The Illusion of American 'Smart Power'

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi 

A new report on "smart power" by the Washington think-tank, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), is out and prodigiously marketed as a timely "liberalist" antidote to the neo-conservative train wreck of US foreign policy that has put the US on the hate list of so many people around the world.

Titled "A smarter, more secure America," [1] the report is prepared by a high-level group led by Joseph Nye, a leading advocate of the "soft power approach", and a former deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage, better known for his previous role in the warmongering Project For the New American Century that prodded the US government to attack Iraq and to prevent any challenges to the US's post-Cold War "unipolar moment".

But, that was then and now Armitage, acting as a consultant to multinational corporations, would rather wear the "neo-liberal" hat pushing for "norm-based internationalism", "global collective goods" and the like, without, however, altogether shedding the hegemonist predilections of his past.

Not surprisingly, the report's prescription of a bold new approach for US foreign policy is somewhat checkmated by the sheer force of its underlying institutional compromise, devoid of much intellectual vitality, rehashing the old recipes for action associated with the so-called "neo-liberal institutionalism" in international relations while, simultaneously, reconciling two contrasting approaches, namely, militarism and internationalism, by the semantic fiat of "smart power".

John H Hamre, the president of CSIS, opens the lavishly self-promoting report by stating that the US "is a country of big ideas" and the report provides a "truly big idea". Truth is, America is increasingly a place of artificially inflated ideas, and the bigger they get the more hallow their "inner ring", particularly in the realm of political thought and diplomacy.

These are often promoted by elephantine egos too quick to credit themselves for new ideas, or a "new paradigm", as in the case of Nye's Harvard colleague, Samuel Huntington, in his book on "clashing civilizations", that, on reflection, turn out to be pathetically familiar, albeit with new twists or nuances. [2]

"We can become a smart power again," the report promises, but the question is how, seeing that America is not blessed with the necessary crop of "smart" thinkers serving the "administrative production of knowledge" to borrow a term from the French thinker Michel Foucault.

An important prerequisite for American leadership in today's world is leadership in the realm of ideas, and this is precisely where, contrary to Nye's deterministic "bound to lead", the great superpower is, in fact, a paper tiger - with the old hands who have been part of the administration of US power one way or another still privileged to chart a new course through the prism of their rigid ideology and ossified theoretical frameworks.

'Smart power' report's analytical atrophy

The content of this report is heavily indebted to the theoretical contributions of Nye, a Harvard professor, on power and, unsurprisingly, nearly all the defects and shortcomings of Nye's power theory - its ill-defined, contradictory dualism of "hard" and "soft" power, etc - are recycled here.

Thus, whereas economic power is, along with military power, initially categorized as part of "hard" power, the rest of the report repeatedly refers to it as a source of "soft power"; the latter is defined as basically the power of attraction and related to American democracy, Hollywood, consumer goods, education system, etc.

Over the years, Nye has been anything but shy about claiming credit for his singular contributions to the theories of power, yet much of it is undeserved, as any competent sociologist probing the history of thoughts, running from Max Weber to Antonio Gramsci to Michel Foucault, regarding the subtleties and complexities of power, would readily attest. Nye's theory is an excellent theory that can never be refuted precisely because it cannot be pinned down, its core assumptions too nebulous to lend themselves to scientific parsimony.

Aside from contradictory notions and simplistic truisms, eg, "strengthen America" by "bolstering its soft power", the report is distinguished by its unabashed glorification of the American military - that has "never been put in the service of building a colonial empire in the manner of European militaries". A little micro-focusing on post September 11, 2001, American interventionism, curiously absent in the whole report, would arguably lead to a diametrically different conclusion. Too much focus on power actually distracts from conscious policies.

To be sure, the authors of the "smart power" report are not void of praise for European imperialism, particularly the 19th-century British imperialism that, they claim, contains precious lessons for the "smarter" America of the 21st century. Their point - about "legitimized British power in the eyes of others" - is clearly Eurocentric and blind to the perception of the colonized populations who eventually removed the chains one way or another. But that is a separate story.

Tightly packed into the report is the incontrovertible fact that American standing in the world has suffered. Yet, any report focused on "how America wields power in the world" that omits a serious consideration of the multiple causes, such as the American quagmire in Iraq, cannot possibly be taken seriously.

