Sunday, 25 January 2009

The Velvet Glove And The Iron Fist

One of the changes that we are to see in Washington is the United States starting to use its ‘soft power’ again. During the Bush administration, the US relied almost exclusively on ‘hard power’, which came to be equated with the use of force. As the sole superpower, without a military peer in the world, the Neo-Con agenda calculated that American policy could be forced upon an unwilling world because nobody would dare to deny them.

This strategy proved to be muddle headed on two counts. First, it did not account for asymmetric warfare. A small group of determined individuals could obtain military victories over much larger nations. The way in which the Madrid bombings knocked Spain out of the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ gives evidence of this. Secondly, Political Philosophy 101 teaches us that might is not right unless it has a backing of legitimacy. This was almost totally lacking in the Bush Doctrine, as the absence of legitimacy degenerated to include embracing illegal acts such as torture and arbitrary detention. To his enormous credit, the first foreign policy act of President Obama was to halt the kangaroo courts – military tribunals, if you like - in Guantanamo Bay, and his second was to order the closure of the camp within a year. It may prove difficult to achieve this, but it has certainly sent a signal that the US intends to seek the moral high ground – the epicentre of its soft power – in the years to come.

But what does that mean for the longer term? Two recent articles have laid out the basis of a model that explores this issue. In an article for Foreign Affairs (see article), Anne-Marie Slaughter asserts that we are in a transition period moving away from a world of hierarchies and towards a world of networks. In many ways, this is quite a reasonable supposition. Ms Slaughter then goes on to argue that the US is uniquely advantaged to benefit from the growth of networks owing to the number of immigrant diasporas living in America. The point is well made, but taken too far. Europe also has a large number of immigrant communities from as wide a range of origins as the US. There is no reason why these communities could not network European influence in exactly the same way as is suggested for American influence.

To a certain extent, the infrastructure for this already exists. I was once asked how a small, open economy such as Australia could compete and have a voice in a world of giants. I took the view then, as I still do, that the Commonwealth provides an infrastructure that could be used, very much in a way similar to the EU, to allow smaller nations to have a greater voice in the international arena. Of course, it would need to be a different Commonwealth to the one that we have now, but the basic architecture is there. One possible future would be for Europe to put its colonial heritage to use in developing this network of nations. It also offers the US the opportunity to develop within the framework of these networks, or parallel to them.

Of course, the world in which these networks are operating is in the process of changing. The second article, in Foreign Policy (see article), argues that the certainties by which the US provided leadership for the West over the past fifty years are changing. Since World War II, international discourse has been bounded by five certainties:
1. That peace is better than war.
2. That benign hegemony is better than a balance of power.
3. That capitalism is better than socialism.
4. That democracy is better than dictatorship.
5. That western culture is better than all the rest.
The move from a world of hierarchies to a world of networks is calling into question all of these certainties. Even the belief in capitalism as a means of organising an economy is now seriously in question.

There is a lot to commend this view of the world and if President Obama is to reassert American influence in the world, he will need to convince the American public of the case. President Obama campaigned on a promise of change, but now leads a society that is likely to be resistant to change. For example, in the case of climate change, for the US to achieve the reductions in carbon emissions in accordance with the Kyoto protocols, we have calculated that petrol (gas) would have to be in the region of $19.00 a gallon. All of the evidence of the past two or three years suggests that this is an unacceptable position for the American public. More to the point, will the rest of the world cede the moral high ground to a nation that persistently fails to meet its international obligations?

This may prove to be something of a dilemma for President Obama in the years to come. His desire for the US to follow one path may increasingly be bounded by his political inability to implement what needs to be done. The domestic agenda may constrain the foreign agenda significantly. This is one metric by which the decline of the US could be measured – how the US President is unable to act internationally because of domestic considerations. If this becomes obvious, then we will know that the American unipolar moment has ended.

Perhaps the velvet glove may not fit the iron fist.

© The European Futures Observatory 2009


Anonymous said...

Obama has a hard way ahead of him and your point is well made. It will b interesting to see how all the goodwill and hope that surrounds him now pans out as he has difficult decisions to make. He will not be able to please everyone let's hope that he will be able to keep enough momentum to allow sustained real change to happen

Stephen Aguilar-Millan said...

I wish President Obama every good fortune in implementing his agenda. I am, however, an Obamasceptic because the job is colossal and he doesn't have the goodwill of all Americans.

My postbag this morning was full of hate mail from the 'Militia' end of the Neo-Con spectrum, which suggests that President Obama might polarise rather than unite the US.

This is definitely not a promising prospect.