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. Continue reading