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December 22, 2004

The Continued Erosion of American Soft Power

Andrew Higgins of the Wall Street Journal reports on Poland:

WSJ.com - At Expense of U.S., Nations Of Europe Are Drawing Closer: Opinion polls show a big majority of Poles want their troops out of Iraq and also want Europe to have a common defense policy, something Washington views as a possible threat to the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Washington's ebbing influence in this most pro-American swath of Europe reflects a broader phenomenon this series of articles has explored: Some of the largest challenges facing the U.S. now flow from the sources of its great power.

Its democratic domestic politics can leave it deaf to even its closest friends abroad. America's sheer size and might breed resentment and, in the geopolitical marketplace, stir competition. Its economic example spurs Europe to band together to compete. Its faith in elections prompts an effort, in Iraq and Afghanistan, to impose democracy through arms. For many abroad, America's goals inspire, but its actions often exasperate.

"America failed its exam as a superpower," says Lech Walesa, the former Solidarity trade-union leader who became Poland's first post-Communist president. "They are a military and economic superpower but not morally or politically anymore. This is a tragedy for us." Mr. Walesa laments what he sees as America's squandered leadership because he thinks the EU isn't ready for prime time.... [C]an Europe offer itself and the wider world a vision to match, and perhaps one day even supplant, America's role as "leader of the free world"?

In a campaign debate this fall, President Bush chided Sen. John Kerry for belittling the coalition in Iraq. "Well, you forgot Poland," said Mr. Bush. On a host of issues, however, many Poles, as well as some other allies, wonder if Mr. Bush has forgotten them.

Many Britons, for example, complain that Prime Minister Tony Blair has gained little in return for his steadfast support in Iraq. From climate change to treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and the Middle East peace process, Washington has mostly sidestepped British requests. Poland, America's other keen ally on the Continent, smarts over Washington's refusal to grant Poles visa-free access to the U.S., a privilege enjoyed by France and 26 other countries.... A state-owned arms company filed a formal protest earlier this year after it lost a bid to equip the Iraqi army. Polish officials also feel they got short shrift in Washington when they tried to influence U.S. decision-making in Iraq.

"We shed our blood for them but they don't treat us well," says Mr. Walesa, who visited the U.S. this fall to meet officials and politicians. He had no trouble getting a visa himself but made little headway in securing easy entry for his compatriots. "America doesn't like Poles; it only likes Walesa," he says.

Poland is still far from embracing Gaullist dreams of a European superpower.... When Poland joined the EU along with nine other nations in May, it was seen in some Western European capitals as a spoiler: a country more interested in nurturing close ties with the U.S. than in building a united Europe. Poland had haggled hard over its entry, and on Iraq it had sided with the U.S. against Germany and France.... Today, even as economics and disquiet about the conflict in Iraq weaken bonds to Washington, turmoil in neighboring Ukraine has also pushed Poland more toward Europe. Poland drove a firm European policy on Ukraine....

Posted by DeLong at December 22, 2004 08:33 PM


Sounds like they need a more polished K street firm.

Posted by: lechners at December 22, 2004 08:47 PM

As in the EU tells MS to go stuff themselves.

Yeah, yeah, sure, this was simply a commercial dispute, resolved according to the law. Just keep telling yourself that, that anti-US feeling did nothing to help get the decision through, if that's what it takes you to sleep.

Posted by: Maynard Handley at December 22, 2004 09:02 PM

I guess Bush is a "uniter" after all.

Posted by: Soviet Canuckastani at December 22, 2004 09:07 PM

Interesting aspect: Poland was the first place where the "democratization" techniques used later in Baltic states, Serbia, Georgia and now Ukraine were applied. And as a result we now have the state that is (1) reasonably succesfull and (2) friendly to US but by no means a banana republic. So (1) US Goverment is a part of "democratization" drive but not the only one (scary - global conspiracy etc.) and (2) "democratization" can produce good results. We'd have to watch Ukraine - if it works there in 5 years it could even work in Russia (that would be a coup of the century).

Posted by: a at December 22, 2004 10:35 PM

Does this mean it's Patriotically Correct to start telling Polock jokes?

Are they serving Freedom Sausages in the White House cafeteria?

