Commentary / World

U.S. soft power takes a hit in wake of report

by Marc Champion


The map of 54 countries that colluded with the U.S. in the policy of torture that was so grimly detailed in last week’s Senate report is impressive in more ways than one.

It’s hard to imagine any nation other than the United States persuading so many allies and dependents to take part in a program they must have known would one day blow up in their faces.

In that sense, the Senate report isn’t only a revelation of U.S. intelligence malfeasance — it’s a testimony to U.S. soft power, the diplomatic advantage that it has long wielded over geo-political competitors such as Russia and China. One need only compare Washington’s success at finding international hosts for the CIA’s so-called black sites with Russia’s utter inability to persuade the world — aside from a small handful of countries including Cuba, Venezuela and Syria — to recognize its annexation of Crimea.

But it’s an open question whether soft power can survive being used to such grotesque ends. One of the many reasons for which the torture program was a terrible idea was that once exposed it has deeply damaged the U.S. brand and thus eroded U.S. alliances: Forced rectal feeding just isn’t something that most people associate with the values of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

As many have pointed out, one great benefit of the Senate report is that it has demonstrated the ability of the U.S. political system to subject itself to scrutiny — a test that most democracies, and all autocratic regimes, routinely fail. Taken as a whole, people aren’t naïve. They understand governments do bad things and pursue their own selfish interests abroad. So when a country confesses and tries to rectify the transgression, people are impressed. If the U.S. goes on to prosecute those who approved and used the most extreme torture methods, that would do still more to repair the damage.

But it’s worth remarking that torture is not the only national security policy that poses a threat to U.S. alliances. Friendly governments are still being asked to trust in the good judgment and good offices of the U.S. intelligence agencies, as well as in their effective oversight, even when there’s reason to question whether that trust is being honored.

One such policy is U.S. President Barack Obama’s expansive use of drone strikes against suspected terrorists. The tacit rationale for this policy is that the targeted individuals are conducting activities so heinous that all nations should accept the right of the U.S. to kill these criminals without due process, wherever they may be, based on U.S. intelligence assessments.

As with the arguments in support of torture, however, this justification quickly falls apart. Even Americans don’t believe in it: Look at the controversy that arose when Anwar al-Awlaki, a terrorist suspect who happened to be a U.S. citizen, was targeted and killed in a drone strike. If many Americans thought al-Awaliki deserved due process, on what basis should a Yemeni, German or Pakistani national suspected of the same heinous crimes not deserve it, too?

Not surprisingly, the U.S. has very little backing worldwide for drone strikes. In July’s edition of the Pew Global Attitudes Research Project, there was net support for the policy in only four of 44 countries: Israel, Kenya, Nigeria and the U.S. Majorities opposed the strikes even in staunch U.S. allies such as Japan (82 percent), the United Kingdom (59 percent) and Poland (54 percent).

The smart move for the U.S. to make long ago would have been to propose an international treaty governing the use of drone strikes. So long as it was the only country that had the capability, it could have set the terms of the rules. Soon, most countries will have armed drones and will cite U.S. practice to justify their own strikes extra-territorial, extra-judicial strikes.

A second area where the U.S. is suffering severe damage to its image is from the National Security Agency’s claim to have the collection of Internet metadata from citizens anywhere and everywhere. As with the U.S. renditions policy, America’s closest allies collude in this collection effort and have suffered a public backlash as a result.

Again, the publics of these countries aren’t wholly naive: They know that governments spy on other governments, as well as on criminals and terrorists. Indeed, they mostly support spying on terrorists. But the NSA revelations were disruptive, because they created the perception that the U.S. was using its dominance of the Internet to collect data on ordinary citizens across the globe. Again, according to the Pew global survey, majorities disapprove of the U.S. monitoring foreign citizens in all except five countries (one of which was the U.S.).

Americans should hardly be surprised: More than 60 percent of them find it unacceptable for the U.S. to spy on its own citizens — so why would Germans or Italians feel otherwise?

Indeed, the only assurance foreigners have that data collected by the NSA isn’t being misused is the word of the NSA. Americans at least have the protection of some due process: U.S. agencies need a court order to spy on Americans, but not foreigners.

Last week’s torture report should trigger a wider reassessment of the utility of refusing to set limits on the unique powers and capabilities the U.S. enjoys. If it doesn’t, the U.S. will find itself trying to draw on ever dwindling reserves of soft power.

Based in London, Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs for Bloomberg View.

Coronavirus banner