Thursday, November 8, 2007

Smart Power

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is a Washington, D.C. think tank founded in 1962, “dedicated to the simple but urgent goal of finding ways for America to survive as a nation and prosper as a people.”

They have just released a report: A smarter, more secure America (online at ), nominally authored by commission co-chairs Richard Armitage and Joseph Nye, supported by 10 conservative and 10 liberal eminent committee members.

Even to a political cynic like me, this is a powerful, optimistic, hopeful report, very well written with intelligence and fairness. I hope every ’08 presidential candidate reads it closely. I urge readers to ignore news media summaries and just read the report itself.

The report begins by distinguishing hard and soft power: “To maintain a leading role in global affairs, the United States must move from eliciting fear and anger to inspiring optimism and hope.” That’s so-called “soft power.”

Hard power is guns and money.

By complementing U.S. military and economic might with greater investments in soft power, America can build the framework it needs to tackle tough global challenges. That’s “smart power.”

I hate the report’s slogan, “smart power” because it sounds so much like the recommendation your boss gives you when your department is oversubscribed and underfunded. “You don’t need to work harder. Just work smarter!” Not once has my reaction been to slap my palm to my forehead and exclaim, “If only I had thought of that!” Nevertheless, as political slogans go, “smart power” should go down easily.

The report starts with the observation that, “Americans are unified in wanting to improve their country’s image in the world.” That’s true (there are data to prove it), and it is also a good thing, for national pride indexes the cohesion of the polity. And yet I would say it is not important; mere egocentricism.

Noam Chomsky described a youthful epiphany in some interview I saw long ago, “It suddenly occurred to me, why do I care if my team wins?” Like sports fans’ affiliations, national pride is a feel-good, but not a consequential consideration for protecting America’s peace and prosperity. At least that’s what I would have said prior to reading this report.

The report makes the case that hard power, military and economic, is inadequate in the long run to sustain America’s influence in the world. We need also to invest in soft power, for our own benefit.

“The goal of U.S. foreign policy should be to prolong and preserve American preeminence as an agent for good. Achieving this goal is impossible without strong and willing allies and partners who can help the United States to determine and act on priorities.”

There is doublespeak in this assertion. We want to assure American preeminence in the world but we want to do it with allies who help us determine our priorities? How can you be preeminent if your priorities are set by a committee? That is exactly the criticism the Bush campaign leveled against Kerry’s internationalist views in the 2004 election.

Another problem is that foreign policy should assure that America is an agent for good. Who decides what is “good?” Why we do, of course! In other words, the goal of our foreign policy should be to trample all who do not agree with our values. Naturally we like to assume that our way is the best way. But that’s flawed, sociocentric thinking.

Surely we are more good than the Axis of Evil, or any number of other “evildoers,” but is America inherently more “good” than France? Turkey? Russia? Pakistan? Who says so? If we wish to dominate the world just because we want to, then let’s say so squarely and not hide behind some self-ascribed moral superiority. Sadly, the report starts out with a flawed foreign policy goal.

Even “preeminence” is doubtful as a goal. Where does it say that America should be preeminent in the world? Other countries might prefer other systems of government reflecting other sets of values. Why should the whole world look like us? Should we be preeminent in war, culture, the arts, finance, everything? That is megalomaniac vision to be feared, not embraced.

But eventually, the CSIS report gets beyond that naïve silliness (or political pandering) and lays out the real issue:

“Soft power is the ability to attract people to our side without coercion. Legitimacy is central to soft power. If a people or nation believes American objectives to be legitimate, we are more likely to persuade them to follow our lead without using threats and bribes. Legitimacy can also reduce opposition—and the costs—of using hard power when the situation demands.”

America happens to be top dog in the world at this moment in history. We are the Roman empire of our times. It won’t last; it never does. Civilizations rise and fall. But we should not waste our moment in the sun.

It makes sense to leverage our hard power with so-called soft power to be a model of the values we espouse. We can be forthright about our intentions to promote peace, prosperity, freedom, and human dignity in the world, but we can’t promote those values through hard power alone. We must do it by example, by living up to our own values, and by facilitative leadership, resulting in what the CSIS calls smart power.

The report says, this is “ an approach that underscores the necessity of a strong military, but also invests heavily in alliances, partnerships, and institutions at all levels to expand American influence and establish the legitimacy of American action.”

The key word is “legitimacy.” In order to be influential in setting policy, we have to have moral and intellectual legitimacy. If you bully someone into agreeing with you, you get compliance, not consensus, and not legitimacy. We get legitimacy by listening respectfully and genuinely to others, compromising, and above all, by walking the walk. This is far beyond “carrot and stick” diplomacy. This is leading by example.

“We must strike a balance between the use of force against irreconcilable extremists committed to violent struggle and other means of countering terrorism if we want to maintain our legitimacy.”

The report acknowledges that “wielding soft power is especially difficult, however, because many of America’s soft power resources lie outside of government in the private sector and civil society, in its bilateral alliances, or through its participation in multilateral institutions.”

The last part of the report give numerous examples of what America should do to re-establish its moral and intellectual legitimacy in the world, for the purpose of developing the smart power we need to get others to work with us instead of against us. Some recommendations are starkly simple, like close the Guantanamo Bay detention center right now.

Others are much more sophisticated, long term, and farther reaching, such as placing extraordinary emphasis on global education, public health, fair trade, sustainable energy, and institutional transparency. The report admits that the U.S. would end up paying a disproportionate share for such initiatives, but argues that we would be the largest beneficiary of their outcomes.

Many of the presidential candidates have developed similar recommendations for their campaigns but without the convincing strategic rationale that the CSIS report provides. The result is a hodge-podge of candidate recommendations that are not well justified in US foreign policy.

Clinton and Edwards, for example, are keen on global education and health, but are not convincing in saying how those initiatives would serve US long term interests. McCain emphasizes free trade as a way to promote economic prosperity throughout the world, without linking that to an integrated foreign policy. He is much more interested in hard power.

McCain, Guliani, and Clinton all want to promote “democracy” throughout the world, without a clear vision of why that is a good thing to do. Obama is fully aware of the need to engage multilaterally to assure that US interests are well-served, but does not connect that to other elements of soft and hard power. All candidates will benefit from reading this report.

There are many interesting recommendations in the report, several that no candidate has addressed at all. They fall into five categories:

  1. Alliances, partnerships, and institutions: Rebuilding the foundation to deal with global challenges;
  2. Global development: Developing a unified approach,starting with public health;
  3. Public diplomacy: Improving access to international knowledge and learning;
  4. Economic integration: Increasing the benefits of trade for all people;
  5. Technology and innovation: Addressing climate change and energy insecurity.

The weaknesses of the report are two. First, it does not give a clear explanation of the equation, hard power + soft power = smart power. It’s pretty obvious that if you provide people with humanitarian goods, they will like you and you will buy some soft power. But how does that integrate exactly with hard power? How would we improve “access to international knowledge and learning” in Iran, China, North Korea, Zimbabwe? That’s where the politicians need to flesh out the ideas in pragmatic ways.

Another weakness of the report is in the vagueness of many of its recommendations for developing smart power. For example,

“The United States should take a leadership role within international institutions to create a common principles charter outlining the principles of sound energy policies and practices that serve as the foundation for global energy security.”

That sounds nice on the ears, but if I try to understand what it actually says, I come up with nothing. Again, this is where the politicians need to step in.

The report was released almost one year to the day before the next presidential election, plenty of time for all aspirants to absorb it into their pores. We can only hope.

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