Soft Power and International Public Opinion: U.S Presidents and the Treatment of Prisoners of War


Soft power, frequently misunderstood and underappreciated in the realm of public policy, is the capability of influencing another state without the use of coercion. One important source of soft power flows from a nation’s general reputation in the world. Since media sources provide a decent representation of public opinion, international media sources can shed light on individual nations’ reputations. The domestic policies of a nation also carry heavy significance in the formulation of its image abroad. These policies, in helping or hindering their nation’s reputation, bolster or weaken that nation’s soft power. A better understanding of soft power and international public opinion can help leaders understand the international effects of their policies.

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    The traditional idea of power, often referred to as hard power, focuses on the use of military or economic coercion to obtain a particular outcome. Soft power differs from hard power in that the coercion normally associated with power becomes unnecessary. With soft power or “co-optive” power, one country relies on its ability to convince another country to want the same things (Nye, 1990, p. 168).

    Nye poetically describes this in Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, writing, “A country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries – admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness – want to follow it” (2005, p. 5). In the context of foreign policy, an abundance of soft power can sway other countries to “emulate” the United States and particularly the policies and goals of the United States, eliminating some of the frustrations of international politics (Nye, 2004, p. 17).

    Unlike hard power, originating from economic and military power, soft power has a variety of unorthodox sources. Soft power is generally achieved through the attraction of culture, political values, and policies. First, culture vastly enhances the soft power of a nation. The standard of living, education, arts, sciences, and traditions of a nation attract or repulse people from across the globe. For example, scholars from around the world envy those who are awarded the opportunity to study in the United States (Zakaria, 2008).

    Second, soft power arises out of a nation’s political values. A nation’s ethics can either bolster or damage a country’s reputation. Although the values do not affect them personally, foreign peoples do hold strong opinions about the values of the United States and, consequently, evaluate it based on those values. The United States’ beliefs in self-determination, democracy, and human rights bring positive attention to the country (Nye, 2005). Nye cites capital punishment and a lack of gun control as policies that are harmful to our soft power (2005).

    Last, a nation’s policies (foreign and domestic) must match the values that the country claims to possess and promote. A country that fails to practice what it preaches will not only fail to gain soft power, but it will most likely lose soft power. Activities that are perceived as illegitimate or hypocritical can drain soft power reserves while cooperation, widely productive initiatives, and shared values can add to a country’s soft power (Nye, 2005; 2008).

    Soft power can be concerning for political decision makers because it can affect the success of foreign policies. Political leaders do not answer directly to foreign audiences, but these audiences can make or break the success of foreign policy initiatives. Specifically, if an audience thinks poorly of the United States, that audience is unlikely to favor decisions of its own political leaders that support or assist U.S. objectives (Nye, 2005; 2008).

    Public Opinion and the Media

    If soft power theories are to be transformed into strategic initiatives, decision makers must consider public opinion abroad to evaluate the soft power of their nation. However, policy makers do not weigh foreign public opinion and domestic public opinion in the same way. Research has indicated that policy makers undoubtedly avoid policy choices that are highly unpopular domestically (Mintz, 2004) because their political future depends on it (Below, 2008). Contrary to domestic public opinion, international public opinion does not attract nearly as much attention from policy makers because the opinions of foreign audiences do not directly impact political survival. A politician is not expected to survey the entire world’s approval or disapproval of a decision nor are they held accountable to foreign audiences. As will be discussed later, international public opinion does play an important role (indirectly) in policy formulation.

    There are several ways to evaluate public opinion, and various researchers with various goals prefer different methods. Polling is a popular means of collecting public opinion data, and several international public opinion polls are in existence (Holsti, 2008). Many researchers assert that polling gives the most accurate information. While this may be true, public opinion polls can be uninformative or shallow if the questions asked do not adequately represent the researcher’s questions about public opinion (Holsti, 2008). Furthermore, most researchers probably do not have the funding to survey a representative portion of the world’s population for their particular public opinion issue.

