January 26, 2009

Looking at “Smart Power” for a New Foreign Policy

Print More

During the campaign through to the inauguration, President Obama has laid out a change in style for US foreign policy, moving from, in his view, the unbalanced approach of the Bush administration to one that takes into account consultations with allies and the importance of negotiations. In her confirmation hearings (http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2009/jan/14/clinton-touts-smart-power-use/), Secretary of State Clinton gave a name to the new strategy, “smart power.”

Ultimately though, what does “smart power” really mean? To read the Washington Times coverage of her confirmation hearings, “smart power” is the de-emphasis of the military’s role in foreign policy with and the reestablishment of the government’s “civilian face.” Though that may be Secretary Clinton’s definition of “smart power,” a definition shared by at least one foreign government (http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2009-01/24/content_10715343.htm), such limited definitions fail to get to the core of the term’s origins.

“Smart power” is essentially a re-branding (http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2009_01/016425.php) of “soft power,” a framework developed by Joseph Nye that aims to explain how states influence other’s behavior through attraction rather than coercion (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soft_power). Figuring strongly into the definition of “soft power” is the emphasis on ideology and culture, terms that are markedly absent from Secretary Clinton’s remarks. While they are left unsaid for her confirmation, Obama’s Inaugural Speech draws heavy upon cultural themes and American exceptionalism in outlining a general foreign policy outlook, themes that were central to the Bush administration’s view of the world.

In fact, looking at the Bush administration, one sees a foreign policy (rhetorically at least) overwhelmingly motivated by values. The tactics used may be those of “hard power” (military force, economic sanctions, etc.) but the positive attractive force of American values has indeed defined outcomes in the democratic revolutions in Ukraine (2004), Georgia (2003), and Kyrgyzstan (2005). And the Bush administration, though not consistently, did utilize multilateralism when dealing with the North Korean nuclear question through the Six-Party Talks. Of course, the Bush administration foreign policy legacy will be defined by unilateralism and the use military force in Iraq, and Bush’s exceptional ability to alienate foreign nations and leaders, but we should be careful to remember more than just Iraq when remembering history.

So then is “smart power” really anything different than Bush’s Six-Party talks or the Quartet for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but instead on a larger and more standardized scale? This is not to say that Obama’s foreign policy won’t be different than Bush’s, it’s just a comment that change should always skeptically be looked at within context. Hopefully Clinton’s use of the term represents recognition that it’s easier to get problems solved through positive action, rather than coercion. At its core it seems to me that “smart power” is really a rhetorical tool for selling an outlook to the other countries of the world, restoring the American brand if you will, rather than a promise of a fundamentally different view of the world. After all even though in his inaugural Obama said this:

“They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use. Our security emanates from the justness of our cause; the force of our example; the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.”

He followed it with this:

“We will not apologize for our way of life nor will we waver in its defense. And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that, ‘Our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken. You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.’”

I don’t expect Obama, or Clinton for that matter, to be a pushover, no matter to what extent they are willing to talk it up with rivals and maybe enemies. But I’m certainly happy if they can both convince foreign leaders that we are now a kinder and gentler United States, even if it isn’t true.