The LA Times’ Rosa Brooks celebrates the Obama victory today, arguing that the US will now rise in international public opinion and popularity. She is hardly alone in this, as several commentators are arguing now that an Obama presidency will enhance America’s “soft power.” The problem is that, perhaps because she only has a 700-word column to work with, Brooks never quite explains what concretely this new-found “popularity”, if it exists, it supposed to actually do.
I’m sympathetic to the argument, but we need to be more precise about the concept, and also what exactly we think it is going to get for us. And then be prepared to try to demonstrate that it has actually worked.
Neoconservatives, and many traditional realists, have long been skeptical about such notions as “international public opinion,” arguing with some force that it doesn’t necessarily carry any operational strength. “How many divisions does the Pope have?,” Stalin famously asked, and he had a point.
So what exactly will this enhancement of America’s image get for us? I can think of a few possibilities offhand:
1) When we want other countries to cooperate with us, or take a more flexible negotiating position to accommodate us, then politicians in those countries will be more likely to do so if we are popular (especially if they are democracies).
2) Greater American popularity will lead to the election of pro-American regimes and reduced support for Islamist movements.
3) It should also lead to the easier acquisition and development of human intelligence in other countries (as people in other countries might be more willing to cooperate with US intelligence efforts and turn in terrorists trying to melt into the population.).
4) We should have an easier time acquiring basing rights in nations in strategic locations.
Many of these overlap, of course, but the most important point is that we need to start demonstrating that these are not merely theoretical possibilities, but rather developments that we can point to through historical examples.
Pre-Second World War idealists too confidentally predicted that Hitler could never do what he wanted because “world public opinion” wouldn’t allow it, a fatuous argument that discredited the line of thinking. If it is to be resuscitated in rigorous fashion, we need to make the argument more rigorously.