Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Smart Power Sounds Really Dumb

Joseph Nye, of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, has an article in today's LA Times called, "The U.S. can reclaim 'smart power.'" The article of course implies that the U.S. had "smart power," somehow lost it, and needs to get it back. Just what is this fabled smart power? Well, according to Nye

Smart power is the combination of hard and soft power. Soft power is the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments.
How's that for clarity? Professor Nye notes that polls show
a serious decline in American attractiveness in Europe, Latin America and, most dramatically, the Muslim world.
As you might expect from anyone who actually takes such polls seriously as a basis for U.S. policy, the article goes downhill from there. Here's one silly statement, a sentiment very popular on the left
over-responding to the provocations of extremists does us more damage than the terrorists ever could.
No, actually it doesn't. Anyone with the slightest idea about how much damage even a small nuclear explosion could inflict on the United States, knows Nye's assertion to be pure nonsense. Yet you will hear this sort of ridiculous claim all the time. Someone with his credentials should know better.

He argues that we need a new foreign policy premise instead of the war on terror. Maybe so, it's not like that's exactly a new idea. The war on terror concept has been criticized from various angles all across the political spectrum. But what is his answer? Wait for it. How about "providing for the global good." Yes, that sounds like a great plan, much more sophisticated than the simplistic war on terror stuff. Terrorism is bound to disappear if we just provide for the global good. Because after all, once terrorists see how much good we are doing, they'll repent of their evil ways and join the world community.

Smart power, for Nye, means

investing in global public goods, providing things people and governments of the world want but have not been able to get
Let's see if I have this straight. If we just stop using the military, and start spending tons of money on "the global public good," people around the world will love us and we'll be a lot more effective at fighting terrorism. If we do this we will be exercising Smart Power. If that's smart power, how about we go with dumb power instead.


  1. Nye's claim that the US can do more damage than the terrorists is true in almost every case of an insurgency. The case you cite, a nuclear strike, is an exception, but it's also unclear whether Al Qaida will ever get nuclear technology. It takes a lot more expertise and infrastructure to develop nuclear weapons than any terrorist organization does.

    The other issue, the global public good, is less trivial than you think. Many of the related issues, like trade policy, pit the US (and the EU and Japan) against its third world allies, like India. Third world democracies, led by India and Brazil, are begging the first world to take free trade more seriously and drop its tariffs on third world goods and cut its agricultural subsidies.

  2. "Nye's claim that the US can do more damage than the terrorists is true in almost every case of an insurgency."

    He's saying that a U.S. overreaction to terrorism does more damage, to the U.S., than a terrorist strike. Damage from a terrorist attack is real. Damage from an overreaction is largely speculation based on his theories about U.S. power, not to mention the fact that whether or not something is an overreaction is itself highly debatable.

    "The other issue, the global public good, is less trivial than you think"

    I consider it trivial only in the context he used it. Although to be fair, I'm only judging based on his short article in the LA Times.