President Bush Goes Soft

The first term of George W. Bush’s presidency was marked by unilateralism and military power. The United States was the world’s only superpower, so others had to follow. The result was a dramatic decline in America’s “soft” or attractive power. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said he did not know what soft power was. Now it is back in fashion in Washington.

Bush’s second inaugural address was devoted to the power of liberty and democracy. Such rhetoric is not new to American presidents. Harry Truman spoke of defending free people everywhere, and Woodrow Wilson spoke of promoting democracy. The neo-conservatives in Bush’s first administration were in that tradition, but ignored the fact that both Wilson and Truman were also institution-builders who consulted other countries. In dropping that half of Wilson’s approach, they stepped on their own message, reducing its effectiveness.

The tone at the beginning of the second Bush administration is different. As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said recently in Paris: “I use the word ‘power’ broadly, because even more important than military and indeed economic power is the power of ideas, the power of compassion, and the power of hope.” Bush not only chose to visit Brussels, the capital of the European Union, on his February trip to Europe, but stated that what “we seek to achieve in the world requires that America and Europe remain close partners.” Even Rumsfeld is trying to be conciliatory!

Will Bush’s new approach succeed? On a recent trip to Europe, I encountered both encouragement and skepticism. Many people welcomed the new tone, but wondered if it was simply sugarcoated cynicism. Words must be matched by deeds before people are convinced.