US Politics

Soft Power and Hard Numbers

By Ryan McGreal
Published January 23, 2007

A new US public opinion poll by CBS News just before President George W. Bush delivers his State of the Union speech has found that his overall approval has dropped to a new all-time low of 28 percent.

My first thought on reading this was: 84 million Americans still think Bush is doing a good job?!?

Sarcasm aside, this is strong evidence that even in the hyper-partisan United States, many people recognize that Bush's "surge strategy" is just throwing good money after bad in a war that is already lost.

69 percent of Americans polled believe Bush does not share their priorities. 41 percent believe the war can't be won no matter how many troops the US sends.

At the same time, BBC International also conducted a poll across several countries that found the view of the US around the world is falling rapidly.

The report reads in part:

Comparable surveys suggest that there is still strong support around the world for the values enshrined in US society. But it looks as though America itself is seen to be living up to those values less and less.

As a result, America's soft power - its ability to influence people in other countries by the force of example and by the perceived legitimacy of its policies - is weakening.

And in a turbulent, globalising world, where the US - rightly or wrongly - is associated by many with the disruptive effects of globalisation, soft power matters more than ever. It is a resource that once squandered is very difficult to build-up again.

This may be the most significant phenomenon that the Bush administration and its neoconservative steering committee just can't, or won't, admit.

The neocons are convinced that America can retain its global hegemony through military superiority:

At present the United States faces no global rival. America's grand strategy should aim to preserve and extend this advantageous position as far into the future as possible. ...

America should seek to preserve and extend its position of global leadership by maintaining the preeminence of U.S. military forces.

By sabotaging diplomacy and forcing military engagements on trumped-up pretexts, the United States has squandered the goodwill it enjoyed through the 1990s and especially after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the US.

In his remarkable 1997 book The Grand Chessboard, Zbignew Brzezinski wrote about the importance of soft power - what he called "cultural superiority" and "cultural appeal" - in an empire's successful management of its "vassals".

Instead, the US government has shown only contempt for diplomacy, insulting and alienating its natural allies at every turn and throwing out a lot of tough talk that was all calculated to cut off diplomatic avenues.

Finally, President Bush has decided to ignore the Iraq Study Group, the Pentagon, the US intelligence community, both Houses of Congress, the majority of the American people, the majority of the Iraqi people, and most of the rest of the world by increasing the number of US troops in Iraq.

One predictable result is Bush's all-time low in approval. Another is the even more dismal approval ratings of America in the rest of the world after the post-9/11 high.

In an irony that must be truly bitter to those war supporters honest enough to admit it, those same military engagments, and the hard power mentality underlying them, have even sapped the strength and vitality of the US military itself, the engine of power projection that the neocons believed would be sufficient to maintain American supremacy.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have chewed up thousands of soldiers in deadly combat, left tens of thousands more with permanent disabilities, and stretched military coverage to the snapping point - all without actually being able to "win" in either theatre.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal.

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