Smart Power

John J. Hamre talks with Joseph Nye and Richard Armitage.

The American Interest asked John J. Hamre, president and CEO of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan think tank in Washington, DC, to lead a conversation between former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Harvard professor Joseph Nye on the topic of smart power. Secretary Armitage and Dr. Nye, both members of CSIS’s board of trustees, are currently co-chairing the center’s high-level Commission on Smart Power, designed to provide recommendations to the next president of the United States on restoring America’s credibility and influence in the world. The commission will release its report later this year. (Visit the project’s website)

John Hamre: Joe, Rich, what is smart power?

Joseph Nye: Rich and I and the rest of the commission are looking at how America wields power in the world and what type of posture is most effective. Hard power—basically military and economic might (coercion and payments)—is a vital element, but as we’ve seen over the past few years, it doesn’t necessarily translate into influence in today’s world. Smart power is about tapping into diverse sources of American power, including our soft power, to attract others. It is about how we can get other countries to share our goals without resorting to coercion, which is limited and inevitably costly.

Richard Armitage: If we look at the main challenges facing us today—terrorism, climate change, people left behind or threatened by globalization, changing relationships in Asia—none of these can be solved by hard power alone. We need to figure out how to integrate military and civilian tools and how to work more effectively with others. After 9/11 we found ourselves exporting something foreign from America: fear and anger. Smart power is a part of a strategy designed to return to more traditional American values of hope and optimism. The United States should be a beacon for the rest of the world, not out of step and out of favor.

John Hamre: The concept of smart power seems to reflect an historic tension in American foreign policy between idealism and realism. Where do you see U.S. foreign policy today, and what do you think the next president ought to do in order to strike the right balance between idealism and realism in American foreign policy?

Joseph Nye: We’ve always had a mixture of idealism and realism in our foreign policy. Looking back to the Cold War, one could argue that it was the combination of idealism and realism that ultimately secured American victory. American idealism, embodied in our values of democracy and freedom, provided us our soft power by attracting peoples and nations to the United States. American realism—through our large military presence—provided us with our hard power by enabling the United States to deter Soviet aggression. But it was the integration of the two that led to our success. When the Berlin Wall finally came down, it didn’t come down as the result of an artillery barrage, but as the result of sledge hammers and bulldozers. Our soft power eroded the belief in communism behind the Iron Curtain while we simultaneously maintained our military deterrent. “Idealism versus realism” is something of a false dichotomy. You need both.

Richard Armitage: It is a false dichotomy. Every administration comes into office full of good, healthy idealism. But every one runs right up against both our system of checks and balances and against real problems. As a motivator, a president has to be an idealist. But at the end of the day, when you come head on into actual problems, as the current administration is finding in North Korea and Iran, idealism gives way to realism. It has to.

John Hamre: During the Cold War, it was easier to formulate a cohesive national security strategy because we had a defined threat, an identifiable enemy. Is the threat of international terrorism sufficient to be the defining principle of U.S. foreign policy? And can we integrate hard power and soft power to confront this threat?

Richard Armitage: Let me take a shot at that. I am one of those who, absent the threat of a nuclear device in the hands of terrorists, feels that terrorism is not sufficient as a unifying factor. We can do much more damage to ourselves by overreacting to terrorist threats than the terrorists could ever do. Terrorists are not going to change our way of life. They can shoot us in the arm, but only we can shoot ourselves in both legs.

Joseph Nye: I agree. The great danger from terrorism is what you might call the jujitsu effect. The small, weak actor cannot defeat the large, powerful nation unless it can get the large, powerful nation to hurt itself. It could do this by frightening us into giving up our open society.

The world has been through generations of terrorism in the past, going back to anarchism in the late 19th century up through the Red Brigades of the 1960s and 1970s. Terrorist movements usually take a generation to burn themselves out. Of course, with globalization the threat is different, and we must have a coherent strategy to prevent this new generation of terrorists from doing damage to us. But it should not be made the central, unifying purpose behind U.S. policy.

Richard Armitage: We are a great nation, a global power. We need to have a purpose and vision greater than this single threat.