    Although the connection between public opinion, government actions, and the media is somewhat complicated, media sources can give insight into public opinion. Most research regarding the relationship between public opinion and the media focus on the media’s influence on public opinion (Lippman, 1991; McCombs, 2004; Erikson & Tedin, 2006), but there is an underlying inverse relationship between these two variables. Certainly, news media does influence public opinion because most of the public relies on this medium of exposure, given that direct exposure to political events is limited for most people (Entman, 2004). Inversely, however, media outlets strongly represent public opinions to political leaders (Lippman, 1991; Entman, 2004). This is particularly pertinent in the field of political science when considering how political elites accurately gauge public opinion of their policies. They must do so by interpreting the media. Interestingly, political elites seek to shape public opinion through media outlets, while at the same time using the media to gauge public opinion (Entman, 2004).

    Most studies focusing on these phenomena are in the realm of domestic politics and domestic public opinions. However, if the soft power theory implies the idea of policy makers concerning themselves with foreign public opinion, as well as domestic, the relationships between these phenomena can be transferred to international politics. Simply put, if decision makers consider international public opinion, theoretically, they do so in the same way (merely to a lesser degree) as domestic public opinion. Therefore, research on domestic public opinion seems to suggest that international media can give decision makers certain insights into the public opinions of the international community.

    International public opinion can affect policy makers, but the effect is one step removed. Soft power resides between a nation’s international public opinion and its effects of policy decisions. Nye’s (1990, 2004, 2005, 2008) soft power is the adhesive that brings international public opinion to the attention of policy makers. Because of this, decision makers should be cognizant of the consequences of their policies on their nation’s international reputation.

    Research on the topic reveals the possibility of soft power being gained or lost as an indirect result of the domestic policies of a nation. In addition to a nation’s domestic policies, its actions abroad negatively or positively affect its soft power reserves. This pendulum swing of soft power can be demonstrated through the actions of newly elected President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush. These two presidents initiated starkly different policies toward prisoners of war, particularly terror suspects.

    The first case study will consider former President George W. Bush’s decision to maintain the operation and activities in Guantanamo Bay. The second case study will examine the prison abuse scandal in the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The third case study will explore President Barack Obama’s decision in 2009 to close the U.S.-operated Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba. These three decisions regarding the treatment of prisoners of war have significant relationships to the soft power of the United States. To effectively gauge this relationship, international news media writings will be analyzed for apparent support for, or opposition to, the decisions.

    Case Study: George W. Bush’s Guantanamo Bay Policy

    On September 11, 2001, a terrorist organization called Al Qaeda carried out an orchestrated effort to destroy major economic, military, and political institutions in the United States. The organization hijacked passenger jetliners and flew two into the World Trade Center in New York City and one into the Pentagon. Before it reached its assumed target in Washington D.C., a fourth plane crashed in Pennsylvania as a result of a struggle between passengers and hijackers. The attacks resulted in a death toll greater than that of Pearl Harbor, totaling just below 3,000 fatalities (National Commission on Terrorist Attacks, 2004).

    Presiding over the United States at that time, George W. Bush responded both domestically and internationally to the attacks. The U.S. armed forces declared war on Al Qaeda for coordinating the attacks and the Afghani government, dominated by the Taliban, for harboring their members and training facilities. In response to the newly and widely recognized threat of terrorism to the United States, the Bush administration altered its procedures for gathering intelligence from prisoners of war. These alterations were alluded to in an interview with former Vice President Dick Cheney, when he said, “We also have to work, through, sort of the dark side, if you will. We’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies” (Transcript, 2001, p. 58).

    During the next seven years, a series of memos and reports revealed the use of enhanced interrogation techniques by CIA interrogators. Several reports exchanged between the U.S. Attorney General’s office and the White House attempted to define torture and decipher whether or not enhanced interrogation techniques fell under the classification of torture.

    One memo written by the Deputy Assistant Attorney General specifically states, “We conclude that those treaties [the Geneva Conventions] do not protect members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban militia” (Bybee, 2002, p. 1). President Bush confirmed the Deputy Assistant’s conclusion, deciding not to apply the Geneva Convention to members of Al Qaeda because it was not a state actor nor did it sign the Geneva Convention (Bush, 2002). According to the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Council (OLC), enhanced interrogation techniques, when combined or used individually, were not considered illegal under the federal anti-torture statute (Yoo, 2002).

