Obama’s Tightrope

CAMBRIDGE – According to a United States State Department official, the concept of “smart power” – the intelligent integration and networking of diplomacy, defense, development, and other tools of so-called “hard” and “soft” power – is at the heart of the Obama administration’s foreign-policy vision. Currently, however, Obama’s smart-power strategy is facing a stiff challenge from events in the Middle East.

If Obama fails to support the governments in Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, or Yemen, he may jeopardize important foreign-policy goals such as Middle East peace, a naval base in the Persian gulf, stability in oil markets, or cooperation against Al Qaeda terrorists. On the other hand, if he merely supports such governments, he will antagonize those countries’ new information-empowered civil society, thus jeopardizing longer-term stability.

Balancing hard-power relations with governments with soft-power support for democracy is like walking a tightrope. The Obama administration has wobbled in this balancing act, but thus far it has not fallen off.

Because the Obama administration has used the term “smart power,” some people think that it refers only to the US, and critics complain that it is merely a slogan, like “tough love,” used to sugar-coat American foreign policy. But smart power is by no means limited to the US. Combining hard and soft power is a difficult task for many states – but no less necessary for that.