Obama and Soft Power

To add my $0.02 to the discussion of Barack Obama’s foreign policy (Hampton’s response to Matthew Yglesias’ pushback against Hampton’s original post), I’d say that to the extent that digging wells is a better way to not live up to your utopian rhetoric than dropping bombs, I think Matthew has a point. But therein lies the rub.

The danger of Obama’s overly ambitious and unrealistic rhetoric, like all overly ambitious and unrealistic rhetoric, is in raising expectations, both domestically and abroad, about the transformative capacity of American power, at a time when a smart foreign policy would attempt to downsize those expectations. And as Hampton implied, increased expectations tend to lead to hubris and mission creep. The fact that there’s a collective longing for the kind of shift to soft power that Obama emphasizes, both domestically and abroad, only makes the temptation to overestimate its capacities even greater.

My own objections to Obama’s foreign policy formulations have to do with the fact that his emphasis on soft power, as articulated in Spencer Ackerman’s original piece, is framed in the context of national security, even though the correlation between the methods described and the desired results — specifically decreasing both poverty and terrorism — are not borne out by research.

Now I, for one, believe that America would do well to dig more wells and drop fewer bombs, and I think that Barack Obama is the most likely of all the candidates to implement a foreign policy along those lines. I also think he’s the most likely to listen to our friends, engage our enemies, and do all the other things that I think have been sorely lacking for the past seven years. So to a certain extent, this might be a disagreement over form rather than content.

But I’d much rather hear Obama say something to the effect of, “We’re America. When people are thirsty, we build wells, because that’s the right thing to do,” than, “When people are no longer thirsty, America will be safer.” Because if digging wells doesn’t end up making us safer, which seems likely, it’s still the right thing to do. And if we don’t expect it to make us safer, chances are we’ll keep digging them when it doesn’t.

Most importantly, even if unfortunately, digging wells and dropping bombs (metaphors for soft and hard power) are not mutually exclusive, and no amount of dignity-promotion will render military force unnecessary or obsolete. So advocating for the former as a way to somehow avoid the latter is dangerously unrealistic at best, and intellectually dishonest at worst. No more or less so than other utopian foreign policy declarations, perhaps, but maybe I expect more from Obama.

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