Monday, February 18, 2008

Soft Power

In what is being seen as a trip to establish a legacy, President Bush is currently visiting Africa. In a presidency marked by the use of hard power, this current effort is an example of soft power. After seven years, Bush can be accused of too little too late, but his reception in Africa, where his popularity is immense, would seem to speak otherwise. Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete had this to say, “I know you will leave office in about 12 months' time. Rest assured that you will be remembered for many generations to come for the good things you have done for Tanzania and the good things you have done for Africa. Your legacy will be that of saving hundreds of thousands of mothers and children's' lives.” These lives have been saved from malaria and HIV/AIDS.

The president launched a plan in 2005 to reduce malaria deaths in sub-Saharan Africa, where more than 80 percent of malaria cases occur. The disease kills at least 1 million infants and children under five every year. Bush's five-year plan calls for $1.2 billion, so far congress has funded about a third of this program. Congress has also agreed to his plan to spend $15 billion on HIV/AIDS prevention in Africa. He is now urging congress to double that. While in Tanzania, Bush also announced a plan to distribute 5.2 million free bed nets in six months, enough to provide a net for every child between ages one and five in Tanzania. On top of this he also promised $700 to help Tanzania build up its infrastructure.

"The power to save lives comes with the moral obligation to use it," Bush said about these efforts. This relatively sudden reliance on soft power is finally a glimpse of the compassionate conservatism that he promised. Joseph S. Nye Jr., distinguished service professor at Harvard University, describes a country’s soft power as coming from three resources: “its culture (in places where it is attractive to others), its political values (when it lives up to them at home and abroad), and its foreign policies (when they are seen as legitimate and having moral authority).” Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state during President Bush's first term, now a colleague of Nye, makes the case for soft power this way, "You don't need to walk into a room and pronounce yourself ... in charge, everyone knows when the United States is in the room. You gain much more by not even speaking about it."

The nearly exclusive use of hard power throughout the Bush presidency has had a negative effect on the ability of the US to use soft power now. The world's only remaining super power launching a preemptive war in the opposition of world opinion is precisely the sort of thing candidate Bush warned us about in 2000 when he said, "If we're an arrogant nation, they'll view us that way, but if we're a humble nation, they'll respect us." Arrogant foreign policy is bereft of moral authority. American political values have likewise been diminished as a source of soft power due to the limitations of civil liberties since 9/11. Consumerism as a cultural export has not only not endeared America to the world, it is part of the depravity that some terrorists have named as a source of their enmity.

Humility is not something our nation can fake any more than respect can be demanded. The sort of goodwill currently being created in Africa can spread if this is the beginning of better ethical international behavior. Regardless of motivation, morality in diplomacy is both effective and welcome.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008


Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a time of reflection on our shortcomings in preparation for Easter. Jesus taught that one should take the log out of one's own eye before removing the speck out of someone else's eye. Thus, this is an appropriate moment for the Christian church to take a long hard look at itself. If the research done recently by the Barna group is correct, the church has an urgent need to change if it is going to remain viable into the future.

This fall, the president of the Barna Group, David Kinnaman, published the findings of research on the opinions of 16-29 year-olds about the church in a book titled, “unChristian.” They found that the most common perceptions of Christianity by young non-Christians were negative, led by judgmental (87%) and hypocritical (85%). In fact, even half of the young Christians surveyed agreed that the church is judgmental and hypocritical. The churched and un-churched alike pointed to one particular issue that leads the way in shaping this opinion. The most common perception today is that Christianity is "anti-homosexual." The Barna Group web site reports, “Overall, 91% of young non-Christians and 80% of young churchgoers say this phrase describes Christianity. As the research probed this perception, non-Christians and Christians explained that beyond their recognition that Christians oppose homosexuality, they believe that Christians show excessive contempt and unloving attitudes towards gays and lesbians.” Young Christians frequently complained the church's teaching has made homosexuality a “bigger sin” than others and not equipped them to deal with their relationships with their homosexual friends.

This is an issue causing great divisiveness within the church itself. Not all Christians agree that homosexuality is a sin. A fair inference from the survey findings would be that many young Christians are questioning this teaching as well. Those who do believe that this behavior is sinful must consider whom is harmed by it. If there is no victim where is the crime? Once before, the church led a movement to outlaw a sin to improve society. The church-based Temperance movement led to Prohibition. Legislation was clearly the wrong method for helping drunkards to mend their ways. If your goal is to help others see the wrong in their behavior, publicly judging them will only move them away from your concern.

Lent is a season of fasting, typically marked by denying oneself a pleasure or giving up a negative behavior. Perhaps this is a good moment for all Christians to fast from judging others. It would be an opportunity to practice the teaching of Jesus that only those without sin are permitted to cast stones at sinners. People of all faiths and people of goodwill of no faith should be able to come together in a free society to serve and improve the common good. This lofty goal should not be derailed by a misplaced focus on judgment that detracts from the reputation of an institution well positioned to improve society, the Christian Church.