Clinton on Obama: Soft vs. Hard Power (The Future of Foreign Policy)

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Here’s something that stands out to me as being remarkably telling and fantastically uplifting about what we can expect to see from an Obama administration. Bill Clinton gave Barack Obama a moving introduction today at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York. In particular, he told of a meeting he and Sen. Obama had just a few weeks ago — on September 11th, in fact — at his offices in Harlem. The key quote:

He recalled Obama’s first question: “What is the matter with the way America is organized to exercise our soft power?”—by which he meant the capacity to deal with disease, poverty and conflict via nonmilitary and aid-oriented means. To Clinton, this was a sign of Obama’s extraordinary intelligence and preparedness for the presidency, which he compared favorably with his own readiness as a candidate in 1992.

Now, there are two types of power considered in diplomacy and foreign relations: soft power and hard power. As you might imagine, hard power describes militaristic and coercive means to achieve national goals. Soft power is country’s ability to affect change through non-military means by those listed in the quoted passage above, as well as through a nation’s cultural influence on the world at large, and a its ability to lead by positive moral example.

After eight years of an administration which has relied almost entirely on hard power to achieve its ends, a policy which has largely failed the American public at a time when foreign threats are rightly a key concern, and the destabilization of governments in the Middle East and Eurasia threaten to allow extremist groups to gain further influence among largely impoverished and oppressed populations, it is time that we re-evaluated our reliance on these types of tactics.

One of the greatest failures of this administration has been their inability to comprehend the influence of this “soft power.” To put this in its most cliche form, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, and we’ve been dumping a whole hell of a lot of vinegar throughout the world. The troubling thing about this, though, is that a nation’s soft power is also directly dependent on its standing in the world. In other words, when you piss off most of Europe and embroil yourself in a clearly illegal military campaign, you greatly reduce the amount of soft power you have. This, in turn, forces a nation to rely even further on its hard power; especially a nation like the United States which has an effectively limitless military arsenal. But here’s where we find the second problem with the Bush approach to foreign policy, and why Obama’s concern on our soft power capabilities is so heartening: by investing us so heavily in Iraq, the Bush administration managed to do two things simultaneously. First, they reduced our soft power by making us wildly unpopular among many nations. Second, they blew a significant amount of our hard power into one single endeavor. This, effectively, has put the United States in its weakest position since becoming the world’s sole superpower. We can neither threaten nor otherwise influence either our enemies or our allies. We’ve depleted both sources of power to historic lows.

It is in this environment that the candidate’s of the 2008 election must be judged. For his part, Barack Obama has put forth a policy he calls “dignity promotion.” The American Prospect took a look at the basic philosophy behind this term in “The Obama Doctrine,” the feature article from their spring issue:

They envision a doctrine that first ends the politics of fear and then moves beyond a hollow, sloganeering “democracy promotion” agenda in favor of “dignity promotion,” to fix the conditions of misery that breed anti-Americanism and prevent liberty, justice, and prosperity from taking root. An inextricable part of that doctrine is a relentless and thorough destruction of al-Qaeda. Is this hawkish? Is this dovish? It’s both and neither — an overhaul not just of our foreign policy but of how we think about foreign policy. And it might just be the future of American global leadership.


This ability to see the world from different perspectives informs what
the Obama team hopes will replace the Iraq War mind-set: something they
call dignity promotion. “I don’t think anyone in the foreign-policy
community has as much an appreciation of the value of dignity as Obama
does,” says Samantha Power, a former key aide and author of the groundbreaking study of U.S. foreign policy and genocide, A Problem From Hell. “Dignity is a way to unite a lot of different strands [of foreign-policy thinking],” she says. “If you start with that, it explains why it’s not enough to spend $3 billion on refugee camps in Darfur, because the way those people are living is not the way they want to live. It’s not a human way to live. It’s graceless — an affront to your sense of dignity.”


