Recovering America’s “Smart Power”

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.