Thursday, July 13, 2006

Soft Power and Transformational Presidents


Joseph Nye has a new article in the July/August 2006 Foreign Affairs, “Transformational Leadership and U.S. Grand Strategy” that compares the George W. Bush administration with several others that have tried to transform U.S. foreign policy. (You can read the first 500 or so words here.)

Nye contends that only two presidents in the past century have truly transformed U.S. policy: FDR, who ended isolationism and unilateralism, and Truman, who built on Roosevelt’s policies and introduced permanent alliances and containment. In several other cases, notably those of Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, circumstances and personal flaws beat back presidential challenges to the status quo.

A crisis is nearly always necessary to create a moment that’s amenable to transformation, but as Nye writes, individuals matter. He has an interesting take on the qualities necessary to be a transformational president, and it’s no surprise that they have to do with soft power

The first, policy vision, is the ability to articulate an inspiring picture of the future. Grand speeches are not enough; anyone can produce a wish list. Effective visions must accurately diagnose the world situation, balancing realism with risk and ideals with capabilities. Roosevelt was good at this; Wilson was not. The second is emotional intelligence, the self-knowledge and discipline that allow leaders to project personal magnetism. Successfully managing the impression one makes requires some of the talents good actors possess. Reagan’s Hollywood career served him well in this regard. The third, communication, helps a leader to inspire domestic and foreign audiences.

The current president falls short as a public educator and also seems to lack patience, Nye notes, compared with some of his predecessors. He goes on to discuss three more capabilities:

Organizational capacity is a president’s ability to manage the structures of government to shape and implement policy, including supervising advisers in order to ensure a flow of accurate information about the inputs and outputs of decisions. ... Political skill, the art of finding the means to achieve the ends set forth in one’s vision, whether by bargaining, buying, or bullying, is obviously crucial. A president cannot achieve goals just for narrow groups of supporters; he must use his successes to build political capital with wider circles of followers. Johnson, for example, was a brilliantly successful politician for most of his career in the Senate, but he could not replicate that success in the international sphere. Finally, a successful foreign policy leader needs what theorists of business leadership call “contextual intelligence,” the ability to understand an evolving environment and to match resources with objectives by moving with rather than against the flow of events. Contextual intelligence allows a leader to act on hunches based on informed intuition, what Bismarck once described as the statesman’s task of hearing God’s footsteps as he marched through history and trying to grasp his coattails. Although often faulted for his purportedly limited cognitive skills, Reagan had good contextual intelligence.

Nye ends by comparing G.W. Bush with his nearest analogue, Woodrow Wilson, adding that Bush has strengths—emotional intelligence and self-mastery—that compensate for some of Wilson’s weaknesses. Although the case for Bush as a transformational foreign-policy president remains open, Nye ends, “the odds are against him and he is running out of time.”

The president, then, must institutionalize the transformative elements of his foreign policy long before the next presidential election on November 4, 2008. I would look for a wave of conciliation of U.S. allies and treaty-making with them and multinational bodies to ensure that Bush’s emphases on democratization, globalization and fighting terrorism are as nearly set in stone as they can be before the next president takes office in January 2009.

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