    President Bush also expanded the power of the executive branch in the detention and prosecution of terror suspects. The USA PATRIOT Act of 2001 gave the Attorney General the power to retain a terror suspect for an indefinite period of time without charges if he/she is demonstrated to be a threat to the safety of U.S. citizens. The Military Commissions Act of 2006 (Senate Bill 3930) disallowed a terror suspect, labeled an enemy combatant, the right to challenge the legality of his/her detention, commonly known as habeas corpus. This act also established U.S. military tribunals in which enemy combatants of other nations were to be tried for their terrorist activities against the United States.

    Theoretical Impact on Soft Power

    I expect two major issues in former President George W. Bush’s policy on the treatment of prisoners of war to affect the United States’ soft power. First, I predict a negative reaction from the international community to the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay. I predict that enhanced interrogation techniques damaged the United States’ reputation abroad and undercut its soft power. The use of these techniques exposes the United States to accusations of hypocrisy. If the international community considered enhanced interrogation techniques to constitute torture, U.S. condemnations of torture abroad should be seen as hollow and hypocritical. Furthermore, this perception of U.S. hypocrisy should weaken America’s ability to promote human rights and proper treatment of prisoners.

    I also predict that the detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay will be seen as unlawful by the international community. This perspective will be strengthened by the deprivation of due process requirements in the U.S. Constitution. Simply put, America’s refusal to apply due process provisions of the U.S. Constitution to detainees of Guantanamo Bay will stain its image abroad. The United States has granted to itself the right to prosecute citizens of other nations in U.S. military courts for acts of terrorism. The international community will see this as a staunch act of unilateralism in a multilateral war on terrorism.

    Observed Impact on U.S. Soft Power

    In regards to the first expectation, the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, considered torture by many in the international community, did spark media attention abroad. An article coming from a rural British community claimed “the champions of freedom and democracy have lost the moral ground by using methods of mental torture” (Riasat, 2002, p. 3). The Independent, a media source based in England reported that, “the allies hold thousands of Muslims in illegal incarceration; they are tortured and killed too” (Alibhai-Brown, 2004, p. 7). Phillips emphasized the immorality of “physically and psychologically stressful methods” of interrogation despite their lack of physical contact (2004, p. 26). One Australian paper discussed the idea of a torture warrant, a legal permit to carry out torture for the purpose of extracting vital information, but, he rejected the idea, calling it a contradiction to American values (“The Torture Time Bomb,” 2005).

    Media coverage of several obscure cases and issues of torture brought negative attention to the United States as well. For example, in 2005, footage of a U.S. prison guard burning the Quran in front of a detainee infuriated the Arab world. In protest, Iran criticized the prison and called the act “abhorrent” (Iran News Political Desk, 2005). In 2004 and 2005, the United States was accused of prisoner “rendering,” or the act of transferring a prisoner to another country to be tortured. One prisoner claimed to have been extradited to Egypt for torture and then sent back to the United States for further interrogation (Fisher, 2005). In 2004, a State Department Human Rights Report accused Myanmar of human rights violations. The report backfired on the State Department as Myanmar released its own report of U.S. human rights violations in Guantanamo Bay (“U.S. Has Lost Its Moral Authority,” 2004). Even a Chinese human rights group denounced the United States, referring to its promotion of human rights as extremely “hypocritical” (“U.S. Human Rights Report,” 2004).

    International journalism, however, was not the only source of condemnation toward Guantanamo Bay during the Bush administration. In 2005, the U.N. requested that international and American non-governmental organizations release any and all evidence of torture and prisoner abuse in Guantanamo Bay (Deen, 2005). Not long before this request, a South Asian news source claimed the U.N. needed to inspect the prison and its detainees, unopposed by the United States (“U.S. Should Not Interfere,” 2005).

