After a long bloody stretch, there appears to be a new willingness to explore diplomatic alternatives to the use of armed force. But is this “smart power” really smart?
These should be heady days for diplomats, and for anyone who prefers dialogue to diktat, talking to fighting. After a long and bloody stretch, there appears today to be a new willingness to explore diplomatic alternatives to the use of armed force. Diplomacy has suddenly become, well, fashionable.
The first 100 days of the Obama administration, as reflected especially in pronouncements by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden, have unleashed a torrent of commentary on the resurgence of public diplomacy and nation branding. Harvard Professor Joseph Nye – the guru of soft, and now smart power – is becoming almost a household name. Special envoys have been appointed, thorny issues broached, executive orders signed and new directions indicated. Guantanamo Bay is closing, Europe is opening and overtures have been made to Iran, Turkey, and Indonesia. The neo-cons have packed-up, Fox has toned-down, torture is out, and negotiation is in.
In short, south of the border statecraft appears to be on a roll. The short road from heresy to liturgy may be getting even shorter, and the timing could scarcely be better. In much of the world, the image and reputation of the West in general, and the USA in particular, has tanked. On the other hand, the potential on the upside is huge.
So – are we ready? Can diplomacy, especially in the context of this much-hyped phenomenon of smart power, deliver us to a promised land of peace and prosperity?
To be sure, foreign ministries and diplomats everywhere will welcome the attention to non-violent international policy options; having failed to adapt rapidly or well to the challenges of the globalization age, these institutions have been through a rough patch lately. While reform efforts continue, it is not clear that they will be enough.
For starters, the global war on terror grinds on, even if restyled as overseas contingency operations. The inertia generated by career interests, organizational orientation and budgetary dependence relies on the GWOT’s continuation. Many of the Obama Administration’s senior level appointees, moreover, are associated more with continuity in foreign policy than with change. Defense Secretary Gates has requested a 4 per cent increase in next year’s U.S. military budget. And an additional 21,000 soldiers are being sent to Afghanistan, with talk of further escalation to come.
There are real grounds for concern in all of that.
However, it the paradox that underlies the premise of smart power that strikes me as even more problematic. The new doctrines of counterinsurgency and stabilization operations attempt to turn diplomats into political warriors, soldiers into diplomats and academic anthropologists into “human terrain system” interpreters. As with its controversial predecessor, the Phoenix Program in Vietnam, this can be both morally and personally hazardous. In other words, while the idea of combing hard and soft into smart power makes a certain amount of sense in the abstract, actually making it work is difficult. Extremely. Glyn Berry, the Canadian diplomat serving as Political Director at the PRT in Kandahar was killed by an IED. Trevor Greene, a Canadian soldier trying to have an exchange with Afghan villagers, was struck in the head with an axe for his efforts. In short, smart power may sound good, but the alchemy is highly volatile and potentially deadly, especially in places where the anger and resentment attached to civilian casualties and collateral damage are mounting.
All of this is troubling. In the era of indivisible security and persistent underdevelopment, two hallmarks of the globalization age, it may be that smart power will prove an appropriate formula for those states with the capacity to both marshal and mix the necessary ingredients. Yet the fundamental threats and challenges to world order (and human survival) do not arise from terrorism or religious extremism, but are rooted in science and driven by technology – climate change, pandemic disease, resource scarcity, alternative energy, genomics.
Smart power does not seem the right instrument with which to address these global issues. Instead, a transformational form of public diplomacy – guerrilla diplomacy, if I may – seems to me a more attractive, effective alternative.
If there are questions about the authenticity of new directions in the U.S., Canadians have no reason to feel smug or complacent. With DFAIT again on the chopping block, aid expenditures stagnating and DND’s influence ascendant, the issues raised by the militarization of international policy are no less troubling here.