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Brainier Brawn

"Smart power": a brief history

OFF/AFP/Getty Images
OFF/AFP/Getty Images

The term “smart power” is just half a decade old, but the concept behind it goes back much further. Grand strategists from Carl von Clausewitz to Lawrence of Arabia advocated a mix of “hard” military power and “soft” ideological sway as the recipe for winning wars. To its boosters in today’s Washington, smart power is a way to better husband U.S. resources in a changing world; to detractors, it’s a slick marketing phrase masking a policy of weakness. Either way, smart power is now not just a theoretical construct but a way to cash in. The U.S. defense industry has seized on smart-power-style contracts, monetizing a catchphrase that has become the hallmark of the Obama administration.

1832: Carl von Clausewitz‘s seminal work On War distinguishes two necessary ways to defeat an enemy: using “moral qualities and effects” (which later came to be called “soft power”) and “the whole mass of the military force” (“hard power”).

1917: T.E. Lawrence, or Lawrence of Arabia, describing a successful insurgency in his “27 Articles,” cites both the need for a moral base on the ground and the physical ability to inflict damage.

March 1, 1961: The 1960s see the United States embark on a new set of soft-power programs aimed at isolating the Soviet Union. “Our own freedom, and the future of freedom around the world, depend … on [developing countries’] ability to build … independent nations,” President John F. Kennedy tells Congress in proposing one such initiative, the Peace Corps.

November 9, 1989: Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the U.S. emphasis on soft power plummets; the number of Foreign Service officers working in public diplomacy, for example, drops about 25 percent, and educational and cultural programs lose funding every year until 2002.

1991: In Bound to Lead, Harvard University political scientist Joseph Nye defines two types of power. Hard power is the kind “associated with tangible resources like military and economic strength,” while soft power includes things like “culture, ideology, and institutions.”

2001-2004: Following the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush‘s administration emphasizes the use of hard power, most notably pre-emptive force.

January 2004: Nye promotes a new phrase, smart power, in his book, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. “Smart power is neither hard nor soft. It is both,” he writes, noting that it means “learning better how to combine” military might with moral and cultural prowess.

March-April 2004: In Foreign Affairs, analyst Suzanne Nossel also adopts the catchphrase: “Smart power means knowing that the United States’ own hand is not always its best tool: U.S. interests are furthered by enlisting others on behalf of U.S. goals.”

March-September 2007: Nye and former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage set up the Commission on Smart Power, stocked with 20 leaders from across the U.S. government and NGOs. The term takes hold on U.S. op-ed pages, with dozens of mentions in three top newspapers from 2007 through 2009, up from just one in the two years before that.

2008: Smart power enters the political arena when Democratic candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton promote the concept during the U.S. presidential campaign. Obama describes his foreign policy as one that would “shape events not just through military force, but through the force of our ideas.”

January 13, 2009:In her confirmation hearing for secretary of state, Clinton defines her strategy as one of “smart power.” Defense contractors soon look to cash in, building their portfolios in health and human rights to align “with the Obama administration’s emphasis on the application of ‘smart power,'” as DynCorp Chief Executive William Ballhaus puts it.

Fall 2009: Commentators around the world embrace the term. An op-ed in the Times of India on the eve of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh‘s visit to Washington concludes, “The impact of joint exercise of India-U.S. smart power will be felt across central Asia, ASEAN and beyond the Indian Ocean.”

November 16, 2009: Conservatives step up the attack on the Obama administration’s ability to turn smart power from slogan to strategy. National Review argues, “Obama’s team has managed an early record of glaring diplomatic ineptitude that suggests ‘smart power’ is neither.”

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