    As mentioned above, the most pressing issue regarding Bush’s policy on Guantanamo Bay seemed to be the holding of prisoners without filing charges. This aspect of Bush’s policy attracted major criticisms regarding the United States’ commitment to international institutions, human rights, and the authenticity of its moral values. Hypocrisy seemed to be a popular theme in reference to the United States’ detention of terror suspects. Groves, of the Birmingham Post in Great Britain wrote, “the cases of… prisoners in Guantanamo Bay will be highlighted as a flagrant breach of the most basic human rights” (2003, p. 6). In criticizing America’s refusal to charge some detainees in Guantanamo, a writer for the London Times wrote, “Guantanamo makes it awkward for the U.S. to promote democracy and respect for law without getting charges of hypocrisy” (Maddox, 2005, p. 4).

    An intense article written by a journalist in Beirut reads, “Its actions are ensuring that the detainees are kept in their legal limbo, denied a right that serves as a basic safeguard against arbitrary detention, ‘disappearance’ and torture, or other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment” (Daily Star Staff, 2005, p. 1). An article published in the Agence France-Presse explained the hypocrisy well; “In holding prisoners in dubious legal circumstances… and in establishing closed military tribunals, the U.S. calls these principles [commitment to democracy and liberty] into question” (“Bush Seeks to Calm Arab Anger,” 2004, p. 7).

    Several media sources accused the United States of overstepping international norms and laws. Amnesty International accused the United States of being “more concerned with getting around international laws which prohibit torture than with safeguarding human rights” (“U.S. ‘war on terror,’” 2004, p. 1). Even an article in Canada, the United States’ neighbor to the North, refers to the U.S. as a “rogue nation” (Sundar, 2002).

    Case Study: Abu Ghraib Prison Scandal and Administration Response

    The United States invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003 to oust the government of Saddam Hussein due to speculations that his government had significant ties to Al Qaeda. It was also suspected that Iraq possessed a program for developing weapons of mass destruction. The idea of mixing these two suppositions frightened many government officials in Washington D.C., triggering their willingness to commit the nation to war. The United States ousted Hussein’s regime and began the occupation and rebuilding of the war-torn country. Throughout this occupation, the United States faced a civilian insurgency and, subsequently, was forced to detain thousands of alleged insurgents. These suspects were detained in several prisons throughout the country, including Abu Ghraib prison in central Iraq.

    Abu Ghraib prison became a source of controversy in 2004 when media sources in the United States published material illustrating and describing torture and abuse of Iraqi prisoners. These reports depicted photos of prisoners being beaten, ridden, sodomized, stripped, sexually harassed, and forced to carry out degrading actions. Prior to the media reports, a formal investigation was carried out by U.S. military officials, and its results were reported publically. The Taguba Report (Taguba, 2004), the initial investigation into the scandal, implicated thirteen soldiers in the abuse and harassment of detainees at Abu Ghraib. The investigation confirmed abuse allegations brought to the attention of the Army by a soldier who had witnessed the treatment. In addition to those mentioned in the 60 Minutes televised story (“Abuse of Iraqi POWs,” 2004), the abuses included pouring cold water and phosphoric acid on detainees, simulated electric torture, and one instance of rape (Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2004). Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld specifically distinguished between the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison and the term, “torture” (2004). However, a second investigation released a few months later in 2004, commonly known as the Fay Report (Fay, 2004), concluded that a number of the abuses in Abu Ghraib should be considered torture.

    Surely the scandal tarnished the image of the United States abroad, but regarding the theory of soft power, the reaction of the U.S. government is of more concern to us. Overall, the response seems to be apologetic and an acknowledgement of the inconsistency of those events with American ideals. The Secretary of Defense took full responsibility for the event saying, “I am accountable for them…. It was un-American. And it was inconsistent with the values of our nation” (Garamone, 2004, p. 6). In an interview with a Middle Eastern television station, President Bush spoke out against the abuses saying, “the practices that took place in that prison are abhorrent, and they don’t represent America… there will be a full investigation and justice will be delivered” (Bush, 2004, p. 789). The Bush administration certainly viewed the incident negatively and assured the world that the United States did not condone those activities.

    Theoretical Impact on Soft Power

    The scandal and the reaction of the United States should impact the soft power of the United States in different ways. First, the scandal is an obvious violation of humanity and protocol. I certainly expect that the choices made by the implicated soldiers will be viewed by the international community as egregious and distasteful. However, the theory of soft power stipulates that those actions have a profound effect on America’s soft power as a whole. In accordance with the theory, I also expect the actions of those particular soldiers to inflict a negative perception of the entire United States.

