The broad goal of this blog, to the credit of its founders, is to bridge the gap between foreign policy practitioners and foreign policy scholars. Prior to joining it recently, I have known its reputation for doing just that. While in government I kept a mental note every time I came across a policymaker who regularly followed the Duck, and frankly I lost count. So in this vein I’d like to quibble with something I thoroughly digested as a student, regularly promulgated as a professor, and gradually began to question as a policymaker. It seems high time to question the usefulness of how we define the term “soft power,” which has gained credence ever since the scholar Joseph Nye came up with it more than decade ago.
Nye’s classic definition of the term–the attractiveness of a country based on the legitimacy of its policies and the political and cultural values that underpin them–seemed reasonable enough when I first became familiar with it in the mid 1990s. The notion that a country’s cultural power could influence other countries and cause their governments to either agree more with a country of cultural prowess or adopt similar values made a lot of sense. The Cold War had recently come to an end, and the rush of East Central European governments to join the West in all ways seemed just the evidence one needed to subscribe not only to the concept, but also the view that the U.S. possessed a whole lot of soft power that was causing other countries to agree with or emulate it. After all liberalism and openness of all kinds were being celebrated, and the new concept of globalization was further and futher in evidence while the third wave of democracy was spreading fast.
A variety of commentators listened to President Obama’s Inauguration speech and, having heard few words devoted to foreign policy, declared that the second term of this Administration will be marked by less activism on the global stage. The draw downs from Iraq and Afghanistan readily reinforce this view, as do a variety of academics peddling recommendations for a new grand strategy of restraint. I am more circumspect, for inauguration speeches are by nature more domestic in focus. More importantly, America’s national security interests have not changed fundamentally.
The Obama Doctrine of robust burden sharing—being multilateral when we can, unilateral when we must—will continue to cope with a world that may be in rapid flux but has little propensity to generate the stability and security that would justify a restraint-based grand strategy. Al-Qaeda was quiescent in one form, but in its new decentralized affiliate-based form it is anything but. With the global campaign against terrorism continuing amid a constellation of constrained economic resources, robust burden sharing is an appropriate grand strategy; moreover, it is here to stay (at least for the duration of this Administration and likely well beyond).
Opponents of the President have had a heyday with the unintentional phrase “leading from behind.” Ever since an unnamed Administration official spoke these tongue-in-cheek words to The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, critics have twisted them and/or ascribed their own meaning more along the lines of “retreat to the back.” Some grew so agitated, they practically fell over themselves in their clarion call for robust American leadership practically at all costs—case-in-point a certain presidential candidate’s “No Apology” book that aptly captured this sentiment, and a certain senator’s delight in singing “Bomb-bomb-bomb Iran.”
That Europe is caught up in a major financial crisis isn’t news to anyone. Standing right at the crossroads, the Eurozone will either muddle through and risk another crisis onset in the near term or having scraped through its worst crisis in decades take strong steps on the necessary medium and long-term reforms.
But what our British friends may not realize is how the vaunted special relationship is also coming to a crossroads. Prime Minister David Cameron’s large-sized gamble on the UK’s future European destiny has sent ripples of worry across the West, not least in Washington. The US’s senior Europe diplomat Philip Gordon made this abundantly clear. The Obama Administration’s view coalesced in 2011 in the run up to Cameron’s shaky performance at the emergency EU summit in Brussels.
The film “Zero Dark Thirty” has touched quite a cord in this country, such as with Peter Henne’s post below that responds to my own post further below. To his credit, he opens up another strand of the wider debate this film has touched off. My own reflection delves into the torture controversy writ large, as well as the the purpose and role of art in film making form. Peter uses the latter to widen our view into what this film has to say about civil-military relations in American society.
