On the Eve of Obama’s Inauguration: American Soft Power in Asia

Richard C. Bush

Polls suggest that Barack Obama’s support rate in East Asian countries was higher than in the United States (in the 70-to-80 percent range). If foreign countries were given electoral votes in American presidential contests, he would have won an even more comfortable victory on November 4 than was actually the case. In Asia, his election has fostered new respect for American democracy and high expectations for his presidency, for better or for worse. More broadly, there is a sense that the departure of George W. Bush and the arrival of the new administration will revive the soft power of the United States.

The issue of soft power, broadly defined, is certainly not trivial. Richard Armitage, a senior official in from 2001 to 2005, has argued that U.S. standing is at an all-time low because Washington “started exporting our fear and anger after 9/11 rather than hope and optimism.”[1] Author Ron Suskind regards regaining America’s moral authority—“the source of true clout in the world”—as Obama’s “holy grail.”[2] And Carnegie Endowment scholar Ashley Tellis argues that “recovering the legitimacy of U.S. actions” worldwide is one of the three “strategic tasks” facing the next administration. The other two are redefining the U.S. role in the world (on producing order, preserving a durable framework for global trade, and providing international public goods), and renewing the foundations of national strength in the areas of economics, education, science and technology, government finance, and military capabilities.[3] I would argue that there is a fourth task: renewing the American public’s support for playing an active leadership role in world affairs. Yet recovering international legitimacy is certainly essential.

When it comes to East Asia, there may be some disagreement on the size of the U.S. soft-power deficit that the Bush administration created. The gap is certainly not as large as in the Greater Middle East or the Muslim world more broadly (and the latter does encompass some of East Asia). We are probably in better odor in Asia than in Europe. Because Southeast Asia is partly Muslim, America’s standing there is certainly not as strong as in Northeast Asia. And there is the more fundamental question that a global leader cannot act in a fully multilateral way all the time.

Polls that ask respondents whether they have a positive or negative view of the United States go up and down. In the Asian countries studied in the June 2008 poll by the Pew Research Center, the trend was generally positive. Indonesians, Chinese, and South Koreans had more favorable views than a year before; Japanese had less, perhaps a reaction to how the United States was conducting diplomacy to North Korea.[4]

The problem with such polls is the difficulty in ensuring that the results did not reflect the reaction of Asian publics at the time to the specific policies of the Bush administration. Ironically there is a general consensus that the Bush approach was successful, at least towards Northeast Asia. Relations with China broadened and deepened after a patchy start, with significant cooperation on North Korea and Taiwan. South Korea and the United States made significant progress on their bilateral ties in spite of the fact that George W. Bush and Roh Moo-hyun occupied different ideological vantage points. The U.S.-Japan alliance was enhanced in the wake of September 11th. The picture is not uniformly positive. As noted, Japan has grown increasingly unhappy about the direction of U.S. negotiating strategy vis-à-vis North Korea. And the countries of Southeast Asia feel somewhat neglected or the object of a single-minded American focus on the fight against terrorists.

But, soft power is something besides a country gaining approval for specific policies. It is not an international popularity contest or making a positive impression per se. This takes us back to what the concept of soft power is all about.

According to Joseph Nye, the sensei of soft power, it is the ability of a country to wield influence through cooptation rather than command, through attraction and agenda-setting rather than coercion or payments. Thus, a country that has the legitimacy to set the international political agenda by establishing norms and institutions that guide the actions of others for an extended period has exercised power in a way that is efficient and less subject to challenge. The most obvious example is the institution-building by the United States after World War II. Similarly a country can co-opt the cooperation of others because its culture, political ideals, institutions, and broad domestic and external policies are attractive; the country will have to exert less political capital than if it had to use coercion or payments.

