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For most of President Bush's time in the White House, American foreign policy has been characterized by hard-line demands and standoffs with adversaries. But recently there have been a few diplomatic openings, with North Korea on nuclear weapons and with Iran and Syria on Iraq.

Some observers are wondering if the administration is beginning to develop a softer approach to foreign policy, as NPR's national security correspondent Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM: The new movement on the diplomatic front comes at a low point in the Bush administration. Many analysts say the quagmire in Iraq, U.S. saber rattling at Iran, and the controversial practices and policies employed at Guantanamo Bay have reduced the prestige of the U.S. and its leverage abroad. 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 these problems.

Mr. JAMES CARAFANO (Senior Research Fellow, Heritage Foundation): I think that what the administration is doing now in terms of the diplomatic outreach is really out of weakness, not out of strength. And therefore I don't think it's going to be terribly effective. This notion is, well, you know, we tried military force and that didn't work, so now we're going to try diplomacy. Well, that's never been a model that's been terribly successful.

NORTHAM: But others see the uptick in U.S. diplomatic efforts as long overdue, arguing that statecraft, negotiation, 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 persuade others without using force. The U.S. can attract them with the legitimacy of its long-standing policies and values. Nye calls this soft power.

Professor JOSEPH NYE (Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University): The soft power of attraction is a critical component of being a major presence or leader in the world. 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.

NORTHAM: President Bush seemed to acknowledge this dynamic during the presidential campaign in 2000 when asked how he would like to project America's image around the world.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: If we're an arrogant nation, they'll - they'll view us that way, but if we're a humble nation, they'll respect us.

NORTHAM: But President Bush launched the U.S. invasion of Iraq with great confidence and very little international support. Professor Nye says the U.S. has paid a price for that as it tries to advance its foreign policies.

Prof. NYE: The costs of a unilateral, where the big guy will do it our way and others have no choice but to follow, I think we realize that's very expensive, in the sense that people weren't less willing to do what we want.

NORTHAM: Professor Nye is the first to say that soft power by itself is not enough and that hard power, whether it be coercion or military might, is also needed. The key, he says, is to balance the two so one doesn't undercut the other. A 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 its confidence.

Mr. RICHARD ARMITAGE (Former Deputy Secretary of State): You don't need to walk into a room and pronounce yourself as there and in charge. Everyone knows when the United States is in the room. You gain much more by not even speaking about it. It's kind of like there's a confidence that a great athlete shows. You don't have to go out and rerun the hundred in record time every week to remind people you've done it.

NORTHAM: After the Cold War, the U.S. emerged as the lone superpower. Edward Luttwak, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says this superiority can create its own problems.

Mr. EDWARD LUTTWAK (Senior Adviser, Center for Strategic and International Studies): The irony of power is that power evokes resistance. And if you're not careful, it evokes so much resistance that you end up being powerless. So historically, successful nations have always overcome the irony of history by disguising the power, moderating the power by using allies and proxies.

NORTHAM: Francis Fukuyama with the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and author of "America at the Crossroads" says the whole nature of power itself needs to be re-examined in the context of increased terrorism and the insurgency in Iraq.

Professor FRANCIS FUKUYAMA (John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies): The way that you're trained to think about power is just different in the 21st century and it has to do with this world of weak states and transnational actors that just makes the old rules much less applicable.

NORTHAM: 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.

Professor WILLIAM MARTEL (Fletcher School, Tufts University): If you don't get it right, you undermine the sense to which other societies respect and fear you, and it can encourage other states to challenge you.

NORTHAM: But analysts say the U.S. can regain that 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. But within a few years after American troops pulled out of Vietnam, the U.S. had regained its prestige and diplomatic power.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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