Paul Pillar

The Soft Power of Humility

The incidental influence that the United States exerts simply through people around the world observing its behavior is consistently underestimated, just as the influence the United States can exert intentionally by exercising its economic, military, or other instruments of hard power tends to be overestimated. Foreigners observe what Americans do, both officially and unofficially, and draw conclusions about American intentions and what America is all about. That influences their views about how the United States ought to be treated, from being cooperated with to being attacked. It also forms a point of comparison for assessing their own nations, societies, and governments.

That pattern makes significant the story of how the new U.S. ambassador to China, Gary Locke, struck such a responsive chord among Chinese merely by being observed during his travel to take up his post. A picture of Locke (taken candidly by a Chinese-American businessman) while waiting for his flight at the Seattle airport went viral in China and elicited thousands of comments. The image could not be more mundane: Locke, wearing a backpack and with his young daughter at his side, is buying a cup of coffee at a Starbucks counter. What was so striking to Chinese is that someone important enough to be ambassador to a major power (Locke also is a former governor of the state of Washington and former U.S. Secretary of Commerce) would be traveling just like any ordinary guy on a trip with his family, lugging around his carry-on and buying refreshment at one of the concessions in the concourse. The image was sustained by another photograph, taken at the other end of the ambassador's trip, showing Locke and his family carrying their own luggage through the Beijing airport.

The thrust of the comments in China about Locke's travel was how sharply this behavior contrasted with the elitism, aloofness and special treatment exhibited by Chinese officials. A commentary by an editor of the China Daily observed that “in China even a township chief, which is not really that high up in the hierarchy, will have a chauffeur and a secretary to carry his bag.” The editor's recommendation: “Perhaps it is time for Chinese dignitaries to follow the example of humble Locke.”

The pampering and privileges of officials has become an increasingly salient issue in China, which is why the picture of Locke caused such a stir. It is not hard to find reasons the issue has become so prominent. Another story in today's news, for example, tells of how the pricey wine of Château Lafite Rothschild of France has become a status symbol among elites in China, and such a favorite among government officials that it is referred to as China's “official wine.” (China being China as far as brand names are concerned—and given that the demand for this wine far exceeds the limited amount that the French winery allocates for export to China—probably 80 to 90 percent of the “Lafite” sold in China is fake. But the status-seekers care more about the label than about authenticity and would not want to admit they had been duped into buying a fake.)

What Ambassador Locke has accomplished even before he presented his credentials and officially took up his duties was to project an image of U.S. officialdom being closer to the people than are the officials of the People's Republic. That is good for the United States in innumerable albeit intangible ways. It also stimulates—in a way that does not ruffle official relations between the two countries—further questioning by Chinese of how their political system works and, in perhaps some small immeasurable way, hastens the evolution of that system to one in which the rulers are more responsive to the ruled.

The image that Locke has projected may not be entirely representative. The United States has arrogant and aloof senior officials, too (I've dealt with some of them). And there still are all those other ways in which negative images of Americans get carried into China—even through a basketball game. Ambassador Locke probably had some choices (as airline crews like to say) in how he traveled. I commend you, Mr. Ambassador, for starting your new assignment in a way that has charmed the socks off many Chinese. You have already benefited the country you represent, and you may have benefited the Chinese people as well.