Smart power: What is it?

The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a security-focused think tank in Washington that puts the center in centrism, has launched a new initiative on something they're calling "smart power"—and, like all good PR rollouts these days, there's a blog, too. Chaired by Harvard IR professor and FP contributor Joseph P. Nye and former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, the "Smart Power" folks are seeking to reframe the debate about U.S. foreign policy—and language is a key part of that effort.

Neoconservative stalwart Owen Harries explained the importance of language in winning debates in this seminal piece from the 1980s, "A Primer for Polemicists":

It is just as important, and on the same grounds, to deny your opponent the right to impose his language and concepts on the debate, and to make sure that you always use terms that reflect your own values, traditions, and interests. Carelessness, complacency, or misplaced tolerance in response to semantic aggression - as by accepting "socialist" as a description of the totalitarian states of Eastern Europe, "detente" as a description of almost uninhibited hostility, "neo-colonialism" as a description of market relations between Western and Third World countries - can be, and has been, enormously costly in surrendering control over the terms of debate.

"Soft power," unfortunately, sounds to many like weakness. Nobody wants to be weak. People do, however, want to be smart. Smart move, CSIS.

You might have noticed that U.S. foreign policy has become heavily militarized over the past few years. There are structural and personnel reasons for this, but there are also deep psychological reasons, as Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon wrote in our January/February issue. And the elephant in the room, of course, is 9/11. The U.S. failure in Iraq may be changing the political dynamic in a  more "smart power" direction, but until our searing fears catalyzed by that day subside into mere memories, I'm afraid that it will be very hard to reframe the national discussion away from hawkery. But there's nothing wrong with laying the groundwork for an eventual paradigm shift, so I hope CSIS can do some good work in this area. Being prepared, after all, is the smart thing to do.


Australia turns its back on Darfur

GREG WOOD/AFP/Getty Images

Why is Australian Prime Minister John Howard consistently undermining international efforts to provide humanitarian help to the people of Sudan—even after his government has acknowledged that Darfur is one of the world's worst humanitarian disasters?

In addition to recently rejecting the U.N.'s request to send troops to Darfur (citing Australia's unpopular "war on terror" commitments), Howard has just announced that Australia will no longer accept refugees from Africa under its humanitarian refugee program until at least mid-2008. The government argues that this "freeze" is necessary due to the failure of many Africans, particularly Sudanese, to "integrate" into society. Instead, the government wants to take in more refugees from Asia. Given Howard's previous less-than-generous approach to asylum-seeking Asians, including falsely accusing a number of them in 2001 of throwing their children overboard a ship to blackmail the Australian government—the infamous Tampa incident—Howard's newfound concern for local refugees seems disingenuous, to say the least.

While critics have denounced Howard's refugee decision as racist, supporters argue that it's justified given the problems some Sudanese refugees have experienced settling into Australia, including a number of violent incidents. But are these incidents really surprising? Refugees, by definition, are fleeing from persecution. Many of them, particularly from Sudan, have been traumatized by violence. Instead of simply closing the door, these cases should prompt the government to analyze its refugee counseling programs to try to ensure that refugees are learning the skills, including language skills, to properly "integrate" into Australian society. It is, after all, intended to be a humanitarian effort.

Alas, that's not likely to happen. What's more likely is that Howard will—once again—continue to push Australia's xenophobic buttons in the run-up to Australia's election, just as he successfully did during the Tampa crisis before the 2001 election. Perhaps this time, though, Howard's support for the Iraq war will prove too unpopular for that tactic to succeed.