During the Bush administration we were advised about the failure of “hard” power to achieve policy aims, especially during the dark 2004–7 days in Iraq. Obama was to be an antidote to Bush’s Texanism — an Ivy League sophisticate who in a variety of far more subtle ways would leverage American interests. But what if we are beginning to have even less soft than hard power?
The recent federal government scandals — the GSA buffoonery, the Secret Service debauchery, the food-stamp scandal in the capital, Fast and Furious — project the image abroad of Third Worldism. The addition of $5 trillion in new debt has damaged our ability to help friends; the annual $1 trillion deficits have made us appear as a profligate loudmouth, lecturing others while we borrow for our consumption and redistribution. The vast growth in borrowing to fund vast new U.S. entitlements, while we advise the EU to tighten its belt, is comic and seen so in Europe. Our encouragement to others to pump more oil or develop new offshore reserves to lower global prices or ensure U.S. supplies, while putting our own resources off limits, comes off as cynical and hypocritical. A commander-in-chief, who cannot get political correctness right (Maldives for Malvinas), or thinks Austrians speak an Austrian language, does not radiate international cosmopolitanism, and seems unaware of soft-power niceties, from visiting Germany on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall to avoiding trash talking into open mics with foreign dignitaries to mastering the arts of diplomatic gift-exchange.
The image abroad of the U.S. on issues like Iran, North Korea, the North African post-revolutionary chaos, reset in Russia, Syria, the Falklands, Israel/Palestinians, etc., can be summed us as something like “why can’t this all go away?” or “why are these things happening to me right now?” or “just let me be” rather than exercising global leadership to muster allies to confront and solve these crises. Right now the real worry is a loss of soft-power influence: We’ve lost financial leverage and respect, our allies do not assume predictability and reliability in U.S. foreign policy, and we do not have a president who projects international experience and culture or a familiarity with diplomatic protocols.