THE BLOG
03/14/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Is Hillary Soft Enough to be Smart?

Hillary Clinton's forthcoming trip to Asia will be the first test of 'smart power' -- America's new comprehensive tool box for international relations. For those who don't keep up with the jargon, smart power is a balance between what Joseph Nye termed 'soft power' (getting results without the use of force) and 'hard power' (using both arms and money to have your way with the world). While soft power has been around for over 20 years and has become a globally accepted measure -- particularly in Asia where Hillary is heading -- smart power will be under close scrutiny.

But what is genuinely new about smart power? Practitioners of conflict resolution the world over will ask how it differs, for example, from 'containment' which has always been on offer in the age of nuclear deterrence. We are all familiar with the idea of 'speaking softly while carrying a big stick' -- that's what we pay our diplomats for.

Certainly, history suggests that, the world over, we could afford to shift foreign policy explicitly towards soft power. According to the Oxford Research Group , since the 1990s more wars have been ended by negotiated settlement (59) than by military victory (27). Moreover, out of 285 campaigns to resist dictatorship in the 20th century, non-violent campaigns have achieved success 55% of the time, compared to 28.4% for violent resistance campaigns. In truth, soft power has a better record.

Yet in our responses to conflict, whether in the government or in our media, we continue to give hard power credit -- as if it were the one thing we can ultimately rely on when we are under threat.

It doesn't help that in the battle for the Democratic nomination, Hillary was the 'hard power candidate'. Her stated readiness to "obliterate" Iran in the event of open conflict, contrasted sharply with Obama's willingness to go into talks with no pre-conditions. But herein lies a poignant truth about women in politics: Hilary could not then and cannot now afford to promote 'soft power' for fear of appearing weak. 'Smart power', given her own concerns about politics and gender, is the best she can do.

Going into politics for women has always required a tacit denial of all things soft. Children are managed away; relationships are hidden; sensuality is boxed away in power suits and heavy briefcases. Discussion is conducted like a sport -- competitive debate rather than the engaging dialogue that women excel in. Bombastic or witty performances score much higher than effective mediation. And any vulnerability is eagerly pounced upon.

With these hard edges, politics has alienated a lot of women (as well as men). Although the numbers have risen significantly at the top level - 15% women in Bush's cabinet to 25% women in Obama's -- the general picture is less encouraging with only one extra woman in the Senate and 10 in the House.

And a dearth of women in politics impoverishes our public life. Research has shown that women are better mediators, networkers and holistic thinkers - those soft power skills that are sorely needed in the traditionally male bastions of finance and international relations right now. But as Feminocracy found in a recent report, they are rarely tempted to apply for the jobs.

And out of all the conventional wisdoms being challenged at the moment, probably the most striking is this: it might take a male leader - Obama himself - to enable a real surge in authentic female leadership. And the key to this will be the President's instinctive understanding of the effectiveness of soft power.

Soft power is the very essence of the Obama phenomenon. He won his votes, not simply through the hard power of wealthy friends and business -- although there were some -- but through the interactions of networks and community activists. Since the election, all these networks have continued at the same pace, their continuing force felt on Martin Luther King Day when Obama called upon every citizen to do some voluntary work in the community -- starting with his own family.

He took on the Republicans, not by vilifying them - the easiest of targets at this time - but by reaching out to them, in a transcendent vision of a re-united America. He didn't reason away his plural origins, he championed them, going as far as to use his middle name -- Hussein -- when taking the oath. An olive branch, maybe, to "unclench the fists" of America's modern day enemies. And as if that wasn't all soft enough, he selected the first three words of the famous Gandhi quote, "be the change you wish to see in the world" -- the very antithesis of hard power -- as his inaugural slogan.

Even more important perhaps has been Obama's personal embodiment of soft power -- his manner and style -- and the way that has been reflected and magnified under a media lens. His calm, measured speech, his evident tactility and friendship with political opponents, his easily-displayed adoration of wife and family is evident to every viewer and listener.

Sometimes you suspect the hand of his press agent, organizing for him to be regularly photographed in 'private' moments -- alone in the tunnel, in the lift, gazing at his Blackberry -- when logic suggests that the President rarely stands alone. If so, the result is to portray him as personal, accessible, vulnerable even, but not in any way weak.

If this kind of coverage were extended to the rest of politics it would change the culture of politics significantly. Less the politician as public servant, standing in line, grinning for the photographer in a short burst of forced relaxation. More politician as human being - self-aware, looking to connect with the people using every tool available, interacting amongst colleagues more than performing, thinking of his family at school and in the community even as he makes policy.

How ironic that it has taken a man to confidently display such softness and prove its efficacy and popularity. But maybe it takes a man to truly subvert a masculine structure from the inside.

For those of us who believe that a more balanced leadership in society -- not just in terms of gender, but in terms of qualities too -- will deliver a different kind of governance, Obama's arrival on the international scene is very welcome. For Hillary it might just be the prompt she needs to bring out the soft power in the smart.