The most annoying tic in the American foreign policy machine

Daniel W. Drezner
August 5
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

President Obama held a news conference at the White House on Friday. Can you guess which foreign leader has disappointed him? (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

A concept that has rattled around the foreign policy community because Joseph Nye publishes a book about it like clockwork every four years for a couple of decades is “soft power.”  If hard power is getting other actors in world politics to do what you want, then soft power is the ability to get other actors to want what we want.  Indeed, in “The System Worked” I argue that one of the reasons there was significant post-2008 cooperation was that most of the key actors shared a common set of ideas about how the global economy should function — and those ideas pretty much originated in Washington.  There’s a lot of debate among international relations scholars about how to measure or observe “soft power,” but there is agreement that if you have it, foreign affairs are much easier to conduct.

What happens if you don’t have much soft power, however? What happens if some other actor in world politics doesn’t want what you want?  This came up at President Obama’s press conference on Friday, and it highlights one of the most annoying tics that the United States displays in world politics:  lecturing other countries what’s in their best interests.

Here’s Obama on Russian preferences, in response to a question by Bill Plante:

[T]here are going to be some constraints in terms of what we can do if President Putin and Russia are ignoring what should be their long-term interests.  Right now, what we’ve done is impose sufficient costs on Russia that, objectively speaking, they should — President Putin should want to resolve this diplomatically, get these sanctions lifted, get their economy growing again, and have good relations with Ukraine.  But sometimes people don’t always act rationally, and they don’t always act based on their medium- or long-term interests.  That can’t deter us, though.  We’ve just got to stay at it.

With the caveat that I share Obama’s preferences and think Putin has badly miscalculated on Ukraine, this is still one of the more sanctimonious assessments to come out of the White House in some time.  It assumes that because Putin doesn’t want what Obama wants, then Putin must be acting irrationally.  Maybe, just maybe, Vladimir Putin and Russian nationalists place a different value on controlling neighboring territory than Barack Obama.  Or, to get all social science-y about it, maybe Obama is conflating his own subjective rationality with everyone else’s instrumental rationality.

How, exactly, does Obama think this sounds in Moscow?  Like the gentle advice of a benevolent friend, or the patronizing tone of a bullying big brother?

To be clear, this is hardly unique to this president; it’s a common tic among all top foreign policymakers.  As a senior U.S. diplomat once told me, “If there’s anything the United States is good at, it’s telling other countries what’s in their best interests.”  I think this flaw is particularly pronounced among foreign policy Zen Masters, however.  Part of this might be because, to explain why they are not taking aggressive action, they feel the need to explain why a revisionist actor is destined to fail.

By way of contrast, compare what Obama said with Michael McFaul’s Politico essay, in which he makes a similar assessment that Putin is choosing poorly.  McFaul, however, at least acknowledges a key point:

Like some in Russia (though, I fear, a dwindling minority), I believe that a more democratic, more market-oriented Russia, which abides by the international rules of the game, is the path to greatness. But over the course of his nearly 15 years in power, Putin has demonstrated that he sees a different path to glory, one that does not involve democratic governance, that is suspicious of private property, and, increasingly, that ignores or circumvents international rules and norms Putin himself used to champion. But let’s not judge Putin by my standards. Let’s evaluate his success with reference to his own, clearly stated agenda.

McFaul goes on to point out how Putin has failed to achieve most of his great power objectives; it’s a pretty compelling case.  The key here, however, is that McFaul explicitly acknowledges the divergence between his preferences and Putin’s.

The Obama administration has excelled at saying things about Russia that might be true but really shouldn’t be said by U.S. foreign policy principals.  Obama’s statement on Friday goes beyond that, however.  Telling other countries that they’re acting irrationally because they don’t want what the United States wants is the opposite of soft power.  It’s self-defeating diplomacy.

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