The United States cannot solve the problems of the world on its own, and the world cannot solve them without the United States.
As the world’s only remaining superpower, America has the ability to affect the behavior of other nations through coercion, economic strength and the power of attraction. Hard power relies on coercion and raw economic power. Soft power influences others through public diplomacy, broadcasting, exchange programs, development assistance, disaster relief, exchange of ideas and culture - everything from Hollywood to Shakespeare to orchestras.
In his inaugural address, President Barack Obama informed all countries, friendly and unfriendly, that there was a new attitude in the White House. He advised those countries “on the wrong side of history” that the United States “will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist”.
During his first year in office, Obama followed through by launching negotiations with Iran and North Korea on their nuclear programs, searching for common ground with Russia on arms control and missile defense, and softening economic sanctions against Cuba.
The jury is still out on whether the Obama initiatives will bear fruit, but it is a start and a welcome improvement from the George W. Bush reliance on hard power. But much more must be done to translate Obama’s effective rhetoric into a softening of policy, a softening more likely to increase the security of America and the rest of the world. If President Obama were to withdraw American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, then reduce the enormous US military budget, close some of the 761 US military bases in 147 countries, he would set the stage for America to inspire and lead the world by using the panoply of its soft power.
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