Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
March 15, 2004
POLITICS/WAR: Hard Sell
Here's another way of looking at what's fundamentally wrong with John Kerry's approach to foriegn policy. Kerry, of course, has repeatedly insisted that he will, as president, do more to rebuild America's alliances with various foreign nations. But how, and at what cost?
There are, fundamentally, two types of diplomacy: you can think of them as hard diplomacy and soft diplomacy. Hard diplomacy is about getting people to change their behavior by changing the facts and/or changing your position; the most obvious examples are threats or reprisals and bribes with concessions. (Another example is creating the fait accompli, where you simply alter the facts on the ground). Soft diplomacy is, in essence, everything else, any effort that entails getting the other guy to change his position without changing yours. A lot of what people think of as diplomacy falls in this area, from ass-kissing on a personal or national level (i.e., talking nicer), to simple persuasion. The problem, of course, is that there's very little reason, in the real world, to believe that soft diplomacy has very much impact on the behavior of nations.
Here's what worries me: when Kerry talks about improving our diplomacy, there are two possibilities. One is that he's fool enough to believe that soft diplomacy is really important, and that he'll be able to get our reluctant allies to change their behavior just by asking nicer. Not only is this foolishly naive, but when has Kerry ever shown himself to be the kind of guy who can do this? He's never put in the effort to be a coalition-builder in two decades in the Senate; never tried for a leadership position, never worked in any notable way across party lines, never led a fight on major legislation (all these stand in marked contrast to Bush's record in Texas, by the way, and don't go telling me that Kerry can compensate by being more charming in person than Bush).
(One possible line of argument sometimes heard from the Left is that the U.S. has lost credibility on account of misusing intelligence, and that this has made us less persuasive . . . again, there are two possibilities: either Kerry intends to improve our intelligence-gathering operations, which would be a sharp reversal of his positions over the past 30 years, or he intends to be less willing to act on the kind of warnings we had in Iraq.)
The other possibility is that Kerry expects to use hard diplomacy . . . but threats of force or other reprisals? I doubt it. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that what Kerry means, fundamentally, is that he will concede American interests and negotiating positions in ways Bush wouldn't.
That really could make Kerry popular in foreign capitals. But it shouldn't make him popular here.