What’s typically neglected in arguments [over a policy of promoting democracy] is the simple insight that democracy does not fill stomachs, alleviate malaria, or protect neighborhoods from marauding bands of militiamen. Democracy, in other words, is valuable to people insofar as it allows them first to meet their basic needs. It is much harder to provide that sense of dignity than to hold an election in Baghdad or Gaza and declare oneself shocked when illiberal forces triumph. “Look at why the baddies win these elections,” Power says. “It’s because [populations are] living in climates of fear.” U.S. policy, she continues, should be “about meeting people where they’re at. Their fears of going hungry, or of the thug on the street. That’s the swamp that needs draining. If we’re to compete with extremism, we have to be able to provide these things that we’re not [providing].”

This is why, Obama’s advisers argue, national security depends in
large part on dignity promotion. Without it, the U.S. will never be
able to destroy al-Qaeda. Extremists will forever be able to demagogue
conditions of misery, making continued U.S. involvement in asymmetric
warfare an increasingly counterproductive exercise — because killing
one terrorist creates five more in his place. “It’s about attacking
pools of potential terrorism around the globe,” Gration says. “Look at
Africa, with 900 million people, half of whom are under 18. I’m
concerned that unless you start creating jobs and livelihoods we will
have real big problems on our hands in ten to fifteen years.”

The two fold benefit of Obama’s plan is that it not only seeks to lift America’s moral position in the world and thus increase our soft power, but by drawing down forces in Iraq, we also can begin to build our hard power again. Now, hard power should always be the last resort, but it is important that when push comes to shove, the American government be able to issue genuine threats. In coercive diplomacy, bluffs quickly render the entirety of the coercer’s power non-existent. There are, in fact, seven distinct conditions necessary to the effective use of coercive force, of which perhaps the most key component is the opposition’s certainty that the coercive nation is willing to follow through on its threats. Without meeting all seven, a nation actually undermines its abilities to achieve its ends by using such coercion, and with our weakened military, the United States is frankly in no position to issue coercive threats.

Hell, even if a nation does meet all seven conditions, that still does not guarantee success. North Korea has successfully used brinkmanship for decades now to thwart American objectives. The reason that North Korea has proven so successful at pushing back on American threats through brinkmanship comes from the fact that our intelligence on North Korea is almost non-existent, and their behavior seems intentionally designed to be read as irrational. And in the case of terrorist groups which are dispersed throughout the world, coercive diplomacy — the threat of using hard power — proves even less effective given that terrorist organizations are not nations and cannot be dealt with like nations, not to mention that accurate intelligence on such organizations is almost as hard to obtain as it is from a isolated nation such as North Korea.

This is also why the whole idea of a “War on Terror” is absurd on its face. There is no way to coerce a disparate, multi-cell operation with no official status into granting the kinds of concessions coercive diplomacy demands. This is also why the United States’ response to the election of a Hamas government in Palestine was counter-productive. As a democratically elected government, Hamas became bound by certain obligations to the citizens of Palestine. The best thing we can do to terrorist organizations, is to turn them into government organizations, who are then benefited by behaving as rational actors in a mutually beneficial negotiation scenario. The worst thing we can do in the war on terror is to keep terrorists at the extremist fringe in which they have nothing to lose through irrational, destructive acts, and who, given the types of independent cell structures terrorism demands couldn’t negotiate as a single unified front anyway. Does that mean we support the promotion of terrorist groups? Of course not, but it does mean that we should pursue policies which rob from the terrorists their most incendiary claims by allowing a positive mechanism for which the population can address those concerns which if left unaddressed create an ever-increasing market for terrorist recruitment.

Obama’s continuing assertions that he seeks to expand and effectively utilize America’s soft power, while still recognizing the need for the occasional used of hard power falls perfectly in line with America’s best interest. Extremism breeds in areas of instability and poverty. Obama’s plan seem poised to address those two issues. By pursuing policies to stabilize these regions and offering not just a hand-out, but a hand up to those desperate and poor citizens, Obama stands a far better chance at reducing the impact and influence of terrorist organizations by getting the populations of these areas committed to central governments whose purpose will be to solidify such gains, as opposed to extremist groups whose only purpose will be to rage against the system which has left them dis-empowered. Compare this to John McCain’s repeated aggressively coercive policies, such as his idea of throwing Russia out of the G8 during the crisis between them and Georgia, which only serve to undermine both our soft and hard power as well as encourage the targets of his rage to ratchet up their rhetoric in return.

We’ve seen what the last eight years of foreign policy has done to our nation. We don’t need to see another four.

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