John Hamre: Let me press both of you a little more on this point. In many ways the rhetoric of the “global war on terror” springs from a sense of politicians needing to address, and indeed to mobilize, a domestic audience. Is this now a constraining factor for our foreign policy? Are politics shaping how we approach foreign policy?

Joseph Nye: There is certainly a problem with the way we talk about the threat of terrorism. The same words that can mobilize people at home may alienate audiences abroad. In addition, very often the phrase “war on terror” leads us to overemphasize the military instruments in our tool kits, and to underemphasize the other instruments that we need for a successful strategy. More than 90 percent of counterinsurgency or counterterrorism is not military in nature, and it requires deep cooperation with allies overseas. The current approach has the negative affect of basically falling into the trap set by the violent extremists, who interpret the “war on terror” as a “war on Islam.” The British, for example, have banned the term “war on terror” because they have found in interviews with captured terrorists that it creates a narrative which serves the enemy’s interests and undermines our own. We need a new narrative for American leadership in order to counter the narrow vision of destruction and intolerance being marketed by the terrorists.

Richard Armitage: The phrase “global war on terror” is literally incorrect. It’s a mischaracterization of what we’re doing. We are engaged in a great struggle, but it is not exactly a global war. Very few people, other than our service men and women, are paying the price for it.

John Hamre: If the global war on terror is insufficient as an organizing principle for American foreign policy, what is a sufficient principle?

Richard Armitage: We’ve always been, as a nation, relatively reluctant internationalists. We have no choice but to be involved beyond the boundaries of our great oceans, but we don’t particularly like the fact. Right now I think we’re having a cyclical “staring-at-our-navels” moment. We haven’t really decided how to get back on that international horse. We haven’t really decided whether we will again take advantage of our leadership position in the world to effect the general public good. This is something I think that we have to periodically debate among ourselves as a nation, and I hope we come to the right conclusion.

Joseph Nye: We need to adopt a strategy that I call “liberal realism”, which combines the two great classic ways of approaching international affairs: the liberal tradition of Woodrow Wilson and the realist tradition that goes back way before that. In the 19th century, Britain served both its own interests and broader interests by promoting and protecting common public goods like freedom of the seas, regional security structures, a stable international monetary system and so forth. Today, the United States plays that role. This means we have to pay attention to, and lead on, the world’s major collective problems.

John Hamre: There have been a few episodes in American history in which we have announced very idealistic goals, such as the Alliance for Progress, that have been bound around grand humanitarian gestures while also having a realpolitik dimension. Is the time ripe for a similar effort? And if so, what would be some things that America could embrace that would tap into the country’s idealistic side, but would also be strategically constructive for us as a nation over time?

Richard Armitage: The Bush Administration is on the right track with its initiatives against infectious disease in Africa. It has actually done a hell of a lot, but gets no credit for it. We need to build up from these efforts, but also do better on clean water, education and poverty. Dealing with climate change is critical, too, but politically I’m not sure we’re there yet.

Joseph Nye: The United States needs to be seen as providing international public goods. If we help others to develop, to be more secure and more stable, their choices are more likely to align with our own. As for climate change, I think it’s going to be a top-tier election issue sooner than many think.

John Hamre: CSIS has been involved for the past 18 months in a major study with the National Petroleum Council on energy security. The NPC is basically the mothership for the oil and gas industry. When the study began, there was strong resistance from most on anything that had to do with climate. But when they issued their report, the three big recommendations were: dramatically boost energy efficiency, develop more alternative forms of energy, and get ready for a carbon-constrained world. It was a sea change in only 18 months, and the Federal government was not out front on this. There has been a tectonic shift in public opinion on climate, and it is influencing a new generation of Americans who are far more engaged in environmental concerns than our own.

Joseph Nye: What the next president does on energy and climate will be critically important to our ability to lead in other areas. We did a fair amount of damage to our soft power by the way we rejected Kyoto. We would do ourselves a fair amount of good by showing that we are willing to take this issue seriously and to cooperate with others to address it. This does not mean joining Kyoto, which is a non-starter, but it does mean working with allies and partners to find better solutions.

