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Toward a Smarter Power: Moving Beyond the Rhetoric

Date: September/October 2011

This article by IWP alumnus Justin Polin appeared in the September/October 2011 World Affairs Journal.  An excerpt is below, and the full article can be found here.

There exists in US foreign policy a great imbalance between military and civilian power. To some extent, this reflects budgets. For fiscal year 2010, Congress appropriated more than $600 billion for the Pentagon. The State Department and related agencies received roughly $50 billion. But money does not tell the whole story. The military, with its unique operational tools and abilities, has performed better in its responsibilities than civilian national security institutions have in vital non-military areas of the War on Terror, such as postwar stabilization and reconstruction, countering the Islamist ideology of al-Qaeda and its sympathizers, creating a durable legal and intelligence framework for handling captured terrorists, and so forth. Due to failures of civilian institutions, many soldiers have become de facto nation-builders, anthropologists, and public diplomats. They were not, in many cases, trained for these missions. But they were the only option-albeit an expensive and inefficient one.

President Obama, to his credit, has sought to change this unhealthy status quo, seeking to implement what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called “smart power,” which she defined as “the full range of tools at our disposal-diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural-picking the right tool, or combination of tools for each situation.” In selling this approach, however, the Obama administration has, as in other efforts, tried to scapegoat its predecessor, contending that the Bush administration ignored such a multifaceted approach and instead relied “only” on the military. Scholars, such as Harvard’s Joseph Nye, have bolstered this assumption. Suzanne Nossel, whose 2004 Foreign Affairsessay provided the first detailed treatment of smart power, accused the Bush administration of “militarism” and “unilateralism.” According to Nossel, now a State Department official, conservatives “rely on military power as the main tool of statecraft,” whereas “liberal internationalists see trade, diplomacy, foreign aid, and the spread of American values as equally important.”

Various other administration officials have echoed Nossel’s views. In 2008, Anne-Marie Slaughter, who departed as State Department policy planning director earlier this year, condemned the Bush administration’s “love affair with force.” Samantha Power, currently a senior NSC official, has alleged a long-standing conservative “disdain for diplomacy and pragmatism” that inspired the Bush administration’s “unilateralism and militarism.” Even under secretary of defense for policy Michéle Flournoy, a more understated official, has said that “US strategy has to be grounded in pragmatism rather than ideology”-a swipe at the Bush administration.

Yet in fact the Bush administration understood the importance both of working with other countries and of using non-military tools of statecraft. Vice President Cheney, frequently invoked as an exemplar of unilateralism, spoke about the importance of working with allies or the UN no fewer than fifteen times between September 11th and the start of the Iraq War. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld spoke often about strengthening multilateral institutions while maintaining a proper respect for state sovereignty. As he noted in Singapore in June 2004, there are “very few things you can do unilaterally in this world” and “almost everything the United States does, we do it with other countries, and properly we should.”

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