Monday, December 14, 2009

20 Years Ago 17: Soft Power

I decided to write a bit more about Poland's Solidarity movement, after I saw this recent obituary in The New York Times. The article describes the contribution of the late James F. Brown to Solidarity's eventual success.

Brown was director of Radio Free Europe during the pivotal years between 1978 and 1984. His radio station provided important information to the Polish dissidents, without being too strongly polemical about their efforts.

It fits the Times' biases to oppose what they would consider to be too strong an anti-Communist message. But in this case, I think they have a legitimate point about the events that led to the Warsaw Pact invasion of Hungary in 1956.

The American foreign policy establishment early in the Eisenhower presidency, led by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, spoke of rolling back Communism (in contrast to the Truman Administration's policy of containment, as articulated by George Kennan). This brief biography of Dulles mentions a degree of caution on Eisenhower's part:

Although both called publicly for the “roll back” of Communism, and the “liberation” of those held captive by its “despotism and godless terrorism,” Eisenhower cautioned his secretary of state to add the phrase “by all peaceful means.”


Still, the argument is made that American rhetoric emboldened Hungarian reformers to resist the party line from Moscow, while the U.S. had no intention (and/or ability?) to back up its words with military force. That allowed the Soviets to militarily crush the Hungarian rebellion. (Similar circumstances obtained in relation to opponents of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship at the end of Gulf War One in 1991.)

25 years after the Hungarian situation, when the world contemplated what the Soviet Union might do in response to the formation of an independent labor union in Poland, the question again arose as to whether the U.S. and others in NATO might react militarily if the Soviets invaded Poland. Ronald Reagan kept Moscow guessing as to his intentions and, while the Polish government imposed martial law and outlawed the Solidarity union, the Soviets stopped short of repeating the tactics they had used in Hungary in 1956 and, under similar circumstances, in Czechoslovakia in 1968.

The obituary indicates that Brown "resigned from the network in 1984 because he felt that the Reagan administration’s insistence on avid anti-Communist programming was counterproductive."

As I see it, the results indicate that Reagan struck the correct balance, by speaking out against what he considered wrong in the world, without creating exaggerated expectations about what the U.S. was, and was not, prepared to do.

And all of this provides interesting background to the "hard power" vs. "soft power" debate that has been going on, regarding our war against Al Qaeda.

Reagan's strategy of intentional ambiguity about his future plans was carried on throughout his presidency, not just in regard to Poland's situation. It stands in contrast to President Obama's setting a specific date for American withdrawal from Afghanistan. I understand Obama's strategy of putting pressure on the Afghan government, and I hope he succeeds. Again, this is one of those unanswerable historical what-ifs, but I strongly doubt that, if Reagan had faced the circumstances that Obama faces in Afghanistan, Reagan would have been as clear about his future intentions as Obama has been.

1 comment:

Terry L. Johnson said...

A very nice summary of the situation is contained in a recent edition of, The Economist:
"On the one hand, he argued that the “safety of the American people” is at stake in this war. On the other, he betrayed his impatience for an exit and fretted confusingly about the cost. (Either Afghanistan is indeed “a war of necessity”, as he has called it, or it isn’t.) Even the time-frames written into his plan seem to have a political rationale as much as an operational one. The surge, faster than expected, will bring a welcome momentum, but also the suspicion that it is intended to show results before the 2010 American mid-term election. And the drawdown is due to start just ahead of the next presidential campaign."

As they conclude: In trying to please everyone, he is pleasing no one.

I apoligize for the long quote. But it is dead-on.