public diplomacy

Hard Power, Soft Power, and Paul Wellstone’s Legacy


Thursday marked the 10 year anniversary of the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-MN), along with his wife Sheila, daughter, and several staff members and aircraft crew in a tragic airplane accident in the final week of a tough re-election campaign in 2002.

Wellstone, and his wife, are particularly important figures in my family. My wife, a policy director and lobbyist for the anti-domestic violence organization Futures Without Violence, and a former Chief of Staff for Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), worked closely with both Wellstones – and, since their deaths, their sons – on DV-related issues, especially the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). A couple of weeks before he died, he held my infant son at a fundraiser at a private home in  Washington and recalled the speech my wife had given in his honor a few days earlier about how he was a role model for us as parents. Our daughter, Paulina, born three years later, is named for he and his wife.


So the main point of this blog post is simply to remember a great man, a great Senator, a great American, a great father, and a great example of the importance of fighting for the less fortunate and for what’s right.

As my friend and former student Adam Conner (@adamconner) tweeted Thursday, “We miss you.”

But Paul Wellstone’s final months are not only a true profile in courage – he voted against giving President George W. Bush a blank check to wage war in Iraq despite the knowledge that doing so might cause him to lose to an already forgotten mediocrity like Norm Coleman – they are a reminder of the critical and all-too often ignored relationship between hard and soft power, a subject near and dear to this blog.

It’s such an obvious point at this stage that it would verge on pedantic to elaborate at length, but the Iraq War was not only a disaster from a hard power perspective (anyone who thinks the successful execution of hard power is defined solely as regime change needs to visit a library), it was at least of much of a debacle from a soft-power view.

Wellstone understood this, and made the point while presaging America’s ongoing difficulties resulting from the Iraq invasion in his blistering speech against war authorization on the floor of the Senate in 2002:

“Acting now, going alone, might be a sign of our power. Acting sensibly, and in a measured way, in consort with our allies, with bi-partisan congressional support, would be a sign of our strength. (The invasion could be) a costly mistake for our country.”

One of the standard catchphrases in the literature and histories of public diplomacy is the admonition from the former Director of the U.S. Information Agency, Edward R. Murrow, that PD must be present at the takeoffs, not just the landings. This was one of the more obvious failings of the war in Iraq: it is widely understood now that no serious planning went into what came after the inevitable removal of Saddam Hussein from power. As public opinion polls across the world, but especially in the Arab and Muslim world, show to this day, this mistake continues to haunt the United States.

The legacy of this mistake was evident in the third debate between President Obama and Governor Mitt Romney Monday night. For one thing, one notes that when Republicans talk, George W. Bush is the President-that-dare-not-mention-his-name. Even when discussing Iraq. It’s like Democrats, Jimmy Carter, and the economy.

Gov. Romney seemed to want to endorse, or at least not challenge, President Obama’s ending of the Iraq War, disagreeing instead with what to the American public must seem like arcane topics like the Status of Forces Agreement. Compare this to 2008, when then GOP-standard bearer Sen. John McCain wouldn’t mention Bush, but not only opposed ending the war in Iraq as Obama promised (and did), but strongly implied he wanted to double down on a war with Iran.

Is this progress? I suppose so, but only a little. One thing that was clear Monday night, and frankly for the last four years (five, if we count the 2008 campaign), is that Obama – and much of his administration, especially Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – have a much better sense of the power of soft power. One saw this in the early months of the administration when they tried to create a “whole of government” approach that put PD in the Oval Office, sent Obama out to give public addresses to the Iranians during their New Year and to all Muslims during his stunning Cairo speech, and other under- and above-the-radar initiatives.

At the same time the administration’s understanding of the limits of hard power is mixed. On the one hand, Obama ended the war in Iraq, and for that deserves endless praise. Put simply, John McCain would not have done this, and Obama had to do it over the endless objections of virtually all Republicans (and some Democrats). Similarly, the killing of Osama Bin Laden strikes me as not only just, but a sophisticated realization that by 2011 OBL was a marginal figure and Pakistani and al Qaeda outrage would be muted, short-lived, and not even come close to outweighing the benefits of the strike on myriad levels.

