Hillary Reinvents the Wheel

The Senate confirmation hearings on Hillary Clinton’s nomination as Secretary of State went remarkably well for her. She showed all of her moxie, knowledge and intuition to great advantage. She is a shoo-in as the next Secretary of State, the third female in the job and the first ex-Senator in ages. But it is what she said about the conduct of US foreign policy in the Obama administration that was most interesting.

Clinton talked of the need to use “smart power,” as opposed to hard or soft power. She made it seem that “smart power” was the judicious mix of soft and hard power in the approach to foreign policy. One would have thought that when using the coercive disincentives of the threat and use of force embodied in “hard” power concepts, or the economic, diplomatic and cultural incentives of the “soft” power construct, the US would be “smart,” to say nothing of judicious and nuanced, in their application. It goes without saying that under the Bush 43 administration it did not. But is the notion of “smart power” really a new conceptualisation of how to conduct foreign policy, or is it merely rebranding something tried and true (and perhaps found wanting in the past).

I argue the case for the latter. “Smart” power is no more than the 21st century recycled, renamed approach know as Wilsonian pragmatism. Wilsonian pragmatism is the (uneasy) meshing of principled idealism and realism in the conduct of US foreign policy. The idea is to push democratic capitalist ideals as a moral imperative, but deal with thorny foreign policy issues from a realist baseline. Realist baselines are based upon pragmatic self-interest, which is value neutral and power-oriented. When idealism and pragmatism clash, pragmatism always wins. When ideology meets realism, realism holds sway. Realism, a term derived from the German realpolitik and first enunciated by Metternich, simply posits the thesis that nations have interests, some of which are essential to national survival and some which are not. Nation-states use all aspects of national power (political, economic, diplomatic, cultural) to advance core interests, and leave non-essential interest pursuit to times of plenty or peace. Otherwise, there is no room for idealism in international politics or foreign policy. Now is not a time of peace or plenty.

What this means in practice is that Mrs. Clinton is signaling that the US is about to abandon the ideology-driven foreign policy approach that dominated the first Bush 43 administration (when neo-conservatives ruled), and which could not be completely undone by the more realist(ic) approach adopted by Condoleeza Rice and Robert Gates in State and Defence, respectively, during Bush 43’s second term. But this does not mean that the US is about to substitute an American-centric perspective with something else. After all, Mrs. Clinton stated in her testimony that “American may not be able to solve the world’s problems, but the world cannot solve its problems without America” (or something to that effect). Some would say the the US is as much a source of the world’s problems as part of the solution to them.

Be that as it may, what it means is a return to proven Democratic approaches to foreign policy: pursuit of multilateralism in trade and security, emphasis on soft power in the first instance, promotion of universal law and transparency in governance, but with an understanding that when push comes to shove, US national interests, to include its foreign economic and security interests unilaterally defined, take precedence over all else. This was the foreign policy perspective of the Clinton presidency, and the fact that ex-Clintonites dominate Obama’s cabinet and sub-cabinet choices, to include foreign affairs, indicates an abiding Democratic belief in the superiority of this approach when compared to the foreign politics of unilateral military preemption, “with us or against us,” and extraordinary rendition.

But that does not mean abandonment of the belief in the US as a global superpower with hegemonic scope. It does not mean that it will switch sides in any conflict, or that it will not continue to use its national power to serve corporate interests. That does not mean that it will not do bad as it tries to do good (at least as defined by the new foreign policy elites). Shall we call it then, “smart” neo-imperialism?

6 thoughts on “Hillary Reinvents the Wheel

  1. US is about to abandon the ideology-driven foreign policy approach that dominated the first Bush 43 administration (when neo-conservatives ruled), and which could not be completely undone by the more realist(ic) approach adopted by Condoleeza Rice and Robert Gates in State and Defence, .

    I am curious to know why the shock and awe lets not build nations of Rumsfeld/Powell is more idealistic than the Lets build nations Gates/Petraeus.

    I guess it is all in the perception but the more I read of your work the more I think you would genuinely agree with the Bush doctrine if it simply had been proposed by Obama or Clinton rather than Bush.

  2. Phil: We are going to have to disagree on this one. My view is most akin to the Wilsonian pragmatism described above, and while working in the DoD under Clinton it is what I was involved in implementing with regard to Latin America (my area of responsibility). Having said that, I am very aware of the pitfalls of this approach, but believe it to be a heck of a lot better than the Project for a New American Century-inspired logics that propelled Bush 43 and Co. In the latter instance ideological blinders and a naive belief in the superiority of American military might combined after 9/11 to push an unsustainable foreign policy agenda vis a vis the Muslim world, especially since it was premised on the use of force as the battering ram behind which secular democracy would be imposed on defeated adversaries. Given that no external imposition of democracy by a foreign occupying force has been successful other than post-war Germany and Japan, that was hopelessly wishful thinking ( I remain unconvinced that what we see emerging in Iraq is a democracy).

    It remains to be seen, however, if the “smart power” approach will generate appreciably better results.

    Neil: Thanks for the link. I believe that Darfur could well be the place where “smart power” concepts will be put to their first hard test. It certainly will involve a combination of hard and soft approaches in concert with other interested parties. My concern would be that the US not be seen as leading the charge, but that the UN be seen as the lead agency in what is clearly a major test of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine. However, the US internal logic may be such that it wants to be seen as the champion of the international humanitarian rescue effort, something that may drive it to assume a leading role in any military intervention. That could be tricky…

  3. Now is not a time of peace or plenty.

    For the West it is. No developed state has had to defend their core territory since 1945. I don’t believe that can be said for any other 60 year period since the fall of Rome?

    Even after recent reversals, the people of the developed world are on the whole richer than they have ever been.

    The world has challenges, but in historic terms we are very much in a time of “peace and plenty”.

  4. Pablo, what I found darkly humerous about the Guardian piece was the fear the Sudanese leadership have of Obama being more “idealist” (hence more inclined to act militarily in support of human rights) than Bush.

    Given that the Western commentariate is mostly unanimous in its view that what was wrong with Bush was his idealism and what is right with Obama is his pragmatism it’s interesting to observe that at least some of the evil creatures out there believe the exact opposite.

    Which in this case is no bad thing.

  5. After the Cold War, there was the chance that the USA would choose an idealist path, one involving the use of American power in service to the development of the institutions of a multi-lateral global society. Doing this from a position of strength would have built up trust in their leadership.

    This to the purpose of being the last great super power, that was succeeded by a multi-lateralism established in its own western democratic image.

    Now that the reality of American power limits, military and economic have hit home (the witness of PNAC hubris), it is unsurprising that the resort is to some pragmaticism (a little bit soft and little bit hard – in a smart balance). In this is the reality of both their diminished capacity and thus the consequent need to work with others.

    The diminished capacity probably creates security fears that weakens the resolve to build up international capacity. As no nation insecure about its own future can easily expend its resources in service to the greater good.

    So while the USA will work more multi-laterally one wonders whether a sense of pragmatic realism (about their own national interests) will limit their engagement.

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