    Secondly, regardless of how connected upper level officials were to the scandal, they are the face of the U.S., and they often must answer for the mistakes of those below them. Like the soldiers’ decisions, U.S. officials’ reactions have profound effects on the entire nation’s reputation. The international community could possibly see the condemnation of the prison scandal as a hypocritical turn from the Bush administration’s Guantanamo Bay policy. On the whole, however, I predict the international community will see the incident as a just condemnation of inhumane acts. I predict the U.S. government’s response will recover some of that soft power lost from the scandal.

    Observed Impact on U.S. Soft Power

    As predicted, overwhelming opposition seems to prevail within the international community as indicated by international media. A variety of state leaders and journalists denounced the abuse. According to one article, “in Egypt, the government-owned press mocked the gap between the wartime U.S. rhetoric of liberating Iraq and the reality of the abuse in an Iraqi jail” (“U.S. Treatment of Iraqi Prisoners,” 2004, p. 4). In Italy, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi referred to the images as terrible, and France called them “unacceptable and in violation of the international conventions” (“U.S. Treatment of Iraqi Prisoners,” 2004, p. 7). Russia, Bangladesh, and Pakistan were also among those countries condemning the treatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib (“U.S. Treatment of Iraqi Prisoners,” 2004). One report specifically cites an Iraqi citizen saying, “the Americans should stop saying they represent freedom and democracy… they are liars and criminals, and their actions here have filled us with hate” (Watson & Loyd, 2004, p. 12). Demonstrations in Turkey broke out in front of the U.S. consulate to protest the abuse of detainees in Abu Ghraib prison (“Turkish Demonstrators in Front of  U.S. Consulate,” 2004).

    The Jerusalem Post reported that the reports of abuse caused “widespread outrage in the Arab world and damaged American credibility throughout the region” (Sampson, 2004, p. 7). A different article from the same newspaper recognizes the hypocrisy behind the entire incident, writing, “the latest torture evidence … makes the argument that the U.S. wants to instill democracy and human rights in the Arab region rather weak” (Kuttab, 2004, p. 3). Aktan (2004) of the Turkish Daily News questioned the sincerity of U.S. values asking, “How can members of a society that claims it has high moral values perpetrate such acts” (p. 7)?

    Several media sources recognized the ramifications of the abuse of U.S. soft power. Glover, of the Daily Mail in London, noted, “The self-proclaimed liberators of Iraq have flouted the values of the civilized world” (2004, p. 1). He mentioned, “For all these [Iraqis], these photographs will offer conclusive proof that America is indeed the ‘Great Satan’ of Al Qaeda propaganda” (2004, p. 21). He also slammed the Bush administration for delivering a belated and unsatisfactory response after the exposure of the scandal. One article from the Jerusalem Post questioned if the United States could continue its quest to bring freedom to Iraq when a number of soldiers “besmirch the honor of their uniforms” (“Stop Navel Gazing,” 2004, p. 13). Demirelli (2004) of theTurkish Daily News reminded readers that the beheading of U.S. contractor, Nick Berg, was specifically motivated by the abuse scandals in Abu Ghraib.

    International media proved my second expectation to be inaccurate. The Bush administration’s clean-up efforts to regain legitimacy in the international community were less successful than projected, but not everyone shared the same feelings. Some sources did praise the Bush administration’s response. For example, the Daily Telegraph from London reported, Bush was right… to express his ‘deep disgust’ over the brutal treatment of Iraqi prisoners” (“This Is No Time,” 2004, p. 5). An Israeli newspaper columnist ironically referred to Bush’s apology as torturous, writing, “Abu Ghraib is terrible because it’s an offense to American values, not Arab ones. It’s ridiculous to insist that America has to apologize to Arab ‘thugocracies’ in which what’s merely simulated in those photographs is done for real every day of the week” (Steyn, 2004, p. 18).

