“I guess the buzz word around here is ‘smart power’,” said a senator at the hearing for Hilary Clinton’s initiation as the US Secretary of State two weeks ago. It’s true, all everyone kept saying at this hearing was “smart power”.

Sometimes the phrases IR studies professors come up with are unnecessary. Smart power is supposed to be a mixture of “hard” and “soft” forms of power, as a CNN correspondent explained it: military and diplomatic. Hilary Clinton was praised by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for her “smart power” approach, in particular, with regards to Iran.


Smart power. Every US secretary of state uses smart power – a carefully planned mixture of arm-twisting and smiling – in order to be a successful imperialist. No secretary has ever been totally hard or totally soft.

The difference between smart power on the one hand, and hard/soft dichotomy on the other, is supposed to be a shift away from aggressive unilateralism, toward a rhetorical entanglement of dominance and institutional hegemony in the UN, WTO, World Bank, and IMF – all of which is backed up by threat of military power. The goal of smart power is to “rally the world behind U.S. goals” according to the seminal author on the topic, Suzanne Nossel, in a Foreign Affairs article, “Smart Power“.

Practical implications of Nossel’s smart power, she says, would require (1) developing a branch of the US military design to rebuild civilian societies, ostensibly for places under a form of martial law; (2) having other nation-states share the world-policing burden, insofar as they are compatible with U.S. goals; (3) the U.S. maintains its privilege to act unilaterally, leading the world in education, training, and militarism; and (4) reforming the UN to be more pragmatically beneficial for the U.S.

To maintain the international dependence hierarchy, with U.S. goals at the top, requires the logic of smart power to prevent imperial overstretch. Nossel explains,

“Although the military’s weapons systems have been calibrated to conserve firepower and minimize collateral damage, the same cannot be said of U.S. foreign policy. Instead, Washington is currently creating new sources of friction, turning friends into antagonists, damaging once-valuable policy tools, and impairing its own ability to harness the power of its citizenry, bureaucracy, and allies. It must reverse course and embrace a smarter, less draining brand of power guided by a compelling and coherent conception of national interest….”

With the right kind of package seal on the agenda, American “progressives” could be easily won over. This way, the United States can combine humanitarian imperialism [liberal internationalism] and anti-terrorism together into one ambiguous project. This will require some genuine commitments.

“The revival of a genuine commitment to spreading freedom and liberalism, conversely, would unite progressives in the fight against terrorists and rogues.”


“… by incorporating into the agenda a genuine commitment to free trade and economic development, liberal internationalism can impress Latin American, Asian, and African countries that otherwise view the U.S. antiterrorist agenda as neglectful of their priorities.”

etc.

What is a “genuine commitment” to any of these principles? Nossel restates exactly the same goals the U.S. already has. But why Condoleeza Rice did not have “smart power” and why Hilary Clinton does, however, is largely mysterious: it is only a matter of diplomatic style and imagery – not a fundamental shift in policy. This is why I don’t find this term particularly helpful. It’s useful or interesting only because it’s a new promise.

The goal of smart power is imperialist like other political strategies, it’s just a more effective way of doing it. What smart power can do, though, at least according to Nossel, is use its pretty face to rally more domestic and international support for imperial expansion and domination by using humanitarian rhetoric and combining military force with economic stimulus. Eventually, however, these ideas result in depletion of others’ sovereignty and greater domination by the U.S. and “liberal democracy” over all other forms of political and social organization.

What’s so smart about that?