Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Beacon No. 93: Warren Buffett “Shows”


Most soft power is a side effect of wielding hard power wisely.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Warren Buffett, whose rampant charitable giving two weeks ago has resonated overseas. The story there, writes James Forsyth on Foreign Policy’s Web site, is how Buffett- or Gates-scale charity (a hard-power, dollars-and-cents factor) justifies American capitalism (a “soft” ideology or economic philosophy).

I was in London when the Sage of Omaha made his announcement and I have never seen such positive coverage of the US in the British media in all my life. All of a sudden articles appeared saying 'why aren't our rich more like the American rich, this is the moral justification for American capitalism, look at how much private American citizens give away' etc. Karen Hughes couldn't have scripted it better.

Buffett probably didn’t mean to influence the British press and public, but he has, purely on the strength of character his actions show—not because he is giving the British anything.

This is the root of soft power—show, don’t tell—and it illustrates where I separate myself from people for whom public diplomacy is just a nice way of saying “propaganda.” The best thing public diplomats can do, in most cases, is not talk about the importance of democracy in fine international hotels or announce bold steps during one’s State of the Union address, but instead give a little-d democrat a plane ticket to another country to talk with the locals about how they promote one-man-one-vote at home.

But because the temptation to tell is so powerful, Forsyth can’t help but propose a way for the U.S. to get more “mileage” from Buffett’s announcement:

... The Bush administration should think of a way to get some more mileage out of Buffett's generosity. So, how about a presidential announcement that the administration will ask Congress for matching funding—calculated as $3 billion a year by people better at math than I—for the Millennium Challenge Account, an initiative that looks great on paper but suffers from under-funding. ...

The MCA is under-funded, but perhaps U.S. soft power is better served by just ... funding it! ... rather than trying to hitch a ride on Buffett’s coattails.

(Thanks as always to John Brown's Public Diplomacy Review for the initial item.)

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