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Winning Smart Power

Feb 11, 2007


Joe Nye reminds us that soft power is the power to get others to want what we want. By that definition, soft power advocates haven’t done so well. Ironically, they have failed to use soft power to get others to want what they want – that is, more soft power.

It’s easy to beat up on the current administration for failing to understand and deploy "soft power" and public diplomacy in their toolkit of foreign policy. Bush, Cheney and the gang prefer coercion, i.e. hard power.

But the previous Democratic campaigns have not done such a good job either. During the Kerry campaign there was pressure on the candidate to give a diplomacy/soft power speech. It would describe the ‘third leg’ of a triad of effective foreign policy instruments. Guess what? He never gave the speech. Whatever his campaign’s reasoning, it demonstrated how little the Democratic candidate for president thought of the subject. Maybe he didn’t want what we wanted.

Now, four years later, it is patently obvious to all that the administration’s hapless mix of coercion and diplomacy has been a disaster. By using far too much of the former and far too little of the latter it has seriously compromised America’s national interest. Washington lacks an effective combination of hard and soft power to make smart power. Instead of a smart power policy, we have a policy of ‘stupid power’. Bush barely uses traditional or public diplomacy at all, and uses coercive power badly.

The disastrous consequences of "stupid power" have created an attentive public ripe for a serious conversation about the proper mix of convincing and coercing. But the amount of ink (or bits and bytes) devoted to developing a ‘smart power’ agenda is modest relative to talk about force structures, troop strength and intelligence reform. It is ironic that those most interested in seeing a better balance between hard and soft power have not been particularly adept at using soft power. They have failed to make a consistent and tough-minded public argument linking America’s national security and soft power, and tying the "why" with the "how".

Between now and November 2008 believers in smart power will need to make a much more effective case for soft power if they hope to restore America’s standing in the world. (For more discussion of ‘smart power’ check out


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Right on! In the decades of

Right on! In the decades of my involvement with programs for the USSR during the Cold War (Radio Liberty, USIA)
we found the only way to win the confidence of listeners was to tell it like it is, with all the warts, and to approach them with respect, even humility.

Yes! I split my time between

Yes! I split my time between Corporate Diplomacy in Europe and the United States and find the terrible diplomacy scenario in the US a direct result of mismanagement through Bush/Clinton/Bush, and God forbid if we add another Clinton to the mess. The current unfathomable depths of diplomatic disaster though are the sole responsibility of George W Bush, who has achieved new levels of arrogance, lies, deceit and incompetence.

In Europe Bush would have been long snared by the bureaucracy and the many layers of active government. In the US he was given a free hand, and blank check by an ineffective and compliant Congress, who failed the people.

But the comparison between the effort to promote “Soft Power” as an alternative, or companion to “Hard Power” misses one important factor in the US, fast profits! There is far more short term profit in military destruction than in building public, private and corporate diplomacy. The intangible rewards of selling more US goods and services, more US movies and CD’s isn’t a short term goal of greedy politicians. Giving massive contracts to friends reaps huge rewards, creating a marketplace for thousands of US companies to prosper, even survive, achieves no such kickbacks.

Corporate Diplomacy is the paradigm for diplomacy between peoples, and their perceptions, leaving Public Diplomacy between Nation States, and the growing number of Terrorist Organizations. That is unless you believe in central government control and communism instead of freedom, free market economy and the capitalist system!

The question, then, is how

The question, then, is how smart power as a concept can be articulated, explained and yes - sold - to the ever-expanding field of presidential candidates.

I fear that the folks on one side would dismiss the concept right away, while those on the other side - the one full of candidates who live in constant fear of appearing soft on defense - would be paralyzed with fear by an idea like this (it is, I'm quite sure, for this very reason the junior senator from Massachusetts failed in 2004 to deliver what could have been a revolutionary speech).

The good news is that the political atmosphere is in many ways ripe for this discussion, providing the CPD with a "once in four years" opportunity!

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