John Hamre: We must be in the lead if we are going to bring along China, India and other rising non-Western powers. They have to be a part of it. They are now becoming bigger emitters than the United States, but nobody is going to do anything if we are not involved. Despite how low our approval ratings are around the world, just about every meaningful development still happens only when there is U.S. involvement and leadership.

Richard Armitage: The power of our technology and innovation should give us that leadership.

John Hamre: Does the U.S. government have the capacity to lead given the way our institutions are structured?

Joseph Nye: Clearly, there is an imbalance. For example, in the late 1990s, something like 4 percent of U.S. foreign assistance was distributed by the Defense Department. Today it is more than 20 percent. The Pentagon’s core mission is not and should not be foreign aid. But the operational capacity of our civilian agencies has atrophied. There is a clear mismatch between the things we need to do to be a smarter power and the instruments we have at our disposal.

John Hamre: Even if we can rationalize our government structure, does the United States have the attention span, the mental bandwidth, to manage all the various regional challenges that confront us at the same time? As the sole global superpower, we have to multitask, while our regional competitors can usually focus on just one issue at a time. What do we do about this asymmetry as a global superpower in a world with regional “peers”?

Richard Armitage: As a global superpower, the United States is involved in every part of the world. We have to be involved in all the regional instruments, infrastructure and organizations—all at the same time. Right now we look like five-year olds playing soccer, everybody running to the ball and forgetting that the way you play the game is to spread out across the field.

Joseph Nye: It is inherent in our superpower status that we have to manage many problems while some competitors have to manage only one. The way you deal with that is essentially by having a structure in which you get others to help. You need regional alliances. You need to build relationships with countries with which you can work. And you need to strengthen international institutions that can help you set the agenda and manage some of these problems. Institutional structures and processes can help us avoid being caught by the vicissitudes of the public pressures of the moment.

John Hamre: Both of you have spoken of the value of institutionalizing our international relationships. What do we do when those institutions become so encrusted and feeble that they cannot function effectively? How do we reinvigorate the structures of international collaboration?

Richard Armitage: The first question we need to ask ourselves is how attached are we to these institutions? If the United States is seen as valuing them, if we are seen as being willing to put in the elbow grease and the intellectual capital to break up that crust, that will go a long way. Very often these organizations become hidebound because we are not seen as really taking a wholehearted interest in them.

Joseph Nye: No institution is perfect. And they don’t serve all our interests all the time. But when you look across the whole spectrum of institutions, from the UN to our bilateral alliances, it’s clear that they can facilitate our foreign policy. In addition, there are some problems that we inherently cannot resolve by ourselves. Take the threat posed by global pandemic disease. You cannot solve a flu pandemic by acting unilaterally; that’s not the nature of the beast. We need the WHO and cooperative arrangements with public health services in other countries. Or take energy security and global climate change. We cannot address this issue on our own. Even if Americans stopped driving altogether, China would make up that difference in just four or five years of coal-generated electricity. This year, China is passing us as the largest producer of greenhouse gases. We need to work with China and others to solve this problem.

John Hamre: But isn’t there a divide within the U.S. foreign policy community, and the American public more generally, about when, if ever, it is appropriate to cede some national sovereignty when working within international institutions?

Richard Armitage: Whether it is within a family, between states and the Federal government, or between nations, every successful relationship requires compromise. I very much favor wrapping ourselves where possible in international institutions. In fact, it reflects a remarkable lack of self-confidence on the part of those who believe we cannot involve ourselves in international organizations without becoming subordinate to those organizations. Moreover, we have seen compelling evidence recently that trying to resolve certain problems by ourselves is bad business.

Joseph Nye: In any international agreement or institution, there are some costs and some benefits. But as far as I can see, the benefits far outweigh the costs to us. Of course, you can’t just hand over policy to these institutions, but you can’t just ignore them either. You have to work with them.

John Hamre: If you look across the landscape of these various institutions, are there any institutional structures that you think are missing that ought to be created for the time we are in?

