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Smart Power

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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. A group of Republican and Democratic members of Congress, former ambassadors, retired military officers and heads of non-profit organizations was convened by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. We concluded that America's image and influence had declined in recent years, and that the United States had to change from exporting fear to inspiring optimism and hope.

The CSIS Smart Power Commission is not alone in this conclusion. Earlier this week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates called for the U.S. government to commit more money and effort to soft power tools including diplomacy, economic assistance and communications because the military alone cannot defend America's interests around the world. He pointed out that military spending totals nearly half a trillion dollars annually compared with a State Department budget of $36 billion. In his words, "I am here to make the case for strengthening our capacity to used soft power and for better integrating it with hard power." He acknowledged that for the head of the Pentagon to plead for more resources for the State Department was as odd as a man biting a dog, but these are not normal times.

Smart power is the ability to combine hard and soft power into a successful strategy. By and large, the United States managed such a combination during the Cold War, but more recently U.S. foreign policy has tended to over-rely on hard power because it is the most direct and visible source of American strength. The Pentagon is the best trained and best resourced arm of the government, but there are limits to what hard power can achieve on its own. Promoting democracy, human rights and development of civil society are not best handled with the barrel of a gun. It is true that the American military has an impressive operational capacity, but the practice of turning to the Pentagon because it can get things done leads to an image of an over-militarized foreign policy.

Diplomacy and foreign assistance are often under-funded and neglected, in part because of the difficulty of demonstrating their short term impact on critical challenges. In addition, wielding soft power is difficult because many of America's soft power resources lie outside of government in the private sector and civil society, in its bilateral alliances, multilateral institutions, and transnational contacts. Moreover, American foreign policy institutions and personnel are fractured and compartmentalized and there is not an adequate inter-agency process for developing and funding a smart power strategy.

The effects of the 9/11 terrorist attacks have thrown us off course. Since the shock of 9/11, the United States has been exporting fear and anger rather than our more traditional values of hope and optimism. Guantanamo has become a more powerful global icon than the Statue of Liberty. The CSIS Smart Power Commission acknowledged that terrorism is a real threat and likely to be with us for decades, but we pointed out that over-responding to the provocations of extremists does us more damage than the terrorists ever could. The commission argued that success in the struggle against terrorism means finding a new central premise for American foreign policy to replace the current theme of a "war on terror." A commitment to providing global public goods can provide that premise.

For more details, see the report on the CSIS website.