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Barack Obama and Soft Power

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I have spent the past month lecturing in Oxford and traveling in Europe where Barack Obama could be elected in a landslide. I suspect that this fascination with Obama is true in many parts of the world. In fact, as I have said before, it is difficult to think of any single act that would do more to restore America's soft power than the election of Obama to the presidency.

Soft power is the ability to obtain the outcomes one wants through attraction rather than using the carrots and sticks of payment or coercion. As I describe in my new book The Powers to Lead, in individuals soft power rests on the skills of emotional intelligence, vision, and communication that Obama possesses in abundance. In nations, it rests upon culture (where it is attractive to others), values (when they are applied without hypocrisy), and policies (when they are inclusive and seen as legitimate in the eyes of others.)

Polls show that American soft power has declined quite dramatically in much of the world over the past eight years. Some say this is structural, and resentment is the price we pay for being the biggest kid on the block. But it matters greatly whether the big kid is seen as a friend or a bully. In much of the world we have been seen as a bully as a result of the Bush Administration policies.

Unfortunately, a President Obama will inherit a number of policy problems such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and North Korea where hard power plays a large role. If he drops the ball on any of these issues, they will devour his political capital. At the same time, he will have to be careful not to let this inherited legacy of problems define his presidency. Some time between November 4 and January 20, he will need to indicate a new tone in foreign policy which shows that we will once again export hope rather than fear. This could take several forms: announcement of an intent to close Guantanamo; dropping the term "global war on terror;" creation of a special bipartisan group to formulate a new policy on climate change; a "listening trip" to Asia, and so forth. Electing Obama will greatly help restore America's soft power as a nation that can recreate itself, but the election alone will not be sufficient. It is not too soon to start thinking about symbols and policies for the days immediately after the election.

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