Posted by: Kuas at December 22, 2004 10:39 PM

I saw Walesa when he was in the Bay Area this fall. My overall impression was one of enduring pragmatic idealism---that he wanted to speak from his experience as a bureaucrat as much as he did from his more famous experience as a revolutionary. He cracked plenty of jokes, but he also spoke about the hard work of governing. An interesting idea: leadership might be about more than personal flair. This quote----"America doesn't like Poles; it only likes Walesa," he says---- seems very apt to me: American conservatives were willing to applaud him as a symbol of the end of communism without taking in his larger Polish context of unionism and the like.

Posted by: Saheli at December 22, 2004 11:49 PM

When Lech Walesa starts saying that you've lost your moral and political credibility, you need to wake up and realize that something's wrong.


Posted by: TW. Andrews at December 23, 2004 01:58 AM

What I don't get is why the US spends half its time lecturing EU countries to spend more on defence and to contribute more troops to peacekeeping etc, and the other half lobbying against the policy that would make such expenditure possible and worthwhile. Europe doesn't need 25 large, separate militaries. In fact, I don't think it's particularly controversial to say that would a terrible idea. Yet the US opposes any joint EU force, even the small 'rapid reaction force' that has been the focus so far, unless it's subordinate to NATO, ie the US. Which kind of defeats the purpose.

Posted by: Ginger Yellow at December 23, 2004 02:45 AM

This may come as a shock to some Americans, but there are a great many of us here overseas who are NOT inspired by American goals in the first place. For instance, for me personally, democracy is not desirable in itself but a mere pragmatic means, not suited to all situations (though of course when it isn't suited, things have to be very bad to begin with; but imposing democracy in no sense supplies its preconditions).

Posted by: P.M.Lawrence at December 23, 2004 03:16 AM

Doesn't it occur to anyone here that the Poles' disappointment was inevitable, given the sheer number of them who take the opportunity to come to the US to disappear into the underground economy? Any country that has too many of its citizens doing this gets slapped with visa requirements - it happened to Nigeria in the 1980s - and it's ridiculous to slam Bush for what has been American policy for decades.

Posted by: Abiola Lapite at December 23, 2004 03:31 AM

Ginger Yellow: politically, 25 militaries are exactly what Europe needs. The idea that there's this country called "Europe" which is as united as the US is simply wrong, though it appears to be a popular fantasy amongst the American (and European) lefts. A single military only makes sense with a single foreign policy, and Europe will not have that in the forseeable future on any major issues. Sure it may be able to organise cultural exchanges or the odd trade fair, but it has failed completely on so many issues in the past decade, inevitably, because there is no continental political consciousness and no shared traditions worth a damn. Soldiers have to put their lives on the line for something they believe in, or at least don't violently oppose. Some of the 25 countries you cite have a proud tradition of neutrality (Sweden, Ireland, Austria). Many others (Britain, Germany, Italy, Spain) don't. France has a tradition of doing what's in its best interests. Take Iraq. Britain strongly wanted to send troops, and France and Germany didn't. So the British contingent goes and French and Germans stay at home? And the French and the German governments are on record as saying that defence coordination without Britain is "meaningless". If Britain does coordinate with any country, it's actually with America (and Canada and Australia) - there are no language barriers, and there are shared national interests and common political traditions.

Like any business, you can probably squeeze out some economies of scale if you merge 25 similar institutions. But you may as well argue for a merger of the armies of China, Japan and Kenya or every nation in South America.

Posted by: PJ at December 23, 2004 03:51 AM

"America doesn't like Poles; it only likes Walesa,"

My notion is that America still does not recognize, by name, any country east of the Oder River. Those lands are identified in the US as "Eastern Europe" -- well sometimes "Central Europe".

Those countries are never recognized individually. The press, and I suppose our diplomats, "dis" those lands in the same manner as not recognizing, by name, individual human beings ... by using your good name. IMHO

Posted by: donmaj at December 23, 2004 04:59 AM

Maynard Handley - The EU decisions predate the current administration, and have been rather consistent on the subject of monopolies (which one cannot exactly say about US policy, even intraadministration).

The issue is that Gerald Ford was always correct when he said the Poles are "an independent and autonomous people." Continuing my hobbyhorse comparison of 19th-into-20th century Britian with the 20th-into-21st century U.S., the question is whether they are India or Australia. Right now, they look more like the latter; harnessed to the rest of Europe, they could probably become the former if they wanted to do so.

