President Obama Appeals to Soft Power

by Roger Alford

Great inauguration speech by President Obama. In terms of foreign policy here are my quick thoughts. First, the speech was striking for President Obama’s appeal to soft power.

“Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint. We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort — even greater cooperation and understanding between nations.”

President Bush has been extremely gracious to Barack Obama during the transition period and President Obama has returned the favor. But there was this one paragraph in the speech that was a significant rebuke to the Bush Administration:

“As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: Know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.”

Not much in the speech in terms of saber rattling. But there was this one threat of hard power directed to terrorists:

“[F]or those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.”

The speech was notable for the repeated emphasis on alternative energy, the environment, and global warming:

“Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet…. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories… With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet.”

Fiinally, for me at least, the most surprising part of the speech was President Obama’s decision to single out the Muslim world:

“To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West: Know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.”

Normally that would be interpreted negatively, but I cannot help but wonder whether the Muslim world will receive this message from this particular President differently.

2 Responses

  1. There is, of course, some question about whether the two sentences beginning, respectively, “To the Muslim world…” and “To those leaders around the globe…” are both addressed to the same target audience. Language Log had a post raising this point. See towards the end of and the accompanying comments.

  2. This wasn’t, historically, a very good year for Soft Power.  Nor was 2007, really…

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