x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

A surge in soft power can repair the US's image

One of the shrewdest moves the Obama administration could make in the aftermath of Osama bin Laden's death is relaunch the campaign against terrorism, and also prompt a "new beginning" in ties with the Islamic world.

The dramatic news about Osama bin Laden's death, especially when taken in combination with the ongoing "Arab spring", offers a remarkable window of opportunity for US policymakers seeking to encourage what President Barack Obama has called an "alternative narrative" for a disaffected generation in the Islamic world.

For years after September 11, military and counterterrorism efforts dominated the US response to the atrocities in New York City and Washington, DC. Major successes were achieved, including the unseating of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. However, the overwhelming US emphasis on "hard power" has fuelled controversy, and ultimately US unpopularity, across much of the world in the subsequent decade.

According to the 2010 Pew Global Attitudes Survey, in nine out of 15 countries for which relevant time series data is available, public favourability towards the United States lagged behind that recorded at the end of the Clinton administration. This phenomenon, which developed most intensely during the administration of George W Bush, comes despite the decline of anti-Americanism across much of the world since the election of Mr Obama in 2008.

As the Pew data indicates, nowhere has US unpopularity been more evident than in the Islamic world. While countries such as Lebanon buck the trend, the general fall-off in the last decade is stark. In Turkey, for instance, favourability of the domestic population towards the United States has fallen from some 30 per cent in 2002 to a very low 17 per cent in 2010. Equally, in Egypt, favourability has declined from 30 per cent in 2006 to 17 per cent in 2010.

The decline in these numbers is so serious because of the concomitant erosion of US "soft power" - the ability to influence preferences of others derived from the attractiveness of a state's values, ideals and government policies, especially in foreign affairs. History underlines the key role that soft power has played as a means of obtaining desirable outcomes in world politics.

For example, Washington used soft power resources quite skilfully after the Second World War to encourage other countries into a system of alliances and institutions such as NATO, the IMF, the World Bank and the United Nations. The Cold War was subsequently won by a strategy of containment and cultural vigour which combined both soft and hard power.

Almost 10 years after the September 11 attacks, the challenges posed by the US-led "campaign against terrorism", as with those of the Cold War, cannot be met by hard assets alone. This is especially so as the anti-terrorism battle is a contest whose outcome is related, in significant part, to a battle between moderates and extremists within Islamic nations. Despite bin Laden's death, the United States and its allies will only secure greater success in meeting their goals if they demonstrate a capacity to win moderate Muslim support.

It is in this context of a battle for "hearts and minds" that the significance of the Arab Spring lies. It remains unclear whether forces of freedom and democracy will ultimately consolidate their initial influence, or whether extremist groups such as al Qa'eda might profit from the vacuum of power.

Bin Laden's death will, at least in the short term, demoralise some al Qa'eda operatives at the same time that the network's ideology is challenged by the largely peaceful and non-religious agenda of the remarkable events that have unfolded in North Africa and the Middle East.

Now that bin Laden is dead, one of the shrewdest moves that the Obama administration could make is relaunching the campaign against terrorism, and also prompt a "new beginning" in ties with the Islamic world that the president initially promised in his Cairo speech in June 2009. At a minimum, this would necessitate kick-starting the machinery of US public diplomacy to "re-energise the [US] dialogue with the Muslim world" that Mr Obama has also pledged.

In such a scenario, of course, US policy would continue to include a significant element of military and counterterrorism operations. However, barring a new attack on the US homeland, these elements could now be at least partially de-emphasised, particularly in Washington's planned drawdown of troops in Afghanistan within the next several years.

 

Andrew Hammond is an Associate Partner at Reputation Inc. He was formerly a Special Adviser in the government of Tony Blair