TOC Politics Idea: Winner's Win and Soft Power

The University of Texas National Institute in Forensics (UTNIF) summer institute blog posted a card this morning from The New York Timesthat is “sure to be oft-cited at next weekend’s Tournament of Champions.” The evidence is from an op-ed by Thomas Friedman entitled “Everybody Loves A Winner”:

In politics and diplomacy, success breeds authority and authority breeds more success. No one ever said it better than Osama bin Laden: “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse.”

Have no illusions, the rest of the world was watching our health care debate very closely, waiting to see who would be the strong horse — Obama or his Democratic and Republican health care opponents? At every turn in the debate, America’s enemies and rivals were gauging what the outcome might mean for their own ability to push around an untested U.S. president.

It remains to be seen whether, in the long run, America will be made physically healthier by the bill’s passage. But, in the short run, Obama definitely was made geopolitically healthier.

“When others see the president as a winner or as somebody who has real authority in his own house, it absolutely makes a difference,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said to me in an interview. “All you have to do is look at how many minority or weak coalition governments there are around the world who can’t deliver something big in their own country, but basically just teeter on the edge, because they can’t put together the votes to do anything consequential, because of the divided electorate.” President Obama has had “a divided electorate and was still able to muscle the thing through.”

When President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia spoke by phone with Obama the morning after the health care vote — to finalize the New Start nuclear arms reduction treaty — he began by saying that before discussing nukes, “I want to congratulate you, Mr. President, on the health care vote,” an administration official said. That was not just rank flattery. According to an American negotiator, all throughout the arms talks, which paralleled the health care debate, the Russians kept asking: “Can you actually get this ratified by the Senate” if an arms deal is cut? Winning passage of the health care bill demonstrated to the Russians that Obama could get something hard passed.

Our enemies surely noticed, too. You don’t have to be Machiavelli to believe that the leaders of Iran and Venezuela shared the barely disguised Republican hope that health care would fail and, therefore, Obama’s whole political agenda would be stalled and, therefore, his presidency enfeebled. He would then be a lame duck for the next three years and America would be a lame power.

Given the time and energy and political capital that was spent on health care, “failure would have been unilateral disarmament,” added Gates. “Failure would have badly weakened the president in terms of dealing with others — his ability to do various kinds of national security things. … You know, people made fun of Madeleine [Albright] for saying it, but I think she was dead on: most of the rest of the world does see us as the ‘indispensable nation.’ ”

Indeed, our allies often complain about a world of too much American power, but they are not stupid. They know that a world of too little American power is one they would enjoy even less. They know that a weak America is like a world with no health insurance — and a lot of pre-existing conditions.

Gen. James Jones, the president’s national security adviser, told me that he recently met with a key NATO counterpart, who concluded a breakfast by congratulating him on the health care vote and pronouncing: “America is back.”

But is it? While Obama’s health care victory prevented a power outage for him, it does not guarantee a power surge. Ultimately, what makes a strong president is a strong country — a country whose underlying economic prowess, balance sheet and innovative capacity enable it to generate and project both military power and what the political scientist Joe Nye calls “soft power” — being an example that others want to emulate.

What matters most now is how Obama uses the political capital that health care’s passage has earned him. I continue to believe that the most important foreign policy issue America faces today is its ability to successfully engage in nation building — nation building at home.

Obama’s success in passing health care and the bounce it has put in his step will be nothing but a sugar high if we can’t get our deficit under control, inspire a new generation of start-ups, upgrade our railroads and Internet and continue to attract the world’s smartest and most energetic immigrants.

An effective, self-confident president with a weak country is nothing more than a bluffer. An effective, self-confident president, though, at least increases the odds of us building a stronger country.

The UTNIF blog tags the card as “DOMESTIC POLICY SUCCESSES KEY TO SOFT POWER – HEALTH CARE PROVES ITS TRUE, BUT OBAMA STILL HAS SOMETHING ELSE TO PROVE.”

What do you think? How can this evidence best be used in a debate? As an Obama bad disadvantage (plan key to Obama’s credibility / soft power bad)? As an add-on against Obama bad politics disadvantages (the plan is a win, it’s key to soft power)? Feel free to discuss in the comments.