There is probably an interactive effect between the intangible resources that make up attractiveness and a country’s ability to set the agenda. Attractiveness without agenda-setting has less impact. Successful agenda-setting can increase attractiveness. Note also that the effort to set the agenda doesn’t guarantee success; it is the gossamer thread of legitimacy that induces others to accept the leader’s act of agenda setting, or the reality of agenda setting. Note also that the opportunity to set the agenda and accumulate soft power does not come around every day; there are magic moments when a global leader gets the chance to do it, if it so chooses.

Moreover, although the full spectrum of a country’s institutions (including corporations and educational and cultural organizations) contribute to the overall level of attractiveness, arguably it is the initiatives of government that set the broad agenda of international life. Look at the efforts of the governments of France and Britain to set the agenda for defining the new global financial architecture (and note the relative absence of the United States).

The most sophisticated effort to measure relative soft power in Asia was undertaken by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the East Asia Institute of South Korea. It defined soft power as a country’s “ability to wield influence by indirect means, whether by persuasion or attraction.”[5] The survey differentiated five different kinds of soft power: political, diplomatic, economic, cultural, and human-capital. For each category, it then derived a set of questions by which to measure respondents’ evaluations of other countries in East Asia and the United States. From those answers, indices for each type of soft power for each country were derived, as well as a combined index with each type weighted equally. Thus, in evaluating the United States, the overall index of Chinese respondents was 0.71 (with 0 as most negative and 1.0 as most positive); of Japanese, 0.69; of South Koreans, 0.72; of Indonesians, 0.76, and of Vietnamese, 0.72. The soft power of the United States ranks first for Chinese, Japanese, and South Korean respondents, and just a shade under first for Indonesians and Vietnamese.[6]

On the surface those results are refreshing for Americans, for it appears that the United States is not doing so badly in East Asia. Yet if one scratches below the surface—both in the results and the concept itself—the situation is more muddled. On the results themselves:

  • The United States gets highest marks across the board for its human-capital and economic soft power. Indeed, the human-capital average is in the mid-80s and skews the results substantially.
  • The poll was taken before the beginning of the financial crisis, so the economic index is probably much higher then than it would be today.
  • The indices for American soft power in the realms of culture, political system, and diplomacy were below that for the combined index.
  • The lowest index was diplomatic soft power, where the United States received a 0.6 score from Chinese respondents, a 0.59 score from South Koreans, and a 0.56 score from Japanese.[7] For the United States to get 6 out of 10 on a scale concerning, by and large, its effectiveness in Asian international politics is not a ringing endorsement. The only consolation is that America’s diplomatic performance rated moderately better than Japan’s, and even better than China’s and South Korea’s—but only somewhat better.

The results suggest that if we exclude the area of human capital, American attractiveness is not that strong. The fact that the level is somewhat better than Japan and South Korea and moderately better than China should not be any comfort. American attractiveness should be significantly better if it is to exert soft-power leadership.

On the question of how well the United States has performed in agenda setting both globally and regionally in recent years, the evaluation of Chinese, Japanese, and South Korean publics about the quality of American diplomatic soft power suggests that performance hasn’t been very strong. And although publics attitudes can and do influence government policies through domestic institutions, the attitudes of Asian officials and elites may be more important than publics on questions of American agenda-setting.

A useful proxy for the views of Asian elites are the meetings that the Asia Foundation sponsored in East, Southeast, and South Asia as part of its quadrennial exercise to develop policy recommendations for each new U.S. administration. The meetings held prior to the 2008 election identified several areas of concern regarding U.S. agenda setting:

  • The danger of a retreat from the strong free-trade orientation of its international economic policy since the end of World War II.
  • The narrow perspective that Washington has taken on regional community building in Asia; the latter “stems from a natural desire in the region to forge ties and create a coherent regional identity.”
  • The opportunity that the United States missed to show leadership on the environment and climate change when it declined to sign the Kyoto Protocol.
  • The inconsistency between American ideals of democracy and human rights and treatment of terrorist suspects and political prisoners in Guantánamo and elsewhere.[8]

