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?