- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 2, 2008

A response to The Washington Times’ Solutions feature, which appears in the Sunday tabloid section. This week’s topic: What can the United States do to improve its standing abroad?

Americans go to the polls on Nov. 4 to elect a president who can not only effectively manage hot wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a global financial crisis, but also deep weaknesses in the U.S. health care and education systems and a transformational shift in how we address our energy needs.

It will require vision, will, resources and a global approach. The challenge is immense, yet America’s political capital is depleted. The next American president will lead a nation whose smart power - our powers of attraction - has been deeply diluted. His first order of business must be to reverse this trend.

America’s global image and influence has declined steadily for a decade and a half, most precipitously over the past eight years during the Bush administration. Poll after poll around the world has shown that Washington has lost standing among partners and competitors alike.

How did we get here? The United States was once a beacon of democracy, the world’s education destination, a model for the rule of law and an economic miracle. Today, we are associated as much with Guantanamo and Katrina as we are with Bretton Woods and the Fulbright Program. We have discredited our own values at the same time that we have preached them to others. Many have decried this dangerous trend, but the current financial crisis has set in particularly stark relief the global impact that weak American leadership can have - and the challenges that the next president will inherit.

By all accounts, the United States is experiencing the worst economic downturn since 2001, with some experts drawing comparisons to 1929. It has been a year of record-high oil prices, declining housing prices, lost jobs and, now, a global financial crisis triggered by a fast-and-loose U.S. banking system.

In fact, 2008 will long be remembered by the series of shocking superlatives that have defined it: the largest decline in housing prices since the Great Depression; the highest oil-price spike in history; the weakest U.S. dollar in the era of floating currencies; the highest U.S. unemployment rate in five years; the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history; the biggest one-day drop in the U.S. stock market in more than 20 years; and the passage of the largest bailout package of all time by Congress.

The current financial crisis, and lack of confidence in U.S. leadership to deal with it effectively, seems the appropriate icing on the cake of declining global public opinion of Washington.

According to a recent poll by Harvard University’s Center for Public Leadership, 80 percent of Americans believe there is a “leadership crisis” in the United States. This view is shared by citizens around the globe: a June 2008 poll by WorldPublicOpinion.org of citizens in 20 countries comprising 60 percent of the world’s population confirmed that George W. Bush is the second least regarded leader in the world, followed only by then-Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

Brand America has lost its luster. But it is not too late to polish our wares and present them anew to the American people and the global community.

This will take what is called smart power. Smart power is the deft integration of hard power - military and economic might - and soft power - the ability to influence through attraction and inspiration. Smart power has been well defined by Harvard’s Joseph Nye and former Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who co-chaired a commission on the issue at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) last year.

The Nye-Armitage Commission concluded that addressing the main foreign and economic policy challenges facing America today requires the full spectrum of smart power tools and issues, from public diplomacy and educational exchanges to economic development, health and energy security to counterterrorism and nuclear nonproliferation.

America’s 21st-century objectives cannot be met solely with either a carrot or a stick; effective global engagement demands a comprehensive and integrated strategy.

In the midst of an economic downturn, the loss of American smart power can perhaps best be understood as a loss of U.S. competitiveness. Smart power is, at its core, fundamentally a form of competitiveness. Are our workers productive? Are our institutions effective? Are our ideas innovative? Are our values attractive? And do our people, institutions, ideas and values have a comparative advantage over those offered by other leading powers? In recent years, the answer to this last question has been “no.” The next president of the United States will need to get back to “yes,” if he is to achieve any of his other goals.

Carola McGiffert is vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. She is also the director of the CSIS Smart Power Initiative.

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