7 thoughts on “TOC Politics Idea: Winner's Win and Soft Power

  1. Anonymous

    seems like it would be far more useful on next year's topic as an answer to a particular brand of int'l politics scenarios

  2. Tom

    Not likely to be helpful next year: will be dated; and refers to domestic politics so at best its an alt. caus. response against winners-win.

    "What matters most now is how Obama uses the political capital that health care’s passage has earned him. I continue to believe that the most important foreign policy issue America faces today is its ability to successfully engage in nation building — nation building at home.

    Obama’s success in passing health care and the bounce it has put in his step will be nothing but a sugar high if we can’t get our deficit under control, inspire a new generation of start-ups, upgrade our railroads and Internet and continue to attract the world’s smartest and most energetic immigrants."

    Friedman says that nation-building is key. From the winners-win perspective, plan is critical to such nation-building, and therefore soft power. For the negative, Friedman is explicit that deficits –to which many affs will link–will make hollow the win and undermine soft power. Probably best as a card for immigration affs or if the plan has really solid soft power advantage already. Who can control the spin over *the perception of* plan strengthening/weakening the nation will be in a better strategic spot.

    As an aside, I suspect that Friedman's neoliberalism overwhelms pol cap considerations which should not come as a surprise since it is consistent with soft power.

    Like the previous Walt article, another example of contorting a nuanced article to support a debate argument.

  3. Nick Khatri

    I don't think it has much utility beyond pol cap high. The part at the end seems more to be saying "now that Obama has capital he should do this" than "Obama needs slightly more capital so he should do this".

  4. J.V. Reed

    Tom's comments are pretty helpful here. A better tag might've been "health care clarifies the international stakes of domestic policy – strong economy key to soft power". The tag would necessarily vary from debate to debate, depending on the intended use of the evidence. Either way, the card makes the claim that "winning" policy successes is necessary to soft power but not sufficient to maintain it. The evidence seems to suggest to me that winners only keep winning when the game they're playing is a good one. i.e. If the health care success is proven hollow by a faltering economy, then U.S. status will suffer internationally. Friedman identifies deficits, infrastructure, and immigration as important things to address, although the argument could be made that those examples are not necessarily the important warranted internal link here, a strong economy is. Either way, Tom contends this is "contorting a nuanced article to support debate argument." Guilty as charged. The real question is how successful/persuasive will the debaters' rhetorical contortions be in the context of a specific debate over what a given plan actually does/doesn't do. What can you make this evidence do for you that your opponents cannot?

  5. anon

    I think that while Friedman identifies that key victories on things like health care or the economy or immigration would be a major boost to soft power, the original tag is somewhat accurate. If Obama wins on major domestic policies, other nations are more willing to go along with bi or multilateral deals because they feel confident that Obama can manage to get the deal ratified in the Senate. Maybe the best tag would be like "major domestic policy successes key to international support"

  6. Anonymous

    I agree with above.

    I also think that this doesn't have much use on next year's topic, unless used to non-u a dipcap disad in conjunction with a card saying Obama just passed X.

  7. Tom

    @J.V. Reed

    In search of the perfect evidence:
    Cutting cards is never under ideal circumstances. Time pressures, predicting not only the side of the issue you will be on but also the particular spin that will be lobbied all contribute to the difficulty. AND, authors don't often write in ways that are helpful to debaters. OR, write in ways predictable to debate researching; in one instance it took substituting the word "assuage" to a Boolean search to find a decent card. A persuasive would-be card ends with devastating caveats. Authors imply what you are looking for but don't get around to just saying it already.

    Debaters for their parts too frequently are armed with too few tools to rebut or highlight shoddy and superior evidence quality. Debaters have easily mastered the shopworn cx question, "where in the card does it say X?", and conversely are afraid of debate's nuclear option, calling evidence out of context. The former is annoying for most judges who then must wait about an hour to read the evidence. The latter has such a strong penalty, I believe that too few debaters will even use the word context to describe evidence which refers to argument Y, not tag Z, depriving them of a strong line of argument which has no judgement of the other team's ethics.

    In search of the perfect argument:
    I think it was Scott who said that all disads are basically politics disads. I agree. We make evidence speak about the future in ways unanticipated by their authors. Politics is just the most transparently contrived. I am bit a like Churchill when it comes to politics: it is the worst form of disad except for all those others that have been tried.

    I want to reiterate and expand on JV's proposal. What concepts and vocabulary should debaters master to effectively communicate that their evidence is the most relevant to the question at hand?

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