Toward a Smarter Power: Moving Beyond the Rhetoric

T here exists in US foreign policy a great imbalance between military and civilian power. To some extent, this reflects budgets. For fiscal year 2010, Congress appropriated more than $600 billion for the Pentagon. The State Department and related agencies received roughly $50 billion. But money does not tell the whole story. The military, with its unique operational tools and abilities, has performed better in its responsibilities than civilian national security institutions have in vital non-military areas of the War on Terror, such as postwar stabilization and reconstruction, countering the Islamist ideology of al-Qaeda and its sympathizers, creating a durable legal and intelligence framework for handling captured terrorists, and so forth. Due to failures of civilian institutions, many soldiers have become de facto nation-builders, anthropologists, and public diplomats. They were not, in many cases, trained for these missions. But they were the only option—albeit an expensive and inefficient one.

President Obama, to his credit, has sought to change this unhealthy status quo, seeking to implement what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called “smart power,” which she defined as “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.” In selling this approach, however, the Obama administration has, as in other efforts, tried to scapegoat its predecessor, contending that the Bush administration ignored such a multifaceted approach and instead relied “only” on the military. Scholars, such as Harvard’s Joseph Nye, have bolstered this assumption. Suzanne Nossel, whose 2004 Foreign Affairs essay provided the first detailed treatment of smart power, accused the Bush administration of “militarism” and “unilateralism.” According to Nossel, now a State Department official, conservatives “rely on military power as the main tool of statecraft,” whereas “liberal internationalists see trade, diplomacy, foreign aid, and the spread of American values as equally important.”

Various other administration officials have echoed Nossel’s views. In 2008, Anne-Marie Slaughter, who departed as State Department policy planning director earlier this year, condemned the Bush administration’s “love affair with force.” Samantha Power, currently a senior NSC official, has alleged a long-standing conservative “disdain for diplomacy and pragmatism” that inspired the Bush administration’s “unilateralism and militarism.” Even under secretary of defense for policy Michéle Flournoy, a more understated official, has said that “US strategy has to be grounded in pragmatism rather than ideology”—a swipe at the Bush administration.

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Yet in fact the Bush administration understood the importance both of working with other countries and of using non-military tools of statecraft. Vice President Cheney, frequently invoked as an exemplar of unilateralism, spoke about the importance of working with allies or the UN no fewer than fifteen times between September 11th and the start of the Iraq War. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld spoke often about strengthening multilateral institutions while maintaining a proper respect for state sovereignty. As he noted in Singapore in June 2004, there are “very few things you can do unilaterally in this world” and “almost everything the United States does, we do it with other countries, and properly we should.”

The Bush administration paid more than lip service to these ideas. After the Taliban regime fell, for example, the US adopted the “lead nation” concept in reconstructing Afghanistan. The Germans were to build up the Afghan police. The British were to lead counternarcotics efforts. The Italians were to organize the judicial system. But the lead nation concept produced disappointing results. The British lacked trucks and helicopters for operations against drug lords. The Italians failed to send experts to Afghanistan for more than a year. Germany ignored immediate police-related needs and instead provided multi-year training to senior police officers. In each case, the United States had to fill gaps created by the “lead nations.”

The administration also cooperated with European nations on counterterrorism issues despite lingering bitterness related to its Iraq policy. France and Germany, the countries most strongly opposed to the Iraq War, both provided valuable support in law enforcement, intelligence, and the restricting of terrorist finances. Despite President Bush’s unpopularity in Europe, international cooperation proved remarkably durable during his administration—a fact that has received relatively little attention.

Multilateral cooperation extended to a number of other areas as well. The administration used largely multilateral mechanisms when engaging with Asian nations. These include, among others, the six-party talks with North Korea, the trilateral strategic dialogue with Australia and Japan, and consultations with ASEAN, APEC, and other regional organizations. As Australian scholar Brendan Taylor has written, “a strong case could even be made that this [Bush] administration has been the most multilaterally active and engaged of any during the post-Cold War era.”

More than ninety countries joined the Bush administration’s Proliferation Security Initiative to halt WMD trafficking on the high seas. The Container Security Initiative, which reduces the risk of terrorism from shipping, enjoys the support of tens of countries. The Pentagon has conducted a substantial NATO reform and expansion effort. This included such tasks as command structure reform and the formation of NATO strategy for Afghanistan.

T he commitment by Bush’s national security team to build up civilian institutions and capability is clear in administration documents ranging from the 2002 National Security Strategy to the Pentagon’s 2005 National Military Strategic Plan for the War on Terrorism to the 2006 National Security Strategy and others.

In particular, officials from the Pentagon, State Department, and NSC worked together to create a new office at State for reconstruction and stabilization. Pentagon officials helped develop the concept for the Civilian Reserve Corps, later renamed the Civilian Response Corps, to tap civilians from the private sector as well as state and local governments for important postwar reconstruction or crisis prevention tasks. A pool of skilled civilians, administration officials reasoned, could perform tasks related to infrastructure, governance, and agriculture more effectively and cheaply than soldiers.

