decade ago, many of us would have viewed the terms charm offensive and Peoples Republic of China as an odd pairing, a bit like marriage counseling and Henry the Eighth, or sex appeal and Mercury Sable. But times change. China, formerly uncouth in the world of diplomacy and public relations, has now turned suave. In fact, says writer Joshua Kurlantzick in his new book, Charm Offensive: How Chinas Soft Power Is Transforming the World, China is winning friends and influencing people around the world almost as fast as the United States is doing the opposite. This is a significant change, and Kurlantzick may be the first journalist to draw proper attention to it.

I should disclose here that I know Joshua Kurlantzick. He is a frequent contributor to the Washington Monthly, and he was the foreign editor at the New Republic when I was a reporter-researcher there. So youll just have to trust my objectivity when I say hes written a good book. Charm Offensive is intelligent, important, and more than a little disquieting.

What China has basically learnedand very well, toois to deploy what Harvard professor Joseph Nye famously dubbed soft power, which might be defined as the ability to get your way with other nations by making them like you rather than making them fear you. Whether giving the star treatment to even the smallest of nations, or funding low-cost but high-profile projects such as the construction of a parliament building in Cambodia, or simply making sure that its ambassadors and diplomats have a thorough understanding of the languages and cultures of the nations to which theyre posted, China has proven tremendously adept at winning goodwill.

The results have been striking. Across the globe, countries that used to be close friends of Washington have started shifting their affections to Beijing. For example, a 2005 Pew Global Attitudes survey found that more people in Britain have a favorable opinion of China than of the United States (65 percent versus 55 percent). Pew found similar numbers among other U.S. allies, such as France, Germany, Spain, and Holland. In Asia, close friends have also slipped away. In Thailand, once a pro-American stronghold, more than 70 percent of Thais now consider China to be the countrys closest friend.

Certainly, before we start getting all depressed, we should admit that Chinas new grasp of soft power isnt all bad. For one thing, nations adept at soft power are less likely to resort to hard power. For another, while smooth types may be amoral, they are rarely nutty (Hannibal Lecter excepted). To put it differently, a rascal like Jacques Chirac is still easier to deal with than a loon like Kim Jong Il. China, which leans more to the French side of the Chirac-Kim spectrum, may have its flaws, but its unlikely to do irrational things. This makes it less frightening than other actors on the international stage.

One problem is that Chinas soft power relies heavily on friendships with anyone useful, including some highly unsavory players. Iran, for instance, has been misbehaving with its pursuit of nuclear weapons, but China, its friend, has helped weaken UN efforts to pressure it. Robert Mugabe has decided to convert Zimbabwe from breadbasket to wasteland, but China has gladly provided him with fighter jets, riot gear, and radio-jamming devices. Sudan has been exterminating people in Darfur, but it, too, continues to enjoy the support and friendship of Beijing. These lousy regimes might be a lot less durable if China werent willing to be their buddy.

China also exports some of its worst internal practices. Chinese labor standards, for instance, are dismal, and Chinese factories set up in other countries often reflect this problem. In Peru, a Chinese-owned iron mine caused so many accidentsmore than 170 in one year alonethat Perus government levied a fine of $14 million. Environmental enforcement is equally abysmal, and China has funded controversial dams in other countries and set up factories that have illegally polluted their surroundings.

By making inroads with our allies, China is even making it possible that, should it face a showdown with the United States, it will be able to force countries to choose sides. Since China and the United States will be competing for a lot of the same resources, especially oil, being on the losing side could be bruising.

And these are just some of the hazards that Chinas rise as a soft power poses. (If you want to know more of them, read the book.) Meanwhile, the United States has been treating its friends with all the delicacy of an elephant encountering low- lying trees. Nothing about our power these days seems particularly soft.

Of course, in lamenting Americas current popularity deficit, Kurlantzicks book joins a vast chorus. No one much seems to like us these days, except for maybe a few Kurds. What sets Kurlantzicks book apart, however, is that it makes two additional crucial points. The first is that the Pentagon hawks who stoke public fear over Chinas military rise have their eyes on the wrong threat: its not Chinas weapons but, rather, its seductiveness that we should worry about. The second is that our current image problem didnt start with George W. Bush, as formidable a doozy as hes been. Instead, they began almost as soon as the cold war ended. Today the Clinton presidency might look like a golden age of soft power, but the 1990s were in fact years in which the U.S. government outreach to the world declined. For example, budget cuts to the State Department were so severe from 1994 to 1997 that it could afford to replace only 53 percent of the staff it was losing through retirement or other causes. The Republican Congress was mostly to blame, but the White House stumbled too. When the Asian financial crisis hit in 1997, for instance, Thailand, a close and faithful ally, expected in its moment of need for Washington to extend a hand. At first, though, the Clinton administration did nothing, and by the time that Washington finally provided some help it was too late to assuage Thailands wounded feelings. By contrast, China, which responded with minor but timely assistance, earned considerable gratitude.

Since American unpopularity didnt begin with this White House, it wont end with it, either, unless we fundamentally change our behavior. Fortunately, a little effort goes a long way in the world of soft power, and Charm Offensive makes numerous sensible suggestions in that regard, including making our diplomats immerse themselves more thoroughly in the languages and culture of the countries to which theyre assigned, to listen properly to what countries request when were giving aid, and, not least, to live up to the ideals we purport to embody. I might also put in a request for easing up on the preaching about human rights, not only because our own record has been tarnished in the past several years, but also because even those who are oppressed tend to take it personally when their governments are criticized by outsiders.

If there was one final thought that stayed with me from Kurlantzicks book, it was simply this: Doing good is different from earning goodwill. The United States seems to view the two as interchangeable, but China doesnt. For Beijing, the purpose of its benevolence is principally to earn goodwill. Unlike Washington, it doesnt try to assist those who dont request assistance.

Charm Offensive isnt perfect. Kurlantzicks reporting, which took him around the globe, is perhaps a bit more exhaustive than readers like me consider riveting. But that doesnt detract from the persuasiveness of the books case. Kurlantzick has picked up on something crucial about China today, and its time the rest of us took notice. Meanwhile, one can only hope Charm Offensive will remind U.S. policymakers that soft power, once lost, doesnt just wait around to be reclaimed. When the United States blows through friends, shrewder rivals will happily rush to take its place.