the audacity of hope” and his deployment of soaring rhetoric. Yet his governance has virtually ignored the values dimension of soft power, which goes beyond the tradecraft of diplomacy and multilateral consultation to aggressively assert the ideals of freedom in practical initiatives. The excision of this values dimension renders soft power a hollow concept.
The Obama presidency has regularly avoided asserting meaningful soft power, particularly in its relations with three countries—Iran, Russia, and Egypt—where it might have made a difference not only for those countries but for American interests as well. His reaction to the challenges these countries have posed to the US suggest that it is not soft power itself that Obama doubts, but America’s moral standing to project it.
P erhaps the most striking example of a lost opportunity to use moral soft power was in Iran. In March 2009, President Obama made an appeal in a video to Iran for a “new beginning” of diplomatic engagement. In April 2009, he said in an address in Prague that in trying to stem Iran’s nuclear arms efforts, his administration would “seek engagement with Iran based on mutual interests and mutual respect.” Two months later questions arose about President Ahmadinejad claiming victory over Mir Hussein Moussavi in the presidential election on June 12th. Within three days, there were large demonstrations in Tehran, Rasht, Orumiyeh, Zahedan, and Tabriz.
As Iranians took to the streets, Obama had to choose whether to associate the US with the protestors or preserve what he appeared to believe was a possible channel of dialogue with Ahmadinejad on Iran’s nuclear program. For several days, the American president deliberately refused to embrace the Green Movement swelling in Iran’s streets to protest a stolen election—reaching up to three million in Tehran alone. Temporizing, he said, “It is up to Iranians to make decisions about who Iran’s leaders will be. We respect Iranian sovereignty and want to avoid the United States being the issue inside of Iran.”
But it was inevitable that the US would be scapegoated by Iranian leaders for meddling, even if it chose moral inaction. As Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass wrote in Newsweek seven months later: “I am a card-carrying realist on the grounds that ousting regimes and replacing them with something better is easier said than done. . . . Critics will say promoting regime change will encourage Iranian authorities to tar the opposition as pawns of the West. But the regime is already doing so. Outsiders should act to strengthen the opposition and to deepen rifts among the rulers. This process is underway . . . . Even a realist should recognize that it’s an opportunity not to be missed.”
Eventually, probably as a result of the influence of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose opposition to Iran’s leadership she established as a senator, administration policy became more forthright. A year after the protests began, the president signed into law targeted sanctions on the Revolutionary Guard. Yet failing to clearly side with Ahmadinejad’s opponents in 2009 represented a serious loss of US credibility. It also failed to encourage the moral “change” that Obama had appeared to invoke during his campaign. Soft power and its ability to strengthen the protest movement was squandered.
Early and active US backing for a more unified opposition might have buoyed and strengthened the Green opposition and helped it to better take advantage of subsequent divisions in the regime: parliamentarians petitioning to investigate payoffs to millions of people to vote for Ahmadinejad, friction between Ahmadinejad and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and efforts by the Revolutionary Guard to assert prevalence over politics.
By supporting the opposition in Iran through soft power, the administration would not only have associated the US with the aspirations of the people in the streets of Tehran but also advanced the objective of dislodging a potentially nuclear rogue state.
I t is particularly ironic that Obama policy toward Russia should have eschewed the projection of soft power given that the NSC’s senior director for Russia and Eurasia, Michael McFaul, is the administration official most closely identified in his career with the cause of democracy promotion. In Advancing Democracy Abroad , published just last year, he writes, “The American president must continue to speak out in support of democracy and human rights. Shying away from the ‘d’ word . . . would send a terrible signal to the activists around the world fighting for human rights and democratic change. . . . American diplomats must not check their values at the door.” In the book, McFaul offers an ambitious vision linking values to stability for Russia and Eurasia: “In Eurasia, a democratic Russia could become a force for regional stability . . . not unlike the role that Russia played in the beginning of the 1990s. A democratic Russia seeking once again to integrate into Western institutions also would cooperate more closely with the United States and Europe on international security issues.”