The trouble is, however, that both authors of the report are on record supporting the 2003 invasion, although in fairness to Nye, he did criticize it as the "right war at the wrong time", and targeted President George W Bush's failure to "neglect of allies and institutions" that have created a "a sense of illegitimacy". [3] The problem with Nye's approach, however, is the failure to recognize that the "pretextual" war against a sovereign nation in the Middle East, which bypassed the UN, could not possibly have the required legitimacy even if professor Nye and his arsenal of "soft power" pills were in order at the White House; in a word, contrary to Nye, it was the wrong war at the wrong time.

Formerly of the US State Department, Francis Fukuyama has agreed that procuring legitimacy has to do with "justice". In other words, an unjust war cannot be called legitimate no matter what the verbal acrobatics by the likes of Nye and others, who pay lip service to the "de-legitimating" US Middle East policies, ie, neglecting the Middle East peace process, mentioned only in passing in the above-said report, without due consideration of the serious ramification of such neglects with respects to the threats facing the US today.

While side-stepping the Iraq issue with the lame excuse of "broader" perspectives that need to "replace the narrow lens focused on Iraq", the report gives several other reasons for the waning influence of US, ie, reactions to American-led globalization, US's "angry" response to September 11, perception of incompetence, and the side-effects of Cold War success as a lone superpower. Here, the authors conflate the long-term causes of power decline with the negative fall outs of questionable policies, such as with respect to US unilateralism.

Regarding the latter, Robert Jervis has correctly pointed at the structural causes of American unilateralism, chiefly the absence of external restraints to American power. In comparison, Nye and Armitage mention other nations resorting to the UN to "constrain" the US power, yet provide no analysis of why the US has fallen astray from "norm-based internationalism", the fact that it has to do with power dynamism and America's "totalizing" power grab at the global level, to borrow a term from the French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Pierre-Felix Guattari.

In light of their benign, tolerant attitude toward the exercise of American power, even under the Bush administration, which is said to have used "elements of smart power", Nye and Armitage never really get to the bottom of their own frank admission that today many nations "resent US's unbounded dominance".

Instead of drawing from this insight the necessity of a multi-polar world order, the report on "smart power" is keen on maintaining America's "preeminence" in the world and the various ways to ensure it, simultaneously throwing ideas such as "shared leadership" and "accommodating rising powers". True to its contradictory nature, the report on the one hand admits that global politics is not a "zero-sum game" and, yet, in the same breath sends the message that "China can only become preeminent if the US continues to allow its own power of attraction to atrophy".

Flawed, inadequate diagnosis of the problems behind America's waning influence go hand-in-hand with equally inadequate prescriptions for a new US foreign policy, no matter how useful the insights on increasing foreign aid, closing down Guantanamo detention center, focusing on public diplomacy, that is, the usual panoply of "neo-liberal" recipes for action, with the sole exception of omitting the word "interdependence" previously highlighted in Nye's own writings.

These recommendations are not far-reaching enough, often tackling the symptoms rather than the real causes of problems, overall denoting a mindset that reflects policy continuity (with the past and the present) when discontinuity should have the upper hands signaling a real foreign policy reorientation away from the disastrous policies of the Bush presidency.

Clearly, such a reorientation is impossible short of a paradigmatic shift away from the core assumptions of the American hegemonic model (which are only superficially questioned in this report). Devoid of such a radical shift, the report's "smart power" has nested in it the elements of a vicious policy circle, bound to reintroduce failed US policies under new guises.

But, alas, give the authors of the report, and the small army of research associates, etc, behind it some credit, at least they are smart enough to carve out a long-term function for themselves, by advocating institutional reforms warranting a "smart power deputy" and a whole new bureaucracy ostensibly to tackle the various problems of fractured, ad hoc policy-making in the US government. But, self-integration in the US policy process makes a poor substitute for a smart "integrated strategy" which, as stated above, requires what is in critical short supply in the US today, namely, genuine strategic outlook.

1. See CSIS Commission on Smart Power.
2. Increasingly, Harvard University has become a source of stale ideas unwrapped with seductive covering, eg, Stephen Walt's completely unoriginal, methodologically suspect, albeit empirically sound, book on the Jewish lobby and the US foreign policy, co-authored with John Mearsheimer, or Amartya Sen's equally unoriginal writings, eg, on identity and violence, rehashing the multiculturalists' lament about "narrow identities" breeding violence, when, in fact, the discursive violence on ethnic minorities in the name of greater, eg, national or cosmopolitan identities, is similarly problematic. Another Harvardite, Samuel Huntington, borrowing the idea of "clashing civilizations" and running with it, is yet another example of how Harvard has self-associated with intellectual atrophy.
3. Joseph Nye, "The right war at the wrong time," Boston Globe, March 24, 2003.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.


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