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.


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