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Obama's tightrope
Smart power - The US balancing act between defence and diplomacy - has many historic roots in international relations.
Last Modified: 12 Mar 2011 15:34
International relations require leaders to balance idealism and pragmatism - and there is nothing new to Obama's diplomatic game of power and politics [GALLO/GETTY]

According to a US State Department official, the concept of "smart power" – the intelligent integration and networking of diplomacy, defence, development, and other tools of so-called "hard" and "soft" power – is at the heart of the Obama administration's foreign policy vision. Currently, however, Obama's smart-power strategy is facing a stiff challenge from events in the Middle East.

If Obama fails to support the governments in Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, or Yemen, he may jeopardise important foreign policy goals such as Middle East peace, a naval base in the Persian gulf, stability in oil markets, and cooperation against al Qaeda terrorists. On the other hand, if he does support such governments, he will antagonize those countries' information-empowered civil society, thus jeopardising longer-term stability.

Balancing hard-power relations with governments with soft-power support for democracy is like walking a tightrope. The Obama administration has wobbled in this balancing act, but thus far it has not fallen off.

Because the Obama administration has used the term "smart power", some people think that it refers only to the US - and critics complain that it is merely a slogan, like "tough love", used to sugar-coat US foreign policy. But smart power is by no means limited to the US. Combining hard and soft power is a difficult task for many states – but no less necessary for that.

Smart power as key to growth

In fact, some small states have proven highly adept at smart-power strategies. Singapore has invested enough in its military defence to make itself seem as indigestible as "a poisoned shrimp" to neighbours it wishes to deter. At the same time, it has combined this hard-power approach with attractive soft-power activities in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, as well as efforts to use its universities as hubs of regional non-governmental activities.

Likewise, Switzerland long used mandatory military service and mountainous geography as hard-power resources for deterrence, while making itself attractive to others through banking, commercial, and cultural networks. Qatar, a small peninsula jutting out from Saudi Arabia, allowed its territory to be used as the US military headquarters in the invasion of Iraq - while at the same time sponsoring Al Jazeera, the most popular television station in the region, which was highly critical of US actions. Norway joined NATO for defense, but developed forward-looking policies on overseas development assistance and peace mediation to increase its soft power.

Historically, rising states used smart-power strategies to good avail. In the nineteenth century, Bismarck’s Prussia employed an aggressive military strategy to defeat Denmark, Austria, and France in three wars that led to the unification of Germany. But once Bismarck had accomplished that goal, he focused German diplomacy on creating alliances with neighbours - and made Berlin the hub of European diplomacy and conflict resolution. One of Kaiser Wilhelm II's great mistakes two decades later was to fire Bismarck, fail to renew his "reinsurance treaty" with Russia, and challenge Britain for naval supremacy on the high seas.

After the Meiji Restoration of 1867-1868, a rising Japan built the military strength that enabled it to defeat Russia in 1905. But it also followed a conciliatory diplomatic policy toward Britain and the US, and spent considerable resources to make itself attractive overseas. After the failure of its imperialist Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity scheme of the 1930s - which had a soft-power component of anti-European propaganda - and its defeat in World War II, Japan turned to a strategy that minimised military power and relied on strategic alliance with the US. Japan’s single-minded focus on economic growth achieved its goal, but the country developed only modest military and soft power.

Not exclusive to small nations

In its first decades, communist China built its military strength and simultaneously used the soft power of Maoist revolutionary doctrine and Third World solidarity to cultivate allies abroad. But, after the exhaustion of the Maoist strategy in the 1970s, Chinese leaders turned to market mechanisms to foster economic development. Deng Xiaoping warned his compatriots to eschew external adventures that might jeopardise internal development.

In 2007, President Hu Jintao proclaimed the importance of investing in China's soft power. Given China's rising economic and military power, this was a smart decision. By accompanying its growing hard power with efforts to make itself more attractive, China aimed to stem its neighbours fears and tendency to balance Chinese power.

In 2009, China was justly proud of its success in emerging from the global recession with a high rate of economic growth. Many Chinese mistakenly concluded that this represented a shift in the balance of global power, and that the US was in decline.

But such narratives can lead to conflict. Indeed, overconfidence in assessing its power led to more assertive Chinese foreign policy behaviour in the latter part of 2009 and 2010. China miscalculated by deviating from the smart strategy of a rising power and violating Deng's dictum that China should proceed cautiously and "skillfully keep a low profile". After Chinese leaders faced international criticism and deteriorating relations with the US, Japan, India, and other countries, they decided to return to Deng's smart-power strategy.

So, as the Obama administration struggles to implement its smart-power strategy in the current revolutionary conditions of the Middle East, it is worth noting that the US is not alone in confronting the difficulties of combining hard and soft power successfully. Smart power is an important strategy for success in world politics, but no one said that it would be easy.

Joseph S Nye, Jr., a former US Assistant Secretary of Defence, is a professor at Harvard University and author of The Future of Power.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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