    Many journalists questioned the training of the soldiers, their commanders, and the policies of the United States. Aaronovitch claimed, “If you take human rights seriously, then you will train your prison staff properly… and you’ll take action at the first sign of trouble. This didn’t happen in Iraq” (2004, p. 9). Other articles, like that of Turnbull (2004), claimed the actions were ordered and approved by interrogators in Iraq. He claimed those who carried out the abuse were instructed to “soften up” the detainees for interrogation. Another article questioned the fact that Pentagon officials knew in mid-April that pictures would be aired on 60 Minutes, but seemed shocked and appalled by the photos after they were aired (“Washington Abuzz,” 2004).

    Langton and Doughtery of The Evening Standard in London scoffed at the fact that Bush refrained from using the word “sorry” in his apologetic interviews on Arab television following the exposure of the scandal (2004). Two days later, Bush did eventually use the word in regards to the scandal while meeting with another Middle-Eastern leader (Goldenberg, 2004). Unfortunately, for some, an apology did not suffice. A columnist for The Independent called for more to be done: the dismissal of Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld; the closure of Abu Ghraib prison; and a review of the entire U.S. detention policy (“Abuse, Apologies,” 2004). The French Press Agency report sums up the Bush team’s clean-up efforts well: “Despite public apologies and expressions of remorse, reactions of dismay, disgust and anger continued to pour forth” (“Bush Seeks to Calm Arab Anger,” 2004, p. 25).

    Many journalists attacked the Bush administration for weak and insincere responses while other journalists condemned ineffective U.S. policies and training. However, some journalists around the world had mixed feelings about the administration’s reaction. All in all, a conclusive international opinion of the Bush administration’s reaction cannot be determined through this means of investigation. No matter how authentic the response was, it did not successfully regain lost soft power. The initial shock of the photographs and the blow to America’s reputation as a leader in human rights could not be salvaged by the public responses of upper-level officials.

    Case Study: Barack Obama’s Guantanamo Bay Policy

    Newly elected President Barack Obama signed three executive orders on January 22, 2009 mandating the closing of the U.S. operated Guantanamo Bay prison and addressing the issues surrounding the treatments and futures of detainees being held there. The first executive order closed the Guantanamo Bay prison and provided instructions for the disposition of detainees in the prison. The merits of each individual’s detention should, first, be evaluated based on the lawfulness of the apprehension and the necessity for continued detention. Next, the government should evaluate the possibility of these detainees to be transferred to other countries in which they have committed crimes. If the transfer is deemed inappropriate or impossible, the individual should be reviewed for their eligibility to be tried in the United States. If they cannot be tried in the United States, a special inquiry should be opened to determine how to legally proceed with their cases (Obama, 2009c).

    The second order addressed the issue of the treatment and interrogations of detainees in Guantanamo Bay prison. It revoked George W. Bush’s determination (Bush, 2007) that the CIA’s interrogation techniques were in accordance with the Geneva Conventions (Geneva Convention, 1949). Obama’s order established the Army Field Manual 2-22.3 as the proper text from which to gather instruction on responsible interrogation of suspects. This order also forbade the CIA from operating any detention facilities in the present or future (Obama, 2009a). The third order established a special task charged with evaluating the effectiveness of the Army Field Manual 2-22.3 in providing appropriate means of gathering intelligence (Obama, 2009d). If the Army Field Manual did not suffice, the task force would need to find or fashion a new text.

    Theoretical Impact on Soft Power

    These actions carry a great significance in the realm of soft power. The contents of Obama’s executive orders represent a chance for the United States to display values, ideals, honesty, and, more importantly, legitimacy, rather than hypocrisy, in its policies. There are two main expectations that can be drawn theoretically from the orders.

    First, the orders should bring more legitimacy and congruency to the values and policies of the United States. The U.S. Constitution grants the right of its own citizens to be free from “cruel and unusual punishments” (U.S. Constitution, amend. 8), which includes the use of torture. Similarly, the United States has signed the Geneva Convention prohibiting the use of torture on prisoners of war (Geneva Convention, 1949). However, enhanced interrogation techniques, particularly those used in Guantanamo Bay, are often seen by the international community and many in the United States as a form of torture.

