The United States needs to rediscover how to be a “smart power.” That was the conclusion of a bipartisan commission that I recently co-chaired with Richard Armitage, the former deputy secretary of state in the Bush administration. The Smart Power Commission, convened by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, comprised Republican and Democratic members of Congress, former ambassadors, retired military officers, and heads of non-profit organizations. We concluded that America’s image and influence had declined in recent years, and that the US must move from exporting fear to inspiring optimism and hope.
We are not alone. Recently, Defense Secretary Robert Gates called for the US government to commit more money and effort to “soft power,” including diplomacy, economic assistance, and communications, because the military alone cannot defend America’s interests around the world. Gates pointed out that military spending totals nearly a half-trillion dollars annually, compared to the State Department’s budget of $36 billion. He acknowledged that for the head of the Pentagon to plead for more resources for the State Department was odd, but these are not normal times.
Smart power is the ability to combine the hard power of coercion or payment with the soft power of attraction into a successful strategy. By and large, the US managed such a combination during the Cold War; more recently, however, US foreign policy has tended to over-rely on hard power, because it is the most direct and visible source of American strength.
But, while the Pentagon is the best-trained and best-resourced arm of the government, there are limits to what hard power can achieve on its own. Democracy, human rights, and the development of civil society do not come from the barrel of a gun. True, the American military has impressive operational capacity, but turning to the Pentagon because it can get things done creates an image of an over-militarized foreign policy.
Diplomacy and foreign assistance are often under-funded and neglected, in part because it is difficult to demonstrate their short-term impact on critical challenges. In addition, wielding soft power is difficult because many of America’s soft power resources lie outside of government in the private sector and civil society, in its bilateral alliances, multilateral institutions, and transnational contacts. Moreover, American foreign policy institutions and personnel are fractured and compartmentalized, and there is no adequate inter-agency process for developing and funding a smart power strategy.
The effects of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have also thrown us off course. Since the shock of those attacks, the US has been exporting fear and anger rather than the country’s more traditional values of hope and optimism. Guantánamo Bay has become a more powerful global icon than the Statue of Liberty.
The CSIS Smart Power Commission acknowledged that terrorism is a real threat and likely to be with us for decades, but pointed out that over-responding to extremists’ provocations does more damage to the US than terrorists ever could. Success in the struggle against terrorism means finding a new central premise for American foreign policy to replace the current theme of a “war on terror.”
That premise should be a commitment to invest in the provision of public goods that people and governments worldwide want but cannot attain without American leadership. By doing so, the US could rebuild the framework that it needs to address tough global challenges.
Specifically, the Smart Power Commission recommended that American foreign policy focus on five critical areas:
- Restoring alliances, partnerships, and multilateral institutions, many of which have fallen into disarray in recent years, owing to unilateral approaches.
- Elevating the role of economic development to help align US interests with those of people around the world, starting with a major initiative on global public health.
- Investment in a public diplomacy that focuses less on broadcasting and more on face-to-face contacts, education, and exchanges that involve civil society and target young people.
- Resisting protectionism and promoting continued engagement in the global economy, which is necessary for growth and prosperity at home and abroad, while seeking inclusion for those left behind by changes that an open international economy implies.
- Shaping a global consensus and developing innovative technologies to meet the increasingly important global challenges of energy security and climate change.
Implementing such a smart power strategy will require a strategic reassessment of how the US government is organized, coordinated, and budgeted. The next president should consider a number of creative solutions to maximize the administration’s ability to organize for success, including the appointment of senior personnel who could reach across agencies to better align resources.
This will require innovation, but the US has been a smart power in the past, and it can become so again.