The Smart/Soft Power of Barack Obama: A Case of Exceptional Americanism

by Peggy McGuinness

As Peter notes here, yesterday’s historic American election felt, in many ways, like a global event. Measured by how the election affects the lives of people around the world, it is not too much of an exaggeration.  For months now, pundits have also seized on the overwhelming support of Obama all over the world as evidence that Obama’s election – in and of itself – will strengthen the U.S. position internationally. It is worth taking some time to think about how an Obama presidency may enhance the soft power of the United States.

Soft power was a term coined by Joseph Nye to describe non-military dimensions of a state’s international influence:  culture, values, law, and ideas.  Post 9/11, the idea was expanded and refined under the term “smart power,” which incorporates soft power into decisions about how, why and when to deploy force against state and non-state enemies. There is serious policy content to and strategic thinking behind soft/smart power.  But I want to set aside the policy content of an Obama administration (they’ll be plenty of time to focus on that in the weeks and months to come) and focus instead only the president-elect himself. What is it about the ascendancy of Barack Obama to the presidency that — on its own — has already begun to transform the reputation of the United States and has the potential for a significant reversal of the damage of the past eight years?

Obama is clearly adored around the world, but that adulation is (mostly) not the result of a serious assessment of his policies, but rather a projection of what others wish the U.S. to be and on some level, what they wish their own societies to be. Just as Europeans caricatured George W. Bush as an incurious cowboy, they may caricature Obama in a way that makes him seem more like them. (Check out Ethan Bonner’s round-up of the adoration/projection phenomenon and Alan Cowell’s take here.) This kind of shallow admiration is likely to diminish when the inevitable policy differences and disappointments emerge.  But there are at least four reasons why Obama the person may continue to be an important source of salvaging America’s tarnished reputation; rather than represent a continuation of Bush-era American exceptionalism, the election of Obama reflects what we might call “Exceptional Americanism”:

1) The importance of not being George W. Bush. Of course any of the candidates in this epic campaign would have fulfilled this requirement. But Obama represents more of a break than any Republican candidate or any of the leading Democratic candidates who had supported the 2003 Iraq invasion.  What it means practically for the daily business of diplomacy is that the presumption of the past eight years among many of our partners and close allies — that the U.S. was not acting in good faith when it came to diplomacy — is no longer operative. A new administration will enjoy — at least for some time at the beginning of the administration — an extraordinary level of goodwill and a presumption of good faith and fair dealings.  And I expect many partners will be reaching out a helping hand in the transition away from an extraordinarily unpopular U.S. presidency.

(2) The Importance of not being a Baby Boomer. This theme was the central premise of Andrew Sullivan’s essay last December “Goodbye to All That,” which placed the post-Boomer narrative at the center of the case for Obama’s presidential run.  The tenor and tone of political and cultural debate within the U.S. has enormous impact on the effectiveness of our government and on the image we project to the world.  The continuation of the cultural, social and political combat of the 1960s and 70s through the Clinton and Bush administrations polarized every dimension of American policy making. In foreign and national security policy, the Vietnam legacy loomed large. Both for those who fought (Kerry, Hagel, McCain) those who didn’t (Clinton, Bush, Cheney) Vietnam colored the national security debates over the humanitarian interventions of the 1990s and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama does not carry Vietnam-era baggage. He opposed the Iraq invasion not because he is a pacifist, but because he saw it as mistaken policy. And, as if this election needed anymore symbolism, he gave his victory speech in Chicago’s Grant Park, the place where the Democratic party imploded during the 1968 Convention. The faces of the Gen Xs, Gen Ys, and “Millennials” at that joyous rally in Chicago last night speaks volumes about who is now in power. For those of us who are post-Baby Boom, this feels like a catharsis.  For the rest of the world, it presents a grown-up face of American government.

(3) The importance of being the first African-American president. The election of Obama strengthens the United States’ position in the world by what it says about the American people, the resilience of the idea of America, and the strength of our very-imperfect democracy.  Anyone who has spent even a small amount of time living overseas has experienced the love-hate relationship the rest of the world has with the United States. When I was a diplomat, the two stains of U.S. history that were frequently trotted out as rebuttal in any discussion of human rights behavior in other states: the crime of slavery and the denial of civil rights to African-Americans, and the genocide of the Native Americans.  And I heard more than once that a black man could never be elected president of the United States — presented as a sort of Q.E.D. that the U.S. had no leg to stand on in promoting democracy or human rights.  At the same time, there is great admiration – yes, even in Europe! – of the flexibility of American society, the ingenuity and optimism of the American people, and the very unique American form of self-government. While the past eight years has tipped the balance in this love-hate relationship farther away from love, the election of Obama reaffirms for many people outside the U.S. that their admiration of the U.S. may not be misplaced.

It seems beyond improbable that a man born of an African immigrant and a Kansas-born college student with the name Barack Hussein Obama would, just seven years after the attacks of 9/11, be elected in a landslide victory as president of the United States.  And yet it happened.  That speaks volumes about how far this country has come. Finally, President-elect Obama looks more like the rest of the world, and more like the future, than any other western head of government.  It gives him the appearance of a true global leader for the globalized age.

(4) The importance of being Barrack Obama.A recurring theme about Obama is his ability to bring parties together, listen to all sides in a discussion or conflict, and make everyone in the discussion feel good about themselves without giving away his own preferences. I do not know Obama and have never met him (though I have supported his campaign), but this dimension to his persona strikes me as extremely well suited to diplomacy and mediation. The U.S. president is both commander-in-chief and diplomat-in-chief. He is the voice of the U.S. in all its international dealings, but is also often called upon to interpose himself in an international disputes, either in indirect ways or more directly as a formal mediator and guarantor.  Obama’s even-keeled, cool-headed approach to problems and conflict is an extraordinarily valuable coin in international diplomacy, where personality, temperament and style can help make or break deals and long-term relationships. His temperament is married with a keen intellect — the killer combination that will make him a formidable negotiator and a truly valuable mediator. Oh, and if there is any doubt that he knows how to be tough, just ask John McCain.

Update:  James Traub had a magazine piece in the NYTimes website on this very topic (including references to Nye’s theory of soft power last year.  Here’s the link. (The soft power argument is posed in distinction to the “experience” argument of then-candidate Hillary Clinton.  It’s interesting to read it now, knowing how Obama’s nuanced but methodical approach to some of these diplomatic process issues served him well in the campaign.)

2 Responses

  1. Well, I’m not sure I like the phrase Exceptional Americanism itself, but I’m at least glad that you deliberately coined a separate term in contradistinction to “American exceptionalism.”

    I still hear to this very day commentators using the latter expression in a completely tone-deaf fashion, to invoke the de Tocquevillean ideal of America, as if the neo-conservatives and Jesse Helms of the world hadn’t completely ruined it for all time.

  2. Interesting post and blog. Relevantly, as many influential experts have pointed out, Obama is part of Generation Jones–born 1954-1965, between the Boomers and Xers.
    On this page there are excerpts from publications like Newsweek and the New York Times, and videos with over 25 top pundits, all talking about Obama’s identity as a GenJoneser:

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