Despite its rhetorical flexibility, “smart power” has several inherent flaws. First, it focuses on the means of exercising
power without questioning the ends toward which power is deployed. The State
Department and the Pentagon will tussle over which agency more can effectively win the hearts and minds of Afghans. But neither agency is willing to rethink the U.S. presence in the country or acknowledge how few hearts and minds have been won.
As with Afghanistan, so with the rest of the world. For all his talk of power “with” rather than “over,” Joseph Nye has largely been concerned with different methods by which the United States can
maintain dominion. “Smart power” is not about the inherent value of diplomacy, the virtues of collective decision-making, or the imperatives of peace, justice, or environmental sustainability. Rather it is a way of calculating how best to get others to do what America wants them to do, with the threat of a drone strike or a Special Forces incursion always present in the background.
The Pentagon, at least, has been clear about this point. In 2007, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates argued for “strengthening our capacity to use soft power and for better integrating it with hard power.” The Pentagon has long realized that a toolbox with only a single hammer in it handicaps the handyman, but it still persists in seeing a world full of nails.
At a more practical level, “smart power” encounters problems because in this “integration,” the Pentagon always turns out to be the primary partner. As a result, the work of diplomats, dispensers of humanitarian aid, and all the other “do-gooders” who attempt to distinguish their work from soldiers is compromised. After decades of trying to persuade their overseas partners that they are not simply civilian adjuncts to the Pentagon, the staff of the State Department has now jumped into bed with the military. They might as well put big bull’s eyes on their backs, and there’s nothing smart about that.
“Smart power” also provides a lifeline for a military that might face significant cuts if Congress’s sequestration plan goes through. NATO has already shown the way. Its embrace of “smart defense” is a direct response to military cutbacks by European governments. The Pentagon is deeply worried that budget-cutters will follow the European example, so it is doing what corporations everywhere attempt during a crisis. It is trying to rebrand its services.
Always in search of a mission, the Pentagon now has its fingers in just about every pie in the bakery. The Marines are doing drug interdiction in Guatemala. Special Operations forces are constructing cyclone shelters in Bangladesh. The U.S. Navy provided post-disaster relief in Japan after the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, while the U.S. Army did the same in Haiti. In 2011, the Africa Command budgeted $150 million for development and health care.
The Pentagon, in other words, has turned itself into an all-purpose agency, even attempting “reconstruction” along with State and various crony corporations in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is preparing for the impact of climate change, pouring R & D dollars into alternative energy, and running operations in cyberspace. The Pentagon has been smart about its power by spreading it everywhere.
As president, Obama has shown no hesitation to use force. But his use of military power has not proven any “smarter” than that of his predecessor. Iran and North Korea pushed ahead with their nuclear programs when diplomatic alternatives were not forthcoming. Nuclear power Pakistan is closer to outright anarchy than four years ago. Afghanistan is a mess, and an arms race is heating up in East Asia, fueled in part by the efforts of the United States and its allies to box in China with more air and sea power.
In one way, however, Obama has been Mr. Softy. He has shown no backbone whatsoever in confronting the bullies already in America’s corner. He has done little to push back against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his occupation policies. He hasn’t confronted Saudi Arabia, the most autocratic of U.S. allies. In fact, he has leveraged the power of both countries -- toward Iran, Syria, Bahrain. A key component of “smart power” is outsourcing the messy stuff to others.
Make no mistake: Mitt Romney is worse. A Romney-Ryan administration would be a step backward to the policies of the early Bush years. President Romney would increase military spending, restart a cold war with Russia, possibly undertake a hot war against Iran, deep-six as many multilateral agreements as he could, and generally resurrect the Ugly American policies of the recent past.
But President Romney wouldn’t fundamentally alter U.S. foreign policy. After all, President Obama has largely preserved the post-9/11 fundamentals laid down by George W. Bush, which in turn drew heavily on a unilateralist and militarist recipe that top chefs from Bill Clinton on back merely tweaked. Obama has mentioned, sotto voce, that Mr. Softy might resurface if the incumbent is reelected. Off mic, as he mentioned in an aside to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at a meeting in Seoul last spring, he has promised to show more “flexibility” in his second term. This might translate into more arms agreements with Russia, more diplomatic overtures like the effort with Burma, and more spending of political capital to address global warming, non-proliferation, global poverty, and health pandemics.
But don’t count on it. The smart money is not with Obama’s smart power. Mr. Softy has largely been an electoral ploy. If he’s re-elected, Obama will undoubtedly continue to act as Mr. Stick. Brace yourself for four more years of dumb power -- or, if he loses, even dumber power. military’s spreading secret wars in Africa. Modified from Tomdispatch
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