    Secondly, the orders should improve America’s image of being cooperative in the international community. Obama’s proposed transference of detainees to other countries can be perceived as a commitment to multilateral efforts and international cooperation. The executive order sought to transfer some detainees to safe third countries before considering them for trial. Third countries are defined as countries other than the United States and the country from which the individual was detained. The sequence of these considerations is very important to the image portrayed by this policy. By considering the detainees’ infractions in other countries before considering their eligibility to be prosecuted in the U.S., President Obama demonstrated an accommodative attitude toward other nations. This reflects the highly popular global ideal of multilateral collaboration, providing the potential to reinforce American soft power.

    Observed Impact on U.S. Soft Power

    First, have the executive orders increased the international community’s perception of congruency between American values and policies?  Obama certainly seems to believe these actions have a profound effect on America’s moral principles. In a speech delivered shortly before signing the executive orders, Obama proclaims, “once again, America’s moral example must be the bedrock and the beacon of our global leadership” (Obama, 2009b, p. 7). President Obama, himself, seems to believe the orders will reinforce the United States’ status as a global leader founded on sound moral principles.

    Leaders around the world praised Obama’s decision and agreed on the symbolic importance of the prison’s closure. A spokesperson for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon commended Obama on the decision and referred to the closure of Guantanamo Bay as an “[assurance] of respect for fundamental rights” (“Ban Welcomes Closure,” 2009, p. 2). President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan called the closure “a good step in getting international support for the war against terrorism” (“Karzai Welcomes Guantanamo Closure,” 2009, p. 2). A foreign minister from Pakistan said it “adds the much needed moral dimension in dealing with terrorism” (“Pakistan Welcomes Obama’s Order,” 2009, p. 2). Overall, leaders around the world seemed to acknowledge the executive orders as a restoration of U.S. values and legitimacy.

    In addition, news from around the world revealed the same effect. In Turkey, a newspaper distinguished Obama as capable of restoring “moral authenticity and credibility” through actions like these (“A Bird’s Eye View,” 2009). A Gulf News report claimed Obama has removed “a stain that has blemished America’s image and challenged its values,” an obvious step toward a reunion of American values and policies (“Where Obama Can Make a Difference,” 2009, p. 7). A story published in theBusiness Recorder in Pakistan said, “His bold decision would indeed help restore America’s image and improve its rating as a free society” (“Freedom at Last,” 2009, p. 8). Coincidently, this article specifically mentioned the document from which many of the accusations of American hypocrisy originate, the U.S. Constitution. “By ordering closure of both the CIA’s open and secret prisons President Obama has upheld the rule of law and restored his country’s constitution” (“Freedom at Last,” 2009, p. 8). As gauged by international media sources, there seems to be an increase in the international community’s perception of congruency between U.S. values and policies.

    A writer from the French Press Agency explored a similar topic in her analysis of the prison closure (Jawad, 2009). Taking Obama’s actions one step further than their popular symbolism, Jawad asserted that the closure of Guantanamo Bay actually strikes a blow at the propaganda capabilities of Al Qaeda. Jawad indicated that the illegitimate detentions and poor treatment of prisoners allowed terrorist leaders and recruiters to rally opposition to the United States, an activity Obama’s order has stripped from them. Jawad acknowledged the strategic purpose of the decision to close the Guantanamo Bay prison in American foreign policy objectives.

    Perceptions abroad of U.S. legitimacy do seem to have strengthened, but have the executive orders enhanced the United States’ image of being cooperative and promoting multilateralism?  While many countries, including the European Union, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Turkey, have praised Obama’s decision to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, it is unclear how this decision has impacted our image. In the short run, there does seem to be mixed results regarding the multilateral nature of the orders. Several European countries are divided on the idea of receiving detainees from the United States. The London Times referred to the European response to Obama’s proposed help in closing the prison as “disappointingly lukewarm” (Reid, 2009, p. 2). The Daily Mirror in London claimed, “There is enormous goodwill toward President Obama, but he will start to squander it if he insists on trying to get his allies to give a home to the inmates of Guantanamo Bay” (Parsons, 2009, p. 1). Parsons seemed to imply that while Obama has earned some amount of goodwill, which can be interpreted as soft power, it can be lost just as easily as it was earned.