Administration officials also focused on the ideological front of the War on Terror. Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, no agency or office in government played a lead role. While there were a number of program attempts—led by former advertising executive Charlotte Beers and Bush loyalists like Republican politicos Margaret Tutwiler, Pat Harrison, and Karen Hughes—these administrators and their initiatives were widely panned as vacuous and ineffective. Beers, while an under secretary of state, developed the Shared Values Initiative to demonstrate that Muslims were happy and well treated in the United States. Hughes, a later public diplomacy chief, went on a Middle East “listening tour” that was criticized for its lack of attention to substance. State’s approach was characterized as a series of weak attempts to counter anti-Americanism rather than an effort to explain US policy or stimulate dialogue within Muslim communities.

Nor were Bush-era civilian efforts limited to the War on Terror. President Bush launched a number of successful development initiatives including the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR) and the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA). A Stanford University study found that PEPFAR funding saved more than one million lives in Africa. Even foreign aid skeptic (and doctor) Senator Tom Coburn described PEPFAR as “the most successful foreign aid program since the Marshall Plan.” A Harvard University study found that MCA funding, with its accompanying conditions, improved governance significantly in targeted African countries.

There are numerous other examples of Bush-era initiatives to build up civilian power and to increase coordination between cabinet departments when confronting national security problems. There were successes and failures during these efforts, but the attention given was constant.

W hile asserting its intention to “reset” Bush’s approach, the Obama administration’s attempts to strengthen civilian power have not produced hoped-for results. There has been little appreciable improvement in the ability of our civilian institutions to meet national security challenges, despite a great deal of rhetoric to the contrary.

President Obama believes that engagement—through diplomacy both private and public—can improve the US position while weakening support for terrorism. A centerpiece of his engagement strategy, the June 2009 Cairo speech, did produce a certain amount of goodwill in Muslim countries. Yet only one year later, according to a June 2010 Pew study, US favorability in Pakistan and Egypt was lower than in 2008. There were only modest increases in Jordan and Lebanon. A Gallup survey in other Muslim-majority nations had similar findings. A July 2011 Zogby poll reinforced that “Arab favorable attitudes toward the US dropped to levels lower than they were in 2008.” As Michael Crowley observed in Time , “Obama has made precious little progress toward his goal of improving America’s standing in the Muslim world.”

These setbacks in Muslim countries are complemented by a number of public diplomacy missteps in other areas. The Obama administration abandoned Bush administration plans for missile defense facilities in the Czech Republic and Poland on the seventieth anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland. The administration has been tepid in working to pass the free trade pact with Colombia. A month after assuming office, the president returned a bust of Winston Churchill to the United Kingdom. This, along with a cold reception for Prime Minister Gordon Brown in March 2009, led many to question the strength of the “special relationship.” The overall impression is of an administration that treated its allies rather shabbily as it engaged with the likes of Iran, Syria, and Russia.

In Afghanistan, the president called for a “civilian surge” to complement the accompanying increase in military forces. Yet in doing so, Obama administration officials chose not to use fully the Civilian Response Corps created during the Bush administration. Instead, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke’s ad hoc office chose an ad hoc approach—to the detriment of long-term US government capability.

In some cases, Obama administration policies are actually weakening civilian institutions. Despite previously stated opposition to Guantánamo Bay, indefinite detention at military facilities, and military tribunals, the administration has failed to produce viable civilian alternatives. The ban on “enhanced interrogation techniques” (some as benign as “good cop, bad cop” and the use of false documents during questioning) has reduced the flow of useful intelligence. There is such uncertainty regarding detention and interrogation that it is easier to kill terrorists than capture them. There has been some success in this regard, especially with Predator drones. But dead terrorists don’t provide information about future plots.

Smart power is only smart if it enables the US to solve national security problems. There is little indication that Obama administration “smart power” has done so. It has failed to settle any of the most serious US foreign policy challenges, such as the threat of terrorism and Islamic radicalization, Iran’s drive to build a nuclear weapon, North Korea’s aggressive behavior and eventual leadership change, instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and now the rise of popular movements in Arab countries.

P resident Obama and his national security team are correct in working to elevate civilian power. His smart power concept, however, has become intertwined with political attacks against the Bush administration, thereby distorting the historical record, obscuring the actual challenges that smart power should address, and politicizing statecraft. This makes political and bureaucratic reform, the formation of new institutions, and the proper funding of important initiatives more difficult.

Determining in a fair and objective way the reasons for the failure to create and support institutions and capabilities that meet our national security requirements should be at the heart of any truly smart power concept. For instance, Obama administration officials often speak of a “whole of government” approach to problems. They recognize that many of today’s foreign policy problems don’t fit well into our 1947-vintage national security bureaucracy. Counterterrorism, post-conflict reconstruction, disaster response, and other activities require skills and expertise beyond those located in the Defense Department and the State Department. But while the administration has taken baby steps toward a reconfiguring of crucial government processes, it has done little to institutionalize badly needed changes.

Doing so would require a revamping of congressional authorities and jurisdiction. Current congressional sclerosis prevents the fast and flexible flow of useful personnel to the Pentagon and State Department from other federal departments. Congress has also made it difficult to create new institutions to confront national security challenges.

