The power of soft

Bush's handling of Syria may be a sign he's ready to modify his aggressive approach to foreign policy.

Published May 6, 2005 2:09PM (EDT)

Syria's decision last week to restore diplomatic relations with Baghdad after a break of 23 years was portrayed by its foreign minister, Farouk al-Sharaa, as a brotherly gesture that would enhance Iraq's security and stability. But altruism alone seems an implausible reason for Syria's about-face. As with its accelerated troop withdrawal from Lebanon, Damascus was primarily responding to international pressure orchestrated by the Bush administration.

President Bashar al-Assad may have mixed feelings about helping the U.S. secure Iraq's borders and impede Islamist insurgents after an invasion that he fiercely opposed. It is unlikely that the Beirut street protests occasioned by the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri could by themselves have forced his hand. The leaving of Lebanon has potentially profound (and unwelcome) domestic implications, as the Baath Party congress expected in the next month may demonstrate. But the alternatives for Assad were all worse: increasing ostracism, tightening financial and trade sanctions, U.N. censure -- and ultimately, the tacit threat of externally enforced regime change.

In a limited sense, the Syrian shift was a success for what Joseph Nye, a former Clinton administration official, has dubbed "soft power." This means the evolution of foreign policy strategies that in their broader applications appeal to others' self-interest, persuade rather than coerce, and subvert and convert rather than confront and defeat. "Soft power means that others want what the United States wants," said Nye, now a Harvard professor. "It means there is less need to use carrots and sticks."

Soft power emphasizes common aspirations such as democratic and individual rights, shared cultural values and enlightened policymaking. "It means we say to people, 'We are going to help you achieve your goals.' It's not just a question of whose army wins but of whose story wins," Nye said at Chatham House in London this week.

Soft-power theory -- as opposed to "hard power," broadly meaning coercive military force -- is all the rage among governments scarred by the Iraq convulsions. In a way, it is a statement of the flaming obvious. But it suits preexisting European predilections for nonviolent solutions. The European Union's eastward enlargement is now portrayed as a soft-power paradigm, predicated on attraction, not attrition.

In other forms, soft-power tactics involving externally supplied popular organizational, financial and information tools have been used by the U.S. in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine to facilitate peaceful democratic transformations where hard-power options were not available. Now even Russia, alarmed at its eroding influence in the "post-Soviet space," has got in on the soft-power act, with President Vladimir Putin setting up a government department to project Russia's "civilizing" mission in neighboring countries.

Whether an obvious stratagem or not, the overall neglect of soft-power imperatives by successive U.S. governments, coupled with the Bush administration's militarily aggressive, unilateralist post-9/11 policies, has generated increasing international hostility, Nye said. This has undermined both U.S. hard power and U.S. objectives.

To American surprise, for example, Turkey's Parliament refused to allow U.S. troops to pass through its territory before the Iraq invasion. In contrast, Osama bin Laden's Afghan cave videos, a "malign but brilliant" use of soft power, won Arab sympathy for his cause.

Nye said U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, like other unilateralists fixated on American military superiority, had expressed difficulty in understanding soft-power concepts. This is a continuing problem, Nye said.

But there are signs that President Bush is embracing the idea in his second term, Nye said. This is evident in his more energetic promulgation of democratic values, in the increased funding for public diplomacy programs -- and, perhaps, in his handling of Syria.

"Soft power won the cold war," Nye said. Ideas, not armies, eventually brought down the Berlin Wall, although hard-power deterrence was crucial, too. This victory could be repeated in the struggle for hearts and minds in the Arab world.

"There are signs we can do this again. But there is a long way to go."

By Simon Tisdall

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