But at the same time two policy decisions complicate his record: the Afghanistan surge and Obama’s embrace of drones to combat terrorism. Full disclosure: I supported the former, and mostly support the latter as it’s been implemented thus far. At the same time, the Afghan surge has been, to me, not even the qualified and exaggerated success of its Iraq model (and I think it has been much exaggerated). I am increasingly coming to the conclusion that it was a noble failure, though I’m willing to be convinced otherwise and invite commenters and guest-bloggers to make the case.

The drone program is more complicated, and I will address it more fully in a later blog post. But for the purposes of this essay, I think it is important to think about what Paul Wellstone would say about it were he still with us. I admit to having few issues with the vast majority of drone attacks that I’m aware of, which have decimated al Qaeda. I am aware of the fact, however, that my opinion is almost certainly colored by my partisanship – I am a strong Obama supporter and thus trust his judgment more than I would most Republicans’ – and my belief is strengthened by the President’s decision to not use a drone to take out bin Laden. To me this suggested an awareness of the limits of hard power because it would have almost certainly resulted in civilian casualties in a mission already fraught with problematic diplomatic implications.

I also have to grant that it’s easier for me to support the drone program as an American, and one who lived through 9/11 in a targeted city, than it would be if I lived in, say, Western Pakistan.

At the same time I can’t ignore the fact that the administration has never really given a particularly good explanation of how their approach isn’t laying the precedent for less responsible successors to use that power in ways that violate moral, legal, and Constitutional guidelines.

More to the point of this post, whether Obama’s use of drones is defensible, legal, or moral, there is little question that it is a public diplomacy nightmare for the United States. That, by the way, doesn’t mean America should abandon the program. Some short-term PD hits are sometimes necessary to ensure national security. But that rational is also too often a crutch, as the entire Iraq War fiasco shows, and as Paul Wellstone predicted.

More disturbing is the easy embrace Mitt Romney gave to the President’s drone program. There is simply no evidence that a Romney administration – or any viable Republican administration for that matter – would care about the soft power, or even hard power (much less legal or moral) – implications of the drone program as is, or in expanded form. One reason I say that is that there isn’t any viable Democratic administration that would be to the left of Obama in this area. Paul Wellstone, after all, could never have been president of the United States.

Indeed, we only need look back on the 2001-2008 period in American history to understand the damage to hard and soft power interests of the United States when U.S. political leaders panic in the face of a crisis and adopt a shoot (and torture) first/ask questions later approach to foreign policy.

Did President Obama or Mitt Romney learn these lessons about the limits of, and connection between, hard and soft power from the last 12 years? Sadly, Bob Schieffer did not ask any questions that would force the candidates to tell us at Monday’s debate. Thursday’s Washington Post, for instance, told us that the Obama Administration claims to care about the precedent they are setting in terms of drone attacks on alleged terrorists, including American citizens abroad. But I would have liked Schieffer to ask the President how he can assure us that those precedents wouldn’t open the door for a future George W. Bush to commit the same, or worse, blunders as before, but this time with legal protection. I would have also liked for him to ask Mitt Romney whether he thinks the Bush Administration’s policy of torture, war, wiretapping, and deportation strengthened or weakened the United States, and what he would do differently as president.

Instead, both candidates were allowed to express unqualified and unchallenged assertions of American hard power without any understanding of its connection to soft power or even America’s short and, especially, long term interests across many domains.

Would this have happened ten years ago? Given the persistent superficiality of journalistic questioning during presidential campaigns and debates (though Raddatz and Crowley were strong exceptions), and the press’s well-documented lap-dog approach to reporting in the two years following 9/11, probably.

But one thing is for sure: Paul Wellstone would have been there on the Senate floor, lacerating his colleagues, the media, and the White House for their short-sightedness and cowardice. Because one thing Wellstone understood better than perhaps any elected official of his generation is that strength doesn’t always come from the exercise of power; more often it comes from the restraint of power. And power itself isn’t demonstrated by sacrificing one’s principles in favor of short term security, it comes from defending those principals even at the risk of security, be that personal, national, or, in his case, electoral.

“We miss you,” indeed.


About Sean Aday

Sean Aday is an associate professor of media and international affairs at George Washington University. He is also the director of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication and director of the Global Communication M.A. Program. His research interests include: media and foreign policy/war, new media and politics, public diplomacy, media effects, and public opinion.


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