President Obama’s recent debacle in Syria and the grass-root opposition to intervention shows that Americans are rethinking the mantra of interventionist democracy-building for a number of different reasons. In an opinionon Sept. 9, Glenn Beck argued that, for both broader ideological reasons and contextual circumstances particular to the case of Syria, he was against intervention in Syria.
U.S. Navy sailors stand in formation aboard the USS Stockdale. Photo Credit: Maya Alleruzzo/AP Photo
I have a tendency to agree and think the right wing of the Republican party is leading a broader paradigmatic shift back towards a more pragmatic diplomacy, squarely grounded in the school of realism and less dictated by progressive ideals of democracy building. Far from being "just another opportunity to contradict Obama," as many liberals seem to have argued, Syria will mark a symbolic turning point in American foreign policy.
But where does that leave us?
The United States cannot turn its back on the world. We are a country with an essential role to play in the world, defending freedom against tyrants and upholding the liberties enshrined in our constitution. Our military is the foundation of the international security architecture and our economy a motor of growth.
This, of course, remains as true as ever, but Americans must rethink how we will exercise our influence in the world. This influence, I believe, will hinge largely on the power of our economic model – unrivaled in world history for creating wealth and human progress.
The idea of changing others’ behavior through influence and co-optation instead of coercion and threat is certainly not a new idea. Strains of this thought can be found in the oldest human musings on strategy and the idea was most recently enshrined in the influential work of the academic Joseph Nye.
America already knows a thing or two about "soft power," as Mr. Nye called it.
Following the Second World War, our economic and technical support helped spread American-style capitalism and rapid growth to Europe, Japan and South Korea, among others.
The Cold War was largely a battle of influence and ideologies. We won because, in the long-run, communism atrophied societies to the point that they could no longer keep up with the West and people craved the freedom and possibilities they saw in America – President Ronald Reagan certainly helped expedite the process.
Smaller things matter too. American-trained economists and politicians are taking the free-market ideas they saw working so well and exporting them to their own countries. In South America, socialist strongmen have come and gone, but the courageous leaders that look to the U.S. example are the ones enacting lasting change and creating wealth. In Chile, American ideology has impregnated economic policy since the 1970s with the ascendance to power of a group of Chicago-trained economists and the country now has one of the most stable economies in Latin America.
More recently, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt have taken a big step in the long and perilous march towards democracy by ridding themselves of their autocratic leaders. In Eastern Europe, Ukraine is valiantly standing up to its old Soviet master, Russia, and hopes to sign a free trade agreement with Europe next month.
American ideals are alive and well in the world.
Soft power in its most recent incarnation, that is to say the work of Joseph Nye, has traditionally been more associated with liberal schools of thought in the United States and has become intimately intertwined with the ideas of liberal interventionism. On the flip side, liberals also used the idea of soft power to attack President George W. Bush’s "unilateralism," saying intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq undermined our image in the world.
Ironically, the Obama administration has been just as reliant on hard power as hawkish Republicans under the Bush Administration. To add irony to irony, Democrats have now been using the same arguments to push for intervention in Syria, pleading that if the U.S. does not act to punish Bashar al-Assad, our image as a defender of human rights will be tarnished.
America’s soft power, however, is more about what we do at home than what we do abroad.
Liberals tend to emphasize what we do in the world over who we are in the world, because they’ve fashioned a culture that denies American exceptionalism.
Our relationship with France provide’s a good example of this. Relations have often been tumultuous (this may qualify as an understatement I concede), but, speaking with close friends here in France, I quickly realized that there exists a deep-seated affinity for the U.S. and that this affinity is based on a respect for our ideals and a fascination with our culture.
It is this core that we should nurture instead of pandering to foreign opinion at every turn, because, like it or not, everything we do will not be popular. While we debate how we should and shouldn’t use our military to uphold our image in the world, Obama is busy undermining our economic model and ideals through his wrong-headed reforms and propensity to create scandal at every step. It is time that conservatives take ownership of this idea and put the emphasis back on what really counts.
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