It is also difficult for civilians to spend money in the field. In fact, a combatant commander can more easily authorize the use of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of munitions than a civilian can authorize the spending of mere thousands of dollars in community reconstruction. To work around budgetary and bureaucratic constraints, Bush administration officials funded various civilian activities through transfers from the military budget. But this is an imperfect mechanism, and members of Congress have complained about funding activities this way. There is little alternative, however, as the same politicians provide insufficient funds through normal channels to the initiatives they claim to support.

Congressional bureaucracy, as well as oversight and authorization processes, are very much in need of reform. Those are significant aspects of the problem a smarter power should tackle, but they are not the only ones. The executive branch poses daunting challenges as well, as the Obama administration seems to recognize. By appointing special representatives (essentially issue-specific czars) for Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia, President Obama has implicitly questioned the ability of State’s permanent bureaucracy to address the most important foreign policy matters. Yet the administration appears not to have considered the long-term implications of conducting foreign policy through czars. Who will take the lead in generating policy within the State Department? What is the future of State’s regional bureaus? What if future czars aren’t as formidable or respected as Richard Holbrooke, George Mitchell, and Dennis Ross?

Additionally, a failure of imagination has plagued executive branch responses to a number of national security challenges. The intelligence community, through either failures of analysis or failures of communication, did not prepare senior policymakers adequately for the fall of the Shah in Iran, the fall of the Soviet Union, Indian nuclear tests in 1998, the absence of WMD stockpiles in Iraq, and, most recently, the wave of protests that spread through the Middle East, toppling the Egyptian and Tunisian governments.

This track record on major strategic events suggests that something fundamental is broken within the intelligence community. In the case of the Middle East protests, the United States has always seemed a step behind, not fully comprehending what was happening and having no ready-made policy approaches once the reality became clear.

Ideological efforts during the war on terrorism have suffered from a failure of imagination as well. While many current and former government officials describe the ideological front as the most important component of the war, there is no one office or department with responsibility for the effort. What’s more, activities have consisted largely of government messaging and public diplomacy designed to bolster the US image. There is little indication of a serious effort to stimulate debate among Muslims or empower Muslims who oppose radical Islamist ideology, despite such efforts being the key to victory.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Clinton have repeatedly expressed frustration with the US being out-communicated by the Taliban and al-Qaeda, “men in caves.” This is not happenstance. The enemy understands the ideological center of gravity better than the US does. The terrorists present a vision of Islam that the US doesn’t adequately challenge. They back up this vision with a campaign of violence and intimidation to cow into quiet acquiescence those who stand in their way. And why should we expect their opponents to stand up when the bravest of them, such as Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti in Pakistan, are gunned down when they do? What amounts to a public relations campaign in the midst of a total ideological war is not smart power.

M aking our statecraft more intelligent and more capable presents formidable challenges, but solutions, while not easy, are not impossible either. Despite increased partisanship in government today, an opportunity exists to build bipartisan consensus for a smarter power. The US has done this before. In the midst of Soviet intransigence, the Truman administration reversed demobilization and committed to the defense of Western Europe and East Asia. In a matter of months, the administration synthesized military aid, humanitarian aid, covert action, ideological operations, and other means as the tools with which to carry out the strategy of containment. In 1982, the Reagan administration produced NSDD-32, a document that called for the “development and integration of a set of strategies, including diplomatic, informational, economic/political, and military components.” The effective use of those components was essential in bringing about the Soviet Union’s collapse.

True, today’s environment is less friendly to pressing home such forceful initiatives. The 24/7 news cycle exposes both senior policymakers and bureaucracies to a constant scrutiny that didn’t exist before. Deputy Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s May 1947 speech that laid out the rationale for the Marshall Plan announced a month later, for instance, only reached those who were there or who read or listened to accounts of the speech. Accordingly, President Truman and his national security team had relatively free rein to implement their policy.

If a speech of similar importance were made today, it would be live-blogged in real time. It would be savagely dissected and subjected to politicized criticism as it made the rounds of cable talk shows and the Internet. As Donald Rumsfeld recently said, paraphrasing Mark Twain, “a lie can travel around the world three times while the truth is still putting its boots on.” Other phenomena, such as the proliferation of press leaks, the shorter tenures of officials and the concomitant concern for advancing a career, and efforts at transparency that paradoxically produce more secrecy, also encourage caution and limit scope for action.

We need the audacity to make the US national security infrastructure faster, bolder, and more flexible—and to be more willing to challenge the status quo and those invested in it. A smarter power requires expending political capital to make changes of low visibility that might not generate clear results in the short-term. This is a tall order considering the contentious nature of policy and political battles. Without an effective smart power effort, however, we will be stuck with an ossified national security infrastructure that could be just as damaging to the US position in the world as economic problems or military overextension.


Justin Polin is a research associate at the Hudson Institute's Center for National Security Strategies and a National Review Institute Washington Fellow.

(Photo Attribution: Filip Fuxa / Shutterstock.com)

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