Frederic J. Brown-Pool/Getty Images.
Six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear activities brought the United States together with North Korea for face-to-face negotiations. Pictured in Beijing are North Korea's Kim Kye-Gwan (left) and Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing. Seated to Li's right (see enlargement) is United States representative Christopher Hill.
Six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear activities brought the United States together with North Korea for face-to-face negotiations. Pictured in Beijing are North Korea's Kim Kye-Gwan (left) and Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing. Seated to Li's right is United States representative Christopher Hill. Frederic J. Brown-Pool/Getty Images.
Much of the Bush administration's foreign policy has been characterized by hardline demands when engaging other countries in diplomacy, and standoffs with adversaries.
Recently, however, there have been diplomatic openings — with North Korea on nuclear weapons, and with Iran and Syria regarding stability in Iraq.
The shift in policy has raised speculation that the United States recognizes that a softer approach to foreign policy is in order.
The changes come at a low point in the Bush administration's tenure. Many analysts say the quagmire in Iraq, and controversial policies stemming from the so-called "war on terrorism" have reduced the prestige of the U.S. and limited its leverage abroad.
But James Carafano, a senior research fellow with the Heritage Foundation, says shuttle diplomacy, like that now being pursued by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, is unlikely to reverse America's diplomatic problems.
"I think what the administration is doing now in terms of the diplomatic outreach is really out of weakness, not out of strength," Carafano said. "And therefore, I don't think it's going to be terribly effective."
Other observers see the uptick in U.S. diplomatic efforts as long overdue. They argue that statecraft, negotiation and multilateralism have been dismissed by the Bush administration for too long.
Joseph Nye, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, says the U.S. does have the ability to win others over to its policies without using force. America can attract international partners with the legitimacy of its traditional values. Nye calls this "soft power."
"The soft power of attraction is a critical component of being a major presence, or leader, in the world," Nye said. "And engaging with others diplomatically is a crucial part of attracting others. When we don't talk to people, even our enemies, that makes us look arrogant, rather than humble."
President Bush seemed to acknowledge this dynamic during the presidential campaign in 2000.
"If we're an arrogant nation, they'll view us that way," Bush said. "But if we're a humble nation, they'll respect us."
Despite that sentiment, President Bush launched the U.S. invasion of Iraq with very little international support. Professor Nye says the U.S. has paid a price for that as it tries to advance its foreign policies.
"The costs of a unilateral, we're the big guy, we'll do it our way [policy] ... is very expensive," Nye said. "People are less willing to do what we want.
Professor Nye is the first to say that soft power by itself is not enough, and that hard power — coercion or military might — is also needed. The key, he says, is to balance the two so that one doesn't undercut the other.
The new term for this is "smart power." The Center for Strategic and International Studies has just launched a bipartisan study of this concept.
Nye is co-chair of the study, along with Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state during President Bush's first term. Armitage says the ability to balance soft and hard power is a sign of a country's maturity and confidence.
"You don't need to walk into a room and pronounce yourself ... in charge," Armitage said. "Everyone knows when the United States is in the room. You gain much more by not even speaking about it."
After the Cold War, the U.S. emerged as the lone superpower. Edwin Luttwak, a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says this military superiority can create its own problems.
"The irony of power is that power evokes resistance," Luttwak said. "And if you're not careful, it evokes so much resistance that you end up being powerless."
Francis Fukuyama of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, says the whole nature of power itself needs to be re-examined in the context of increased terrorism, and the insurgency in Iraq.
"The way you're trained to think about power is just different in the 21st century," Fukuyama said. "And it has to do with this world of weak states and trans-national actors that just makes the old rules much less applicable."
But one rule hasn't changed. If you're going to use hard — or military — power, you better win, says William Martel, an associate professor of international security studies at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.
"If you don't get it right, you undermine the sense to which other societies respect and fear you ... [encouraging] other states to challenge you," Martel said.
But analysts say the U.S. can regain the respect and leverage that it seems to have lost in recent years.
The U.S. was pilloried for the policies it pursued during the Vietnam War. Yet, within a few years after American troops pulled out of Vietnam, the U.S. had regained its prestige and diplomatic power.