Transatlantic relations

The decline of American power

Bulletin article
01 April 2003

Saddam Hussein notwithstanding, most of the world's problems cannot be solved by military force. Their solution requires 'soft power', which can be defined as a country's ability to influence events through persuasion and attraction, rather than military or financial coercion. A country has more soft power if its culture, values and institutions incite admiration and respect in other parts of the world; and if its diplomacy and standing in international bodies enable it to build alliances.

Joseph Nye, Dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, has written extensively on soft power, notably in 'The Paradox of American Power: why the world's only superpower cannot go it alone' (OUP, 2002). Published shortly after September 11th, this book carried a stark warning for the Bush administration: 'Any retreat to a traditional policy focus on unipolarity, hegemony, sovereignty and unilateralism will fail to produce the right outcomes, and its accompanying arrogance will erode the soft power that is often part of the solution.'

That warning was prescient: the decline in America's soft power over the past year has been astonishing. After September 11th, virtually the whole world was united in its sympathy and support for the US. During the subsequent war in Afghanistan, the US retained broad international backing. Yet in the early months of 2003, American diplomacy could not persuade more than three of the 14 other members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) to back a resolution that would legitimise military action in Iraq. Neither longstanding US allies such as Chile, Germany, Mexico and Pakistan, nor newer ones such as Russia, would speak out for the resolution. Then another ally, Turkey, refused to allow US troops to enter Iraq from its territory. Only British and Australian soldiers are fighting alongside the Americans in Iraq. Hatred of American policies in the Arab world has never been higher, while in every West European country including Britain opinion polls show that George Bush is seen as a greater threat to world peace than Saddam Hussein.

The decline of America's reputation has many causes. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the war in Iraq, US leaders failed to make a convincing case that Saddam's regime was a clear and present danger. They shifted their objectives from regime change to scrapping weapons of mass destruction (for which they presented no good evidence) and back again. President Bush's unwillingness to tackle the Israel-Palestine dispute led people from all continents to accuse the US of double standards. He set out a new doctrine of pre-emptive military intervention, without discussing it with allies, and provoked fears that Iraq would be the first of a series of pre-emptive wars. Furthermore, the president's style and language, while evidently effective at home, did much to alienate world opinion. Phrases such as the 'axis of evil', or 'you are either with us or against us', frightened other countries.

Some surprisingly inept diplomacy damaged America's cause. Donald Rumsfeld's repeated attacks on 'Old Europe' (France and Germany) in the early months of 2003 undoubtedly made President Chirac less flexible at the UN. The administration's grudging attitude towards that body stating that if the UNSC did not pass the second resolution, the US would go to war anyway made it harder to garner diplomatic support. The first President Bush devoted a huge amount of time and energy to building an international coalition before he attacked Iraq. But neither the current president nor his senior officials have thought fit to spend much time travelling in pursuit of a broad alliance.

Many countries have withheld diplomatic support, less because of the issue of Iraq itself than because of pent-up frustrations with American behaviour over the past two years. As Joseph Nye has pointed out, a whole series of decisions from abandoning the Kyoto protocol, to rejecting the International Criminal Court, to opposing a range of arms control treaties, to the fighting of the Afghan war on a unilateral basis have damaged America's standing with its allies. This explains some of Germany's hostility to Bush's policy on Iraq.

Of course, the US is not the only country whose soft power has ebbed. Britain, too, has lost influence, partly because some of the hostility to the US has rubbed off on its most loyal ally. Many people all over Europe, and about half the EU governments, have serious doubts as to whether the UK can be a loyal and trustworthy partner. France, too, faces problems. President Chirac is currently the darling of Arab and European public opinion. But the world's only super-power now sees France as an enemy. Three institutions which enhance French influence the UNSC, NATO and the EU have been weakened by diplomatic rows for which France and others must share the blame. Furthermore, Chirac's attack on the East European governments as 'childish, dangerous and badly brought up' has made France malodorous to half the continent.

When the war is over, the western allies will have a strong interest in helping each other to rebuild their soft power. Even the Washington hawks should see that many of the most pressing challenges in global economic governance, the reconstruction of failed states, and the fight against terror and weapons proliferation cannot be tackled except through broad alliances and international institutions.

President Bush could do wonders for America's image by adopting a more diplomatic style and by focussing on the Middle East peace process. Tony Blair will need to show his European partners that Britain's support for the US is not unconditional and that it has a European destiny. Jacques Chirac should accept the reality of EU enlargement, learn to make friends in Eastern Europe, and abandon the idea that the rationale of EU foreign policy is to resist the US. The example of the European Union shows that soft power is not a zero-sum game: it has enabled all the member-states to enhance their influence and well-being. A stronger West needs countries with more power hard and soft on both sides of the Atlantic.

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