On the Senate election in Massachusetts

Lots of ink will be spilled and plenty of pixels will be generated in response to yesterday’s special Senate election here in Massachusetts, and I don’t have any deep and novel insights to offer. After all, this is a blog about foreign policy, not domestic politics, and foreign policy appears to have played little or no role in the outcome. 

I also think it is a mistake to read too much into an outcome that could easily have gone the other way for reasons that have nothing to do with the issues and structural forces at work (i.e., had Coakley bothered to campaign in a serious way). The other reason to take a deep breath and relax is the pendulum-like nature of American politics: remember how cool and popular George Bush looked in that flight suit on "Mission Accomplished" day? Remember how hapelss he appeared a couple of years later? One other observation: this election also preserved the surprising and dubious tendency for "liberal" Massachusetts to not elect women to high office. What's up with that?  

That said, I think there are two important lessons that Dems should draw from yesterday’s result, and especially any Dems who happen to live and work at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The first lesson is the politics didn’t stop on Inauguration Day. The Obama administration ran a great campaign, and did an excellent job of framing issues and defining their candidate throughout 2008. Once in office, however, they turned immediately from politics to policy -- and there is a difference -- while the GOP did exactly the reverse. Instead of continuing to frame issues and establish a clear narrative about what they were accomplishing, the Dems have let the GOP attack machine construct a wholly fictitious but effective narrative that clearly helped Brown in Massachusetts. (Again, the fact that Coakley offered no clear story of her own was a huge liability too.)

The second lesson, and one I’ve harped about before, is about the dangers of trying to do too much, and without a clear strategy. In retrospect, Obama and the Dems would have been better off had they attempted a lot less in the past year, and gotten some of it done a lot quicker. Did Obama really need to jet off to Europe to try to get the Olympics for Chicago, or show up at a climate change summit that wasn’t going to yield an agreement? Was it a good idea to raise everyone’s expectations about Middle East peace, when your team hadn't thought through its strategy and when you didn’t have the political courage to do what was necessary to bring it about? Why talk about getting rid of nuclear weapons when everyone knows that isn’t going to happen for decades? And why betray your own base by doubling down in Afghanistan, largely in the hope of deflecting GOP criticism?

Back last spring, when Obama seemed to be launching a new initiative every other day, political theorist and former Clinton advisor William Galston warned that "If he's right, our traditional notion of the limits of the possible -- the idea that Washington can only handle so much at one time -- will be blown to smithereens. If he's wrong, he may be cruising for a bruising on a lot of things." I think it is way too soon to write the Obama presidency off, but he took a few lumps yesterday. The real question is his administration’s learning curve, and whether he starts replacing the people who’ve given him bad advice over the past year.

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Stephen M. Walt

Joe Nye was right

My colleague Joe Nye has made many contributions to scholarship and policy, but his most lasting contribution to the political lexicon is the idea of “soft power.” It’s a concept that is simultaneously seductive and slippery: It captures something that most of us intuitively recognize -- the capacity to influence others without twisting arms, threatening, or compelling -- but it’s also hard to measure or define with a lot of precision. And for a realist like me, “soft power” has also seemed like a bit of an epiphenomenon, because you need a lot of hard power to produce much of the soft variety.

Nonetheless, I’d be remiss in not telling you about a recent article that provides systematic empirical support for the “soft power” concept. Writing in the latest issue of Foreign Policy Analysis, Carol Atkinson of Vanderbilt University presents results on the impact that student exchange programs (a classic instrument of “soft power”) have on the diffusion of liberal values. She finds that there is a strong positive effect, and offers the following provocative conclusion:  

. . . the U.S. government often uses educational exchanges as a negative sanction; prohibiting or limiting attendance by countries with poor human rights records.  However, my findings show that when the United States allows only “well behaved” countries to participate, it restricts its ability to build its own soft power across the international system. Over the long term, engaging potential political elites from authoritarian states, rather than excluding them from programs, provides an opportunity to channel liberal ideas into some of the most democratically austere regions of the world.”

At the risk of appearing to be pleading on behalf of my own line of work, I would just add that the United States is currently home to 17 of the top 20 universities in the world (Cambridge, Oxford, and the University of Tokyo are the other three), according to the annual survey by China’s Jiao Tong University. In addition to being engines of innovation, those universities are also powerful magnets for talented and ambitious people from all over the world. Not only does the United States benefit from their presence, but exposure to American ideals appears to have positive long-term effects on political attitudes among most of them, and perhaps especially for those who come from authoritarian societies. The lesson: If we let our universities decline -- as California is now doing to the once-vaunted UC system -- we are guaranteeing a much less influential future for subsequent generations.

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