The first term of George W. Bush's presidency was marked by unilateralism and military power. The US 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 EU, 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.
One place to look to see if deeds are forthcoming is in Bush's latest budget. The budget cuts discretionary spending (other than defense and homeland security) by nearly 1 percent, and slashes as many as 150 domestic programs.
Yet, in this climate of fiscal stringency, he calls for increased contributions to international organizations, the Millennium Challenge Account to provide assistance to countries with a commitment to making progress in poverty reduction, and the Global HIV/AIDS Initiative.
Bush's new budget also includes an increase in funding for public diplomacy. The allocation for the State Department's educational and cultural exchange programs, including overseas research centers, libraries, and visitor programs, is boosted by nearly 25 percent.
As Bush's budget request to Congress puts it, "Rarely has the need for a sustained effort to ensure foreign understanding for our country and society been so clearly evident." This comes after a first term in which public diplomacy was a neglected stepchild, and a Pentagon advisory panel summed up the situation as a "crisis."
Even with these increases, there is a long way to go to improve America's standing. A recent non-partisan report by the Public Diplomacy Council called for a new Agency for Public Diplomacy within the State Department, 24-hour English-language broadcasts by the Voice of America, and a fourfold budget increase over the next five years. The Bush administration still has much to do in promoting ideas, but early indications suggest a change from the neglect of the first term.
But it will not be enough for Bush to start his second term with grand rhetoric about values and increased investment in public diplomacy. A country's attractiveness or soft power stems partly from its culture and values -- where they are attractive to others. But it also grows out of a country's policies when they are seen as legitimate, consultative, and inclusive of the interests of others.