In 1947, Edward Bernays published an essay titled “The Engineering of Consent.” In it, the behaviorist and distant relative of Sigmund Freud explained and celebrated the power of persuasion, a pursuit he said was “the very essence of the democratic process.”
As our President knows well, “any person or organization depends ultimately on public approval, and is therefore faced with the problem of engineering the public’s consent to a program or goal.”
But what “consent” is the President really trying to engineer on Syria? What is his endgame? In all the meandering of the past few weeks, it’s easy to lose the plotline. Lately, it would have been natural to conclude he is (or was) trying to persuade a reluctant U.S. electorate and its representatives to support military action against the Assad government for its use of chemical weapons. But that assumption would be wrong.
The President’s agenda originally was to prompt a fundamental shift in both the worldview of America’s role, as well as how America perceives its own international duties. The early attempt to garner multilateral national support for military intervention was the telling moment. In retrospect, he was asking for the wrong solution to the right question. It’s painfully clear now that military action was simply not an outcome the President could engineer. If American bombs were going to fly, one had to suspect that more Syrian citizens would have to die a horrible death to awaken the domestic and international outrage necessary to trigger widespread support for a military strike. That, in fact, is where we would have been headed, once the President suffered a presumed and resounding defeat in Congress.
No, the President’s military strike was not the endgame. The President’s endgame was to rekindle the hibernating responses of a world that had become narcotically happy to leave America—largely alone—to clean up global messes. He just didn’t know how to do it. He is not alone. We seem to have forgotten how to activate other nations on such matters.
Whether a seed was planted at the G20 summit or because of something uttered at a news conference by the Secretary of State—as a “goof” perhaps, as one U.S. official later suggested—it doesn’t matter. Suddenly, a world opened up to the possibility of a more diplomatic solution, advanced by Russia and now apparently dispensed by France. More improbable is that China and Iran also may well approve the approach in an unprecedented show of unity. Finally, this gives the United Nations something to get behind.
Many now fear that all of this is a deliberate ploy to buy time. In some respects, it doesn’t matter. The path to a more collaborative world rule apparently has been uncovered. We may have stumbled upon it, looking lost and hapless, but nonetheless, we are here.
The real question now is the staying power of this newfound spirit of cooperation. While getting there wasn’t pretty, somehow, in some near miraculous way, the President has engineered consent. Let’s hope he can hold the new global spirit together.