To these, which were drafted before the full impact of the global financial crisis was apparent, one could safely add the following global concerns:[9]

  • Failure to exercising responsibility for global macroeconomic stability, for example through encouraging a balance between domestic savings and consumption and fostering discipline in the government budget.
  • Failure to exercising responsibility for the supervision of capital markets, particularly as financial instruments became more and more complicated. For example, the United States was slow to respond to the Asian financial crisis that began in 1997, and the recent financial meltdown arguably will exacerbate the current global recession.
  • The failure to use force only in circumstances where it was absolutely necessary and with careful regard for the consequences.
  • Competent provision of public goods domestically.

None of the above has much to do with Asia directly, but all affect how we are seen in Asia. Turning to Asia per se, we do continue to provide the security public goods on which the region relies for building prosperity. But one may ask how we are doing with respect to:

  • Shaping regional economic integration. The U.S. proposal for an Asia-Pacific Free Trade Agreement happens to be substantively sound, but Asians are ignoring it. And if global liberalization through the Doha Round is deemed a better approach than regional or bilateral free trade areas, then perhaps Washington failed to give enough on agricultural subsidies to secure a global grand bargain.
  • Setting the parameters for resolution of regional conflicts like North Korea, the Taiwan Strait, and Iran. Here the picture is mixed. We have done a pretty good job concerning the Taiwan Strait issue, but some would say we’ve outsourced the North Korea issue to China. On Iran, which involves China and Japan, we get bad marks for not talking to the Iranians.

Now it is a good thing that Asian countries are taking some responsibility for the affairs in their region. The recent meeting of the leaders of China, Japan, and Korea to expand currency-swap arrangements is a case in point. The effort of the governments in Beijing and Taipei to reduce the tensions between them is another. But no Asian country is necessarily defining the broader agenda and shaping other’s preferences to the detriment of the United States. China’s influence is growing, though it is mainly through its economic clout. Robert Sutter has even argued that the “record of demonstrated leadership by Asian governments in regional and world affairs seems much weaker than many pundits and commentators would have us believe.”[10] Yet the fact that no-one else is defining the agenda in Asia doesn’t mean that the United States is doing so. In fact, gradually and imperceptibly, we have retreated from that role on critical issues. Asian publics may admire aspects of our culture and our society, but our political and economic reputation is severely tarnished.

Nor will it be easy or quick to restore the United States to a position where Asian countries will be inclined to accept U.S. proposals on major issues out of respect for what America is and what it has done. When, for example, will Asian economic leaders listen to—much less take—American advice on financial liberalization after the sub-prime mortgage scandal, the credit freeze, and the government takeover of American financial institutions? How long after Abu Ghraib will it be before the Chinese government takes seriously the entreaties of U.S. diplomats that it end torture? Creating influence through attraction is not going to be easy for a while. It will take time to regain the legitimacy to lead through soft power, which is the best way to lead.


The United States therefore needs to consider what should be done to restore its soft power. Whether we want to do so is another question that bears on the question of domestic support. I would argue that our stakes in the stability and prosperity of the global system are still too great for us to not play a role in future agenda-setting, whatever other countries do.

Some of the steps for rebuilding soft power have nothing to do with Asia, since the creation of our soft-power deficit was the result of policies outside the region. As Ashley Tellis says, it has to do with redefining the U.S. role in the world. It has to do with rebuilding our national strength and competitiveness, particularly economic. It has to do with reaffirming our core values in a meaningful way, particular those that were called into question by the conduct of the war in Iraq. It includes having a “decent respect for the opinions of mankind,” that is, accepting that the views of other states will set limits on U.S. action even as we seek to shape those views in an active way. In that regard, two capabilities of the U.S. government are badly in need of renovation. The first is classical diplomacy, instead of the current mode of “stating positions and then restating positions.” The second is public diplomacy, instead of “a pedestrian propaganda mill that is neither effective nor credible.”[11]

With respect to Asia, rebuilding our soft power first of all means showing up. On the one hand, senior officials up to and including the president should make every effort to attend those meetings in Asia that their counterparts attend. Absence is taken as a sign disrespect. On the other hand, the practice of delegating key responsibilities for North Korea negotiations to the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs has meant that that person has had to rely on his subordinates to conduct diplomacy with all other East Asian countries. The new administration should end the practice.