    An article published in The Economist introduced an interesting opposing point. “As long as George Bush was in office, Europeans could throw up their hands over the treatment of the Guantanamo Bay prison inmates but feel little pressure to take any of them in…. Under Mr. Obama nobody will dare to seem so curmudgeonly” (“Europe and America,” 2009, p. 6). It seems the closing of Guantanamo Bay brought a new venture in the policies and practices of not only the United States, but many other countries in the international community as well. European countries could face a slight loss of their own soft power and risk vulnerability to attacks of hypocrisy if they are unwilling to assist the United States in its ethical efforts.

    It is important to note that countries in Europe did not agree on the extent to which they will assist in the relocation of Guantanamo Bay detainees. Although the United States had not officially requested relocation of any detainees into European countries, Portugal officially “stated its intention of taking in former detainees” (“E.U. ‘ready to help’ U.S.,” 2009, p. 11). Great Britain had already taken at least a dozen former detainees, but claimed to have met its limit. Germany and France announced that they would take former detainees only on a case-by-case basis. France’s Minister of Foreign Affairs asserted his country “would not accept any ‘impositions’ from Washington” (“E.U. ‘ready to help’ U.S.,” 2009, p. 11). Clearly, the acceptance or rejection of Obama’s multilateral proposition varies in Europe from state to state.


    Former President George W. Bush’s policy toward the treatment of prisoners of war attracted a large degree of negative attention. As international media revealed, the policy damaged his administration and the nation’s reputation. America’s moral values and commitment to ideals of freedom and liberty were brought into question. The treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay certainly projected a negative image to the international community. However, the justification of detention without trial, particularly, exposed the United States to allegations of hypocrisy. Both attributes of Bush’s Guantanamo Bay policy decrease the United States’ soft power reserves.

    In addition to the former President’s policy on Guantanamo Bay, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal reflected a poor image of not only the soldiers involved, but the United States as a whole. The event called into question the integrity of Americans and damaged the nation’s soft power. Although this study does not indicate the exact international sentiment regarding the Bush administration response, the denunciation of the treatment by the Bush administration was not enough to significantly recover the lost soft power. Regardless of the sincerity of the apologies and condemnations, the international community had difficulty dismissing the egregious events that took place.

    Barack Obama’s closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison and his renunciation of enhanced interrogation methods were well received around the world as a renewed commitment to legitimacy. However, these actions should not be expected to stretch further than they can reach. Although America’s soft power relies on international perceptions, policy makers cannot expect to be able to shape those perceptions like an artist with a sculpture. Obama’s actions did demonstrate a renewed congruency between U.S. values and policies. While the decision received nearly world-wide popularity, leaders from around the world were not entirely open to accepting prisoners from Guantanamo Bay.

    This study confirms an important element of Nye’s soft power theory, that domestic policies, regardless of their impact on foreign audiences, do affect the soft power of the United States. The international community formulates its opinion of the U.S. from its evaluation of policies. The former President’s Guantanamo Bay policy and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal severely damaged America’s soft power reserves. President Barack Obama’s complete shift in policy has only partly redeemed that lost soft power. Policy makers must be cognizant of the effects of their choices because those decisions can have irrevocable consequences on their nation’s soft power.

    A systemized collection of data and an objective evaluation of that data could lead to a more empirically based conclusion. This study merely scrapes the surface of media writings pertaining to America’s reputation. Researchers could employ a computerized analysis of the speeches of foreign leaders and writings of international media outlets, similar to the one used on Cuban and North Korean leaders in the operational code analysis by Malici and Malici (2005).

    Further study can be performed on the effects of Bush and Obama’s actions in different countries and regions of the world. Not all leaders in the international community responded similarly to the cases presented. Perhaps some regions were more favorable to certain policies than others. Also, more study is needed to determine the exact effects this soft power has on the foreign policy of the United States. These domestic decisions and events seem to have influenced the soft power of the United States, but does that same observance apply to the rest of the soft power theory? Has this increase or decrease of soft power truly assisted or hindered U.S. foreign policy initiatives? A study approaching this issue would need to establish insight into the motives of foreign policy leaders abroad to determine if positive or negative feelings toward the United States influenced their decisions.


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