Joseph Nye: Well, I think you can make a case for marrying institutional architecture to the nature of the problems. If you look at the challenges of the international monetary system, you could argue that having something like a G-4 of the United States, Japan, China and Europe might be more effective than the G-8. If you look at the issues of climate change and the need to get countries to coordinate on their energy policy, some people have argued that a G-20, which would include 80 percent of the world’s population and 80 percent of world production, would be the right approach. We need to think flexibly about the types of institutions we rely on. We need a sort of multilateral pluralism.

John Hamre: Even if the United States starts acting in a more multilateral fashion, is that enough to get the message out? What about public diplomacy? Is it really its own discipline? And if it is, how are we doing?

Richard Armitage: I don’t think we’re doing very well. My own view is that public diplomacy is part and parcel of everything we do. It’s the way we carry ourselves nationally. It’s the way we behave in meetings. It’s the way we have to eschew aberrant behavior such as Abu Ghraib and uphold international legal treaties and norms. And it’s the way we pursue our more traditional values and ideals. It’s not so much a stand-alone discipline as it is something that everyone who is involved publicly and privately has to have in mind in everything they do. As such, I don’t think there is a single answer for our public diplomacy problem.

Joseph Nye: Public diplomacy is the sum of the things we do as well as what we say. It is communicating with the people, not the governments, of other countries. Foreigners are attracted to American society, so a smart public diplomacy strategy would better mobilize U.S. civil society to convey our messages. Edward R. Murrow famously said that “the really crucial link in the international communication chain is the last three feet, which is bridged by personal contact, one person talking to another.” Exchange programs at all levels, such as through the Fulbright program, and among scholars, government officials and business representatives are critical to our public diplomacy efforts. These face-to-face interactions do more to strengthen American smart power than certain types of broadcasting. Our commission is probably going to come out recommending the next administration double the size of the Fulbright program.

John Hamre: Do we need a new U.S. Information Agency? At one time Voice of America was the loudest and clearest channel. But in a world where you have MSNBC and CNN International and Fox International, it’s pretty hard to be a single, authoritative voice. Should we even try any longer?

Joseph Nye: I don’t think we can have or should aim for a single, authoritative voice. In fact, one of the strengths of the United States is our diversity. But there are some things that are not communicated adequately for commercial reasons. For example, the government needs to take on the role of broadcasting in certain languages for which there is no market. There is also still a role for government to broadcast in a way that can convey certain public values.

That said, there is a danger of thinking that public diplomacy means only or even primarily broadcasting. U.S. broadcasting is often dismissed overseas as propaganda. It has to be done credibly, and that requires objectivity and self-criticism. The BBC, for example, has maintained its credibility and is widely listened to, which does a lot for British soft power.

John Hamre: The private sector, including NGOs, seems to do public diplomacy much better than the government in some respects. They are significantly more innovative, dynamic and proactive. It seems that in a variety of settings today, the government is turgid, process-bound and invariably reactive when compared to the private sector. Why the dichotomy?

Richard Armitage: Whether you look internationally or within our own country, the same phenomenon occurs. At the national level, we’re not cooperating, we don’t have comity in government; hence there is constipation. Others step in to get the job done. You see the same thing internationally. Multinational corporations and NGOs are using the power of ideas, the power of technology, their inventiveness, and in the process they are advancing America’s position in the world. These are the unofficial ambassadors who can help improve the way the world views the United States. As Ronald Reagan used to say, government should not be seen as solving the problem. Sometimes it is the problem.

Joseph Nye: Certainly there is much more agility and flexibility in the private sector. The public sector is always subject to a set of competing demands from different stakeholders. The government is also highly responsive to a set of constituencies many of which have a primarily domestic orientation. That makes it difficult for government officials, or congressmen, to see a larger picture. Thus the typical dictum that “all politics is local.”

John Hamre: In that same vein, globalization seems, oddly enough, to be making our politicians more parochial. The pain of globalization is highly concentrated. Politicians are forced to respond, but without any capacity to make a case for the greater benefits of the global economy, which are diffuse. How can we make the benefits of a global economy better understood at home?