But in its haste to “hit the reset button” on bilateral relations, the Obama White House ignored McFaul’s counsel. Instead of approaching the Russians with a set of firm moral expectations, the administration has courted President Medvedev as a counterweight to Putinism (missing the fact that rather than a countervailing force, Medvedev was, as noted in a US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, Robin to Putin’s Batman). As events would show, Medvedev offered no real obstacle to Putin’s resumption of the presidency after a hiatus as prime minister to satisfy term limit laws. Nor, for that matter, is there any significant difference in policy between the Medvedev era and that which preceded it in terms of issues such as the occupation of Georgian territory, internal corruption, or silencing remaining independent media or business figures.
Instead of establishing a foundation of clear principles in his reset of relations with the Putin regime, President Obama has seen relations with Russia in terms of a larger picture of strategic arms control. He believes proliferators like Iran and North Korea can be restrained if the major nuclear powers reduce their stockpiles, in fealty to the premises of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Hence, the New START Treaty was his singular focus with Russia and the grounds for his appeasement of Putinism. He seems never to have considered asserting a soft power that would have signaled to Russian opposition figures like Boris Nemtsov—badly beaten in December 2010 after flying home from speaking in the US—that the US places little trust in bargains with leaders shredding the rule of law in their daily governance.
The Russian security state has chosen to cooperate with the US in a few areas it has concluded are in its own interest. It allowed passage of a watered-down UN Security Council resolution 1929, imposing sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program, and cancelled plans to sell the S-300 air defense system to the Ahmadinejad regime. It has also cooperated on counterterrorism and US military access to Afghanistan. Yet would the United States have been unable to secure this discrete cooperation without “checking our values at the door,” in Michael McFaul’s phrase?
The United States has achieved no cooperation from Russian leaders on issues such as the rule of law and an end to systematic intimidation and the arrests of opposition, press, and business figures, and indeed threats to American businesses’ private property rights and safety. Leaders of the Solidarity opposition movement continue to be detained, environmental nonprofits continue to be raided for trumped-up tax and software piracy irregularities, lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died in detention, and journalist Oleg Kashin was, like Boris Nemtsov, beaten.
There is no evidence of concerted bilateral pressure by the Obama administration to protest Russian unwillingness to protect freedoms for its citizens. The lack of linkage between “realist” hard-power issues (such as nonproliferation) and domestic values (such as the rule of law) has limited rather than increased US influence with Russia. The Carnegie Endowment’s Matthew Rojansky and James Collins rightly conclude: “If the United States erects an impenetrable wall between bilateral cooperation and Russia’s domestic politics, the Kremlin will simply conclude Washington is willing to give ground on transparency, democracy, and rule of law in order to gain Russian cooperation on nonproliferation, Afghanistan, and other challenges.” Indeed, in June 2011, the undeterred Russian regime barred Nemtsov’s People’s Freedom Party from running in the December 2011 parliamentary elections.
President Obama has selected Michael McFaul to be his ambassador to Russia. Sadly, dispatching the first non-diplomat in that role in three decades, not to mention a man whose vision of a just Russian policy for the US is at odds with the administration’s own practice, is unlikely to dislodge this values-free approach.
T he underwriting of Hosni Mubarak long predates the Obama administration. The unconditional gift of massive annual aid for the 1979 Camp David Accords lasted thirty-one years, spanning the administrations of six US presidents. It left Mubarak to squash democracy initiatives at home and force a binary choice on American policymakers between the Egyptian ruler and Muslim Brotherhood Islamists. Yet both before and after Egyptians took to the streets early this year to call for Mubarak’s ouster, President Obama lost chances to exercise soft power in a way that might have conditioned the eventual outcome in Egypt.
The United States would have been much better poised to shape a transition and assist non-Islamist democrats in 2011 if the Obama administration had not cut democracy and governance aid in Egypt from $50 million in 2008 to $20 million in 2009 (to which Congress later restored $5 million). The outgoing Bush administration had cut economic aid for Egypt in the 2009 budget, but sustained democracy and governance programs. Urged by US ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey, the Obama administration cut those programs too. Cuts for civil society and NGOs were sharpest, from $32 million to $7 million in 2009. These steps made a mockery of Obama’s June 2009 Cairo speech offering to “turn a page” in US-Muslim engagement.
