President Obama surprisingly ineffective at using soft power

In an article in The New Yorker two years ago, reporter Ryan Lizza famously quoted an anonymous adviser to President Obama characterizing the president’s strategy in Libya as “leading from behind.” That’s not a bad way to describe the president’s foreign policy in general. Obama takes great pains not to lead too conspicuously, not to step on toes, not to offend allies or enemies. Libya, in fact, was the ideal: Let the Europeans and the Arabs take the lead, and we’ll quietly help out. Or not. 

Lizza wrote, “It’s a different definition of leadership than America is known for, and it comes from two unspoken beliefs: that the relative power of the U.S. is declining, as rivals like China rise, and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world. Pursuing our interests and spreading our ideals thus requires stealth and modesty as well as military strength.”

He quoted Benjamin Rhodes, one of the president’s deputy national security advisers. “If you were to boil it all down to a bumper sticker, it’s ‘Wind down these two wars, reestablish American standing and leadership in the world, and focus on a broader set of priorities, from Asia and the global economy to a nuclear-nonproliferation regime.’ ”

So how’s it working for you? In my view, not particularly well. Look at the last 100 days. The revolt against the Syrian regime has become one of the most brutal repressions in decades. The situation has grown worse, with the almost certain use of chemical weapons crossing what the president drew as a “red line.” North Korea, developing nuclear weapons and the capacity to deliver them over long distances, has denigrated America and threatened to attack us. And, speaking of nukes — and the goal of nuclear nonproliferation — Iran remains undeterred as well, with its own “red line” in doubt. Meanwhile, the United States suffered its first terrorist bombing since 9/11, with three killed and more than 200 wounded — an event that occurred eight months after the attack on our consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where a U.S. ambassador was killed for the first time in 33 years.

The problem of America being “reviled in many parts of the world” is vastly overblown, but it has surely not been remedied. Europeans and the Japanese like us more, but they were pretty fond of us to start with. Muslims, according to the Pew Research Center, like us less. In Pakistan, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, the average favorability rating for the United States in 2012 was 21 percent; in 2008, it was 26 percent.

Foreign policy is not easy. The challenges are unpredictable, which is why the best policy rests on a solid foundation of principle and a clear strategy. The George W. Bush administration’s national security strategy was simple: keep America safe and promote freedom. These goals are linked; free nations rarely threaten the United States or their own neighbors. Achieving both these goals requires leadership — a consistency that reassures our allies and deters our enemies. 

The Obama administration suffered from a common foreign policy disease: a fierce aversion to whatever policies the previous administration adopted. Its strategy has been reactive and timid: pull out, repair alleged damage, lead from behind. Thus, the war of ideas that Bush waged against terrorist ideologies was jettisoned, as was stand-up support for democratic movements and freedom advocates. It is hard to see the evidence that abandoning these approaches has made the United States more secure or the world less volatile.

The good news is that, also within the last 100 days, the United States is starting to lead in one important foreign policy sphere: trade. The administration, in a 180-degree shift, has gotten serious about a free-trade pact with Europe and a separate Pacific agreement that now includes Japan. If it is successful, these trade agreements, affecting countries representing three-fifths of the world’s economic output, could be Obama’s greatest legacy.

Perhaps the greatest disappointment is the president’s surprising reluctance to use the tools, not of hard power but of soft — especially the aggressive deployment of social media to win foreign policy ends, such as persuading Iranians to oppose their regime’s attempts to develop nuclear weapons or supporting democratic elements in Egypt and other nations of the Arab spring. The president knows these tools well and deployed them successfully in his domestic political campaigns. There, at least, he has not been reluctant to lead from the front.

Glassman, former under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, is executive director of the George W. Bush Institute. The views here are his own.