Joseph Nye: The United States as a whole benefits from trade, but, as you say, the benefits are not equally distributed. The people who benefit most, consumers, are not organized to protect their interests. In contrast, producers, particularly those who face competition from overseas, are often very highly concentrated and highly organized. In democracies, squeaky wheels get the grease. But I think that people who argue today that the United States can turn inward are wrong.

Richard Armitage: There is a clear fear of globalization, and not just in our country. You see it rearing its head in Europe where governments are putting up speed bumps against globalization—so-called economic nationalism. My own view, however, is that the process of integrating the global economy has gone so far that it is irreversible. There will be speed bumps, but, notwithstanding the Luddite nature of some of our politicians, it will continue.

John Hamre: Joe, Rich, I know your commission is thinking about America’s interests beyond Iraq, but Iraq is still going to remain a central U.S. concern for some time to come. How is the situation in Iraq affecting our larger American presence around the world—diplomatically, politically and militarily?

Richard Armitage: It is simply sucking the oxygen out of everything else, period.

Joseph Nye: As the saying goes, “The White House has three priorities: Iraq, Iraq, Iraq.”

Richard Armitage: It doesn’t have to be that way. We can’t focus solely on Iraq. We have many interests that are going begging right now because of this laser-like focus on Iraq. We are a big enough and a great enough country to manage our way out of a very deep problem, manage our way out of the Afghan and NATO problem, and take care of our larger interests which, to my view, are becoming obvious in Asia.

Joseph Nye: We need to be thinking about how to contain the mess in Iraq, preventing it from spilling over and preserving our interests in the region. But we should not be so fixated on Iraq that it becomes the only focus of our foreign policy.

John Hamre: Does it basically tie us up, though, for the next 18 months, as long as President Bush is in office and the Democrats are focused on defeating him on Iraq? Are we really looking past this presidency to the next before we can get a clear space beyond Iraq?

Richard Armitage: I think the whole world has moved on and is looking past this Administration.

Joseph Nye: The Administration has actually done some good work in Asia, particularly with India and Japan. But it hasn’t focused. It is too diverted by Iraq. With Iran, we need much bigger carrots and much bigger sticks. The sanctions that have been applied so far are too modest, and there has not been a willingness to have a broad-based dialogue. As Tom Pickering often reminds us, diplomacy is not appeasement. We are losing a lot of important time.

John Hamre: Let me close by turning to domestic politics. In your view, do Republicans and Democrats share enough common space on foreign policy that we can move forward in a bipartisan fashion? Or is the Blue-Red divide so profound that it is going to carry over into how we approach foreign policy in the next administration?

Joseph Nye: The political process tends to exert a pull to the two extremes. In the primaries, both parties try to appeal to their respective bases. Then they try to peddle back toward the middle when they get to the general election. And then whichever party gets elected spends some time trying to implement some of the more unrealistic things they have said in the campaign. That takes a year or so, and then they begin to move back to the center on foreign policy. The good news is that the majority of the American electorate is in the middle, which does allow for bipartisan cooperation.

Richard Armitage: I was moved by the grassroots work that Rick Barton, our fellow commissioner, has done to go out and have a dialogue with America. According to his study, there is not that big a divide. Americans are pragmatic. They believe in America’s potential for good. They want to make and work with friends. They see themselves as Americans first, not Democrats or Republicans. So it seems to me that in the country there is not that big a divide. The divide exists here in Washington.

John Hamre: Perhaps Washington is becoming something of an intellectual island unto itself. I think this serves as a reminder that we need to get smarter not only in how we interact on the world stage, but how we engage our own citizens at home. Thank you, gentlemen, very much.

Appeared in: Volume 03, Number 2 | Published on: November 1, 2007
John J. Hamre is president and CEO of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Richard Armitage was Deputy Secretary of State under Colin Powell. Joseph Nye is University Distinguished Service Professor, and is also the Sultan of Oman Professor of International Relations and former Dean of the Kennedy School at Harvard University.
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