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The Value of Values: Soft Power Under Obama

Author: Mark P. Lagon, Centennial Fellow and Distinguished Senior Scholar, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service
September/October 2011
World Affairs Journal


One irony of the Obama presidency is how much it relies on hard power. The president came into office proposing a dramatic shift from George W. Bush's perceived unilateralism, and most of his predecessor's hard-edged counterterrorism tactics and massive deployments in wars abroad. Yet after three years, Obama has escalated forces in Afghanistan, embraced the widespread use of unmanned drones to kill terrorists at the risk of civilian casualties, kept Guantánamo open, and killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in a thoroughly unilateral fashion.

What he hasn't accomplished to any great degree is what most observers assumed would be the hallmark of his approach to foreign affairs—a full assertion of the soft power that makes hard power more effective. His 2008 campaign centered on a critique of President Bush's overreliance on hard power. Obama suggested he would rehabilitate the damaged image of America created by these excesses and show that the United States was not a cowboy nation. Upon taking office, he made fresh-start statements, such as his June 2009 remarks in Cairo, and embraced political means like dialogue, respectful multilateralism, and the use of new media, suggesting that he felt the soft power to change minds, build legitimacy, and advance interests was the key element missing from the recent US approach to the world—and that he would quickly remedy that defect.

Yet President Obama's conception of soft power has curiously lacked the very quality that has made it most efficacious in the past—the values dimension . This may seem odd for a leader who is seen worldwide as an icon of morality, known for the motto “the audacity of hope” and his deployment of soaring rhetoric. Yet his governance has virtually ignored the values dimension of soft power, which goes beyond the tradecraft of diplomacy and multilateral consultation to aggressively assert the ideals of freedom in practical initiatives. The excision of this values dimension renders soft power a hollow concept.

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