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Lionel Beehner

Lionel Beehner

Posted January 23, 2009 | 11:15 AM (EST)

Anybody Know What 'Smart Power' Means?


Hand it to Hillary Clinton. She's managed to sum up the bold new direction of US foreign policy into a bumper-friendly catchphrase: smart power. Sufficiently vague, the phrase is remarkable for its meaninglessness. Ostensibly it combines "hard" with "soft" power, a win-win policy that will wow the pants off the world's tyrants and restore American leadership in the world. But let's face it: the phrase is nothing more than an empty policy that launched a thousand think-tank brown bags.

The phrase avoids having to be specific about anything. How to handle Iran? Just use smart power. The Gaza conflict? Smart power. Russia meddling in Ukraine and Georgia? More smart power. Are we back to the days of poll-testing every word that passes Clinton's lips? Apparently so. As FOX News reports:

Carola McGiffert, co-director of the Smart Power Commission, launched in 2006 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies to examine how to restore America's image around the world, said the clarity of the phrase polled well. "We've only heard positive things about it," she said.

I'm suspicious. First of all, isn't smart power just a fancy way of saying traditional statecraft? Aren't diplomats always expected to use their full arsenal of tools? And if smart power was crafted to restore liberal internationalism to its rightful place and counter the Bush doctrine, well who isn't by this point against the Bush doctrine, outside of a few Palins and fossilized experts at AEI?

To me, the phrase's usage smacks of someone who really hasn't thought over what her policies are, perhaps because Hillary and her boss sparred on the direction of US foreign policy, perhaps because she has a habit of pandering to the lowest common denominator to curry favor (i.e. her ridiculous attempts to ban flag-burning as a first-term senator), and perhaps because her foreign policy CV is thinner than most interns at the Council on Foreign Relations and her experience abroad is not the stuff of serious statesmen (an aside: I spent a few weeks last summer in Bosnia where she is loathed by locals because of her fallacious remark about her daredevil descent into Tuzla).

Also, I'm suspicious of the word "smart." It's hard to refute -- after all, nobody I know is in favor of dumb power. And it's the foreign policy equivalent of saying you're pro-kittens. Yet the word "smart" tends to sugarcoat nasty stuff. After all, smart bombs still kill innocents. Smart sanctions still mostly target civilians and not the government.

Hillary is a fast-learner and an erudite scholar. She might do well to read a few books besides those of Joseph Nye. If "smart power" is to the coming decade what the word "containment" was to the 1950s -- a phrase manufactured by a Foreign Affairs copyeditor -- we could be heading for troubled times ahead.