11/19/2007 11:49 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"I'm Rich. I Have a Gun. Please Be My Friend."

Recently the term "smart power" has been surfacing more and more in discussions of America's role in the world. The basic idea is that "hard power" and "soft power" need to be balanced in an intelligent way when dealing with other countries. Hard power means military and economic strength. Soft power means exerting influence through diplomacy, making friends for America and its way of life. At present, most observers would say that we are far from exerting smart power. America's friendly influence in the world has waned alarmingly while our use of military force has been disastrously clumsy and heavy-handed under the control of neoconservatives. Their vision of America was that a single superpower would bestride the world like a colossus. What actually occurred has been more like the re-emergence of Nixon's "pitiful helpless giant."

But will it ever be smart to maintain an enormous military -industrial complex while at the same time expecting other countries to like us? Militarism is a naked threat. Backing it up with lollipops and smiles isn't smart. It's hypocritical. America is the rich kid on the block who thinks he has friends because he's so charming and admired. In truth, if America stopped propping up reactionary regimes in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, among others, a tide of fundamentalist Islam would sweep into power on the basis of anti-Americanism. A generation ago, weak countries were more or less forced to choose between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The fact that so many chose the U.S. side during the cold war disguised the fact that it was a forced choice. After all, the rich kid carried a gun in his back pocket.

Now we live in an era of rising self-determination. China, India, and Russia are controlling their own future far more aggressively than before. Islamists can thumb their nose at American military might. The Euro outstrips the falling dollar. OPEC's oil monopoly dictates the status of energy around the world. What does smart power have to say about these massive changes? It says the following:

--America must back down from futile fantasies of military domination of the world.
--The next generation will have to rebuild the shattered image of America that the Bush administration so shamefully degraded.
--The underlying democratic principles of American society must be reaffirmed.
--The role of a superpower needs to be redefined as one of global leadership rather than nationalistic bullying.
--America's military threat must be converted to military reassurance.

All of these ideas have gained wide circulation, and in retrospect the eight years spent in reactionary delusion may turn out to be our best friend, since the total failure of not using smart power has been stark and sobering. Having lived through the calamity of right-wing military nationalism, America knows exactly what course to reverse. The only fear is that we don't make a complete reversal. Confusion still abounds, and large portions of militarism, xenophobia, protectionism, and other worn-out approaches persist. Even after a disastrous war, the right wing calls for more, not less militarism -- a bigger army, increased technologies of death, more sales of arms abroad. This is the classic folly of doing more and more of what didn't work in the first place.

The average citizen doesn't realize that in the name of national security and fear of terrorism, the militarists have planned a future that is essentially a ticking time bomb. Nothing less than a total embrace of smart power will avert more wars, more terror, and right-wing dominance of the national dialogue. The greatest good any of us can do is to constantly strive to live in peace consciousness, rejecting war, nationalism, and military supremacy. Those failed ideas remain the greatest threat to America's future, as much today as when the Iraq war started.