Posted by: Ken Houghton at December 23, 2004 06:09 AM

Is anybody actually surprised by this comment? You only have to talk to any person in the street of any European country (including the UK) to get the same answers. Unfortunately that current administration, full of its Kaganic Hobbesian ideas, has never realised that hard military power does not translate in soft power of influence. If your only options in dealing with a country is to invade them or not, then you don't have much of a power, especially since you can't invade somebody every other day.
On the other topic, I don't see a single European defense force emerging anytime soon, but I suspect we'll see some steps in that direction earlier then expected. Probably a joint rapid deployment task force that can be used on specific missions.

Posted by: Hannibal at December 23, 2004 07:48 AM

"America failed its exam as a superpower," says Lech Walesa, the former Solidarity trade-union leader who became Poland's first post-Communist president. "They are a military and economic superpower but not morally or politically anymore. This is a tragedy for us."

Lech Walesa said that?? Man, those shrill liberal Bush haters are EVERYWHERE!

Posted by: Billmon at December 23, 2004 07:56 AM

Erosion is necessary to give the material for the building up.

Posted by: cloquet at December 23, 2004 11:07 AM

"The idea that there's this country called "Europe" which is as united as the US is simply wrong, though it appears to be a popular fantasy amongst the American (and European) lefts."


Quite the opposite: the idea that there isn't a unified Europe, literally a "European Union", is the product solely of the imagination of Republicans in the United States.

Go ask Jack Welsh of GE or go ask Microsoft if you don't believe me.

Go ask some Europeans themselves.

Compare and contrast, if you will, the evolution of the United States as a number of individual nations united together into a single country made up of individual states with what we have seen with the European Union thus far.

Finally, the Europeans as a whole took a very different message away from World War II than the Americans did with respect to nations with vast military might.

Posted by: Winter at December 23, 2004 12:04 PM

Judging from newspapers, talk with relatives and comments on various websites, the general attitude of most Poles to war with Iraq has always been "we're not sure why the Americans wish to do this, but they are allies, hence we have an obligation to help". I don't think this has changed much lately.

The whole visa thing - everyone was aware from the get to go that getting rid of visa restrictions was a pipe dream, for obvious political reasons. What they didn't expect is that these restrictions would actually be made more stringent. So there's some truth to this criticism.

Lastly, Lech Walesa...I don't know. The opinion of him in Poland is a bit different then abroad where he is just unquivically viewed as a "moral authority". Which he is. But he's also more. A very inept (ex)president. A fractitious politician who contributed much to the break up of the post-Solidarity coalition which opened up the way for the post-communist recovery of power. A populist demagogue occasionally and a trade unionist with all the good AND the bad that that implies. A guy who can be very vain and unable to handle criticism (his response to one - rather mild - critic was "you can try to argue with me after YOU'VE won a Noble". Everyone respects him. But a lot of people also wish he'd sometimes shut up and not pretend to speak for "the Poles".

Just as a quick aside - all those drawbacks I mention above are not meant just to detract from the man. Rather I think they show that he is a genuine article - he really was a simple electrician thrust by history into the middle of big things which he handled pretty well. But once successful, he brought a lot of his old prejudices with him. He's a regular guy. Not a saint. And not everything he says is to be taken as absolute truth.

Posted by: radek at December 23, 2004 04:03 PM

“Quite the opposite: the idea that there isn't a unified Europe, literally a "European Union", is the product solely of the imagination of Republicans in the United States.”

I’m not sure I understand you. Putting aside who has what fantasies, my impression from the Europeans I know, what I read, and my visits to various European countries-- the EU does not come close to anything like a United States of Europe. Not only are the member states antagonistic between and among themselves, in some places even regions within states are antagonistic. The dislocations caused 1940-1945 Benes decrees still presents a festering issue. As a Polish friend once told me: “We would have killed a million people settling some of the issues you settle peacefully in the US.” The Europeans have come a long way, but nearly as far as the US.

Posted by: A. Zarkov at December 23, 2004 10:14 PM

We just kill dark skinned people to get it out of our systems, with the exception of the Civil War. Aerial bombing was first used in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on enraged black neighborhoods who resented being lynched on a white person's whim. Red states and blue states do have that in common.

Posted by: bigfoot at December 24, 2004 12:52 AM

It isn't absurd for the EU to have a single army. Not like they're planning to attack each other again.

And if someone were to attack one of them, why wouldn't the european army defend as best it could? That's part of what it means to be a union. And that's one reason they'd be cautious about accepting turkey.

Posted by: J Thomas at December 24, 2004 10:07 AM