Second, we have to do a lot of listening to Asian governments, elites, and publics. Moreover, we have to be willing to reshape our understanding of East Asian realities and our resulting policies based on what we hear.

Third, we need to participate more actively in the building of Asian regional architecture, showing we take it seriously but that we do not expect Asians to accept our solutions without question. We should certainly not reject or denigrate Asian nations’ image of themselves because that is the driver of nationalism. Specifically, with respect to the East Asian Summit, Washington should strongly consider signing the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, which is a prerequisite for participation in the summit.

Fourth, we need to begin working vigorously and creatively on transnational issues like climate change to demonstrate that we are serious about being a leading part of the solution.

Finally, the principal item on the East Asian agenda is adjusting to the revival of China as a great power. That is a big challenge and a big subject. It is a challenge faced by the United States and its friends and allies in Asia, who will look to Washington for guidance if they have confidence in our good sense. In this regard, we should certainly not assume that China will be our adversary, for if we do it will certainly become our adversary in its reaction to what it perceives as our hostility. By and large, China has acted as a status quo power thus far, and should be encouraged to continue to do so. Yet China’s conclusions regarding American intentions (and Japanese intentions, and so on) will be shaped by interactions on specific issues like Taiwan and North Korea. American, Japanese, and others’ perceptions of China’s intentions will be shaped in the same way. How we conduct those interactions will go a long way to determining what kind of great power China will be.

In East Asia, American soft power is a resource that is depleted but not exhausted. It can be replenished, and our postwar record, the goodwill of friends in the region, and the special character of the 2008 presidential election create a basis on which to restore it. It is a strategic opportunity that should not be missed.

[1] Yoichi Kato, “Interview Richard Armitage: Bush Administration Lacked Accountability,” Asahi Shimbun Online, December 27, 2008.

[2] Ron Suskind, “The U.S. Has Power. What It Needs Is Authority,” Washington Post, November 9, 2008, page B8.

[3] Ashley J. Tellis, “Preserving Hegemony: The Strategic Tasks Facing the United States,” in Strategic Asia 2008-2009: Challenges and Choices, ed. by Ashley J. Tellis, Mercy Kuo, and Andrew Marble (Seattle, Wash.: National Bureau of Asian Research, 2008), pp. 3-37.

[4] “Global Image of U.S. Improves Slightly,” New York Times, June 13, 2008.

[5] Chicago Council on Global Affairs, in partnership with the East Asia Institute, “Soft Power in Asia: Results of a 2008 Multinational Survey of Public Opinion,” p. 2. Later in the report, it offered a slightly different definition from Joseph Nye, “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments”; ibid., p. 3

[6] “Soft Power in Asia,” p. 3.

[7] “Soft Power in Asia,” p. 15. The scores of Indonesians and Vietnamese were significantly higher, but that was so across the board in this category so they are somewhat suspect.

[8] Han Sung-joo, Tommy Koh, C. Raja Mohan, “Asian Views of America: An Overview,” America’s Role in Asia: Asian and American Views, The Asia Foundation, 2008, pp. 1-6, cited passage on p. 3.

[9] Some of these points may appear to convey partisan criticism. That is not my purpose; in many cases, bipartisan policy failures are at play.

[10] Robert Sutter, “Asia’s Lagging Leadership,” PacNet Newsletter #49, Pacific Forum/CSIS, September 15, 2008, http://www.csis.org/media/csis/pubs/pac0849.pdf.

[11] Tellis, “Preserving Hegemony,” p. 24.