Peter, I wonder if I could draw you out further on several facets of your observation. First it would be useful if you could go into more detail about specifically how Karthryn Bigelow and Mark Boal could have depicted the military personnel in their film more accurately. I take your point that “The Hurt Locker” was riddled with problems in this regard, and not surprisingly complained about widely by military observers. But while the film spends much more time focused on CIA operatives and analysts, it appears that Zero Dark does a much better job of depicting military personnel and how they do what they do. After all, the journalist Boal spent legions of hours with Seal Team 6 and military commanders from CENTCOM.
Anyone who did not see “Zero Dark Thirty” on its opening night was smart, as it was mayhem in theaters everywhere. The film shot to #1 at the box office overnight and is there still, for the plain and simple reason that it’s a must see (no spoiler alert here because we all know at least a little about eliminating Osama bin Laden). Zero Dark features a razor sharp screenplay by Mark Boal, top form directing by Kathryn Bigelow, and higher than high stakes drama from start to finish.
This film, however, is sufficiently controversial that there may soon be Congressional hearings about it–Sen. John McCain and Sen. Diane Feinstein had it in their sites by day one. The charge is that Bigelow and Boal depict torture in a manner that glorifies it, by way of a plot that allegedly portrays the U.S. government/military eliminating OBL only via intelligence gleaned from full on, no holds barred torture. In my view they are innocent of this charge. The raging debate over the film is misdirected and could do better to be debating this country’s torture legacy rather than a film that deserves serious consideration for a best picture Oscar.
Quite a weekend, the opening of Zero Dark Thirty in the U.S. reminding everyone of the interventionist elements of the Obama Doctrine (see my next post) and a full-fledged French intervention in Mali, not to mention U.S. assistance with a French hostage liberation operation tucked away on the inside pages.
Washington, D.C. is a funny place these days…all but two of the think tanks here are obsessed with the rise of China and just about the entire U.S. foreign policy establishment is choking on economic austerity and therefore fully inclined to doubt that our government or any other can afford much in the way of armed interventions these days.
Regarding my previous post and the very useful comments, first the matter of what do we do once we realize that a policy problem in search of a policy solution is the equivalent of a social scientific puzzle in search of an explanation, for both the solution and the explanation are outcomes. In other words, Step One is to identify the policy problem in question. Step Two is to search the academic literature for a published study (in book or article form) whose puzzle is essentially identical to the policy problem. For example, the problem of how to end a civil war in Country X is equivalent to the puzzle of how to do so in an academic study.
The explanation of the study is the academic hook to hang the policy solution on. In other words, if there is a published study that explains the outcome of bringing civil wars to an end, this means that the study contains the cause of the outcome and has the evidence to back up the argument thereby matching the cause to the outcome. Once a study is found it is on to the next step.
In my first post after signing on with “Team Duck” I thought, before jumping into a series of weighty topics–rise of the east, end of the west, cratering of the middle east–it might be worth reflecting a little on my sojourn as a policymaker after beginning my career as a Political Scientist. As an IR scholar I started out specializing in the politics of international economics before gradually shifting over to the security studies side of this Poli Sci subfield.
After an initial brush with death by acronymia when I joined the State Department, I was surprised at how well my training as a social scientist had prepared me for the policy world. I had wrongly assumed the precise opposite. Certainly my new colleagues at the time had assumed so as well. I recall a meeting a few weeks in at the outset of the current Administration. Various team members were reporting our progress to our boss, and the deputy team lead pulled me aside after with simple words of surpise: “Wow, you can actually do stuff.”
My first realization was that simply by virtue of how an academic always needs to more or less constantly stay up on advances in the literature, I had a knowledge base that almost all my colleagues lacked. For example, a discussion of terrorism included the postulation that poverty causes terrorism; yet I knew that academic studies had proven this wrong. To take another example, when the topic of democratization came up no one else in the room knew that democracies do not fight wars with one another.
I’m no genius–not then and not now. I simply had a different background. It was illuminating to discover that most policymakers had obtained at most a Masters degree prior to launching their policy careers, but while Masters students learn a variety of things they generally do not obtain a thorough grasp of a body of scholarly work and the advances therein. I found out that the lack of this is more costly in government than most policymakers realize.