When Helena Cobban came to UCLA last week as part of her own book tour, the longtime foreign affairs columnist could not help talking up the book she was herself reading: "The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East" by former Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani.
Cobban remarked that Mahbubani's book title was "modest," given the confidence and stability shown by China, India, and several Southeast Asian states. Like Mahbubani, she has been thinking about the implications of a long-term decline in the United States' share of global influence.
The Iraq war "did the most of anything over recent years to reduce American power in the world," Cobban said, primarily by revealing the limits of military might, the one dimension of global power in which the United States remains preeminent. At the same time, the war ate into the U.S. Treasury and squandered U.S. prestige, diminishing the country's economic and "soft" power, or the power to persuade on a global scale. Soft power includes diplomacy and the force of a country's reputation.
"It turns out that in the last 15 to 20 years, soft power has been much more important than any time hitherto," Cobban said, crediting a combination of the "new transparency of the information environment," including the Internet, and "the very widely accepted norm of the equality of all persons." One result has been that a few Iraqis take to their keyboards, whenever electricity is running, to write weblogs about aerial bombardments and sectarian strife "in beautiful English" for a receptive global audience.
Another result is a vacuum where U.S. soft power used to be.
According to Cobban, most of whose writing is on the Middle East, the damage done to U.S. influence in the region is such that the countries with the largest stakes in Iraq's stability cannot come together to negotiate under American auspices. Those countries include Iran but also Arab allies of the United States and NATO member Turkey, where the United States is unpopular in opinion polls.
"The only body that can convene them all is the United Nations," she said.
Cobban allowed that the United Nations is imperfect and ripe for changes, including to the composition of the Security Council. But she said that U.S. commentators ought to take a second look at the body and its potential.
"The drumbeat of anti-UN propaganda in this country…it's left a real legacy," she said. Cobban's talk on Oct. 15, 2008, was sponsored by the Visiting Fulbright Scholar Enrichment Program at UCLA.