Why Smart Power matters

America cannot solve the most pressing problems on our own, and the world cannot solve them without America. The best way to advance America’s interest in reducing global threats and seizing global opportunities is to design and implement global solutions. This isn’t a philosophical point. This is our reality.

The president-elect and I believe that foreign policy must be based on a marriage of principles and pragmatism, not rigid ideology. On facts and evidence, not emotion or prejudice. Our security, our vitality, and our ability to lead in today’s world oblige us to recognize the overwhelming fact of our interdependence.

I believe that American leadership has been wanting, but is still wanted. We must use what has been called “smart power,” the full range of tools at our disposal — diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural — picking the right tool, or combination of tools, for each situation. With smart power, diplomacy will be the vanguard of foreign policy. This is not a radical idea. The ancient Roman poet Terence, who was born a slave and rose to become one of the great voices of his time, declared that “in every endeavor, the seemly course for wise men is to try persuasion first.” The same truth binds wise women as well.

– Hillary Clinton, January 13th, 2009

During her confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hillary Clinton used the term “Smart Power” no less than 12 times. It is a clever term, one that seeks to navigate between the Hard Power of military might and economic coercion, with the Soft Power of ideology, culture and agenda setting. Does the term signal something new in US foreign policy? Depends on your time frame. Without a doubt it marks the end of the George W. Bush foreign policy era. Clearly the blustery swagger of a shoot first, ask question later has ended. This is a United States that will be more cautious and more engaging. But rather than the start of something new, Smart Power likely signals a return to the Bill Clinton and Bush Sr. era of foreign policy. Indeed, as important as the term Smart Power was, the focus should lie not on the term, but on the revealing paragraph leading up to it:

“The president-elect and I believe that foreign policy must be based on a marriage of principles and pragmatism, not rigid ideology. On facts and evidence, not emotion or prejudice. Our security, our vitality, and our ability to lead in today’s world oblige us to recognize the overwhelming fact of our interdependence.”

Here the guiding principles behind the shift to Smart Power are revealed. Two strike me as paramount. The first reaffirms what I think will be the buzz word of the Obama administration: pragmatism. Despite his soaring speeches and inspiring words Obama is first and foremost interested in achieving the possible – stretch goals are fine – but ideological dreams are not for him. Second, in this speech, the United States’ next Secretary of State signalled to the world that it once again recognizes it cannot go it alone. The acknowledgement of interdependence is the antithesis of “you are with us or against us.” It is an recognition that allies – real allies, not the minnow states bullied into participation – are required to sustain and enhance the stability and prosperity of the international system. Bush Sr. understood this when creating his coalition for the first Gulf War, Clinton sought, insofar as possible, to build similar agreement when advancing his international agenda.

These have two dramatic impacts for Canada – and other countries. The first is that we should expect the Americans will ask us what we think – our advice or thoughts may not change their opinions, but we will likely be asked and when that happens, we’d better have something smart and meaningful to contribute. Second, the opportunity of being consulted comes with it the responsibility to contribute and support, even when the decision or strategy isn’t one that we completely agree with. When you’ve been part of the discussion you can walk away when the rubber hits the road. Third, those who have a well thought out plan for solving a problem will win out over those who have grievances to share. Demonstrate to this administration that you can solve a problem through realizable actions and I suspect they will listen and support you.

For Canadians nowhere is this change in attitude possible more important than on the management of the Canadian Border. I would have a new briefing plan of how we believe the border should be managed ready and waiting for when Clinton or Obama’s first arrives in Ottawa. If the Obama administration acts as it talks, I suspect it will reward and seek out, not those who do as it says, but those who solve the problems they care about. This is a welcome return to the diplomacy of the 1990’s which was also cautious and smart. It was also a good period for Canadian-American relations.

Canadians have spent years hoping the Americans will change. Now that they have, are we ready?

One thought on “Why Smart Power matters

  1. Tim

    David, good start to a good column. Did you see Hendrick Hertzberg's little piece on smart power in the New Yorker this week?

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