When the Egyptian people took to the streets to reject their leader as Tunisians just had, President Obama picked former ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner as special crisis envoy. Reflecting what was actually the president’s position at the outset, Wisner said to an annual conference in Munich, “We need to get a national consensus around the pre-conditions for the next step forward. The president [Mubarak] must stay in office to steer those changes.” He also opined, “I believe President Mubarak’s continued leadership is critical—it’s his chance to write his own legacy.” This legacy was not a pretty thing as the Mubarak regime tried to resist the will of the Egyptian public with lethal force.
Echoing his response nineteen months earlier in Iran, President Obama asserted only that the United States was determined not to be central to the Egyptian story, however it evolved. When he saw which way the truth was blowing on the streets of Cairo, the president recalibrated. Watching these developments, which had far more to do with image than policy, Financial Times correspondent Daniel Dombey surmised: “So when the demonstrations began, the White House struggled to catch up, changing its message day by day until it eventually sided with the protesters against the government of Hosni Mubarak . . . Now, US officials suggest, the president has finally embraced his ‘inner Obama’ . . . The White House has also indulged in a little spinning, depicting the president as a decisive leader who broke with the status quo view of state department Arabists.”
In the March 2011 referendum on amendments to the Egyptian Constitution, forty-one percent of the Egyptian public turned out and backed the amendments by a seventy-seven percent tally. The leaders of the anti-Mubarak protests and leading presidential candidates Mohamed ElBaradei and Amr Moussa had urged Egyptians to turn out and reject the amendments, drafted by lawyers and judges picked by Egypt’s military rulers, in favor of a whole new constitution limiting expansive presidential powers. The Muslim Brotherhood backed the amendments, perhaps hoping to benefit from winning strong executive power. The “inner Obama” failed to place America squarely behind the relatively weak non-Islamist forces in Egyptian civil society when it would have counted.
D espite large economic challenges, two protracted military expeditions, and the rise of China, India, Brazil, and other new players on the international scene, the United States still has an unrivaled ability to confront terrorism, nuclear proliferation, financial instability, pandemic disease, mass atrocity, or tyranny. Although far from omnipotent, the United States is still, as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called it, “the indispensible nation.” Soft power is crucial to sustaining and best leveraging this role as catalyst.
That President Obama should have excluded it from his vision of America’s foreign policy assets—particularly in the key cases of Iran, Russia, and Egypt—suggests that he feels the country has so declined, not only in real power but in the power of example, that it lacks the moral authority to project soft power. In the 1970s, many also considered the US in decline as it grappled with counterinsurgency in faraway lands, a crisis due to economic stagnation, and reliance on foreign oil. Like Obama, Henry Kissinger tried to manage decline in what he saw as a multipolar world, dressing up prescriptions for policy as descriptions of immutable reality. In the 1980s, however, soft power played a crucial part in a turnaround for US foreign policy. Applying it, President Reagan sought to transcend a nuclear balance of terror with defensive technologies, pushed allies in the Cold War (e.g., El Salvador, Chile, Taiwan, South Korea, and the Philippines) to liberalize for their own good, backed labor movements opposed to Communists in Poland and Central America, and called for the Berlin Wall to be torn down—over Foggy Bottom objections. This symbolism not only boosted the perception and the reality of US influence, but also hastened the demise of the USSR and the Warsaw Pact.
For Barack Obama, this was the path not taken. Even the Arab Spring has not cured his acute allergy to soft power. His May 20, 2011, speech on the Middle East and Northern Africa came four months after the Jasmine Revolution emerged. His emphasis on 1967 borders as the basis for Israeli-Palestinian peace managed to eclipse even his broad words (vice deeds) on democracy in the Middle East. Further, those words failed to explain his deeds in continuing to support some Arab autocracies (e.g., Bahrain’s, backed by Saudi forces) even as he gives tardy rhetorical support for popular forces casting aside other ones.
To use soft power without hard power is to be Sweden. To use hard power without soft power is to be China. Even France, with its long commitment to realpolitik, has overtaken the United States as proponent and implementer of humanitarian intervention in Libya and Ivory Coast. When the American president has no problem with France combining hard and soft power better than the United States, something is seriously amiss.
Mark P. Lagon is the International Relations and Security Chair at Georgetown University's Master of Science in Foreign Service Program and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the former US Ambassador-at-Large to Combat Trafficking in Persons at the US Department of State.