Diplomatic Surge? Part III – The dilemma of smart power

The question of appropriate instrumentality raises an even more fundamental issue: does hard power plus soft power in fact equal smart power?

In my view, and notwithstanding popular assumptions to the contrary, the answer is: not necessarily.

The challenge associated with the promise of smart power strikes me, in fact, as crucial. While combining hard and soft power makes a certain amount of sense in principle, in practice it may not always work. Attempts at turning diplomats into counterinsurgents, soldiers into diplomats and academic anthropologists or ethnologists into “human terrain systems” interpreters in a military context can be both morally difficult and personally hazardous. As the tragic experiences of Glyn Berry, Trevor Greene, and Michael Bhatia, respectively, have demonstrated, the alchemy of smart power is highly volatile and potentially deadly. This may be attributed, among other things, to the difficulties of civil-military coordination which flow, among other reasons, from vast resource imbalances. Put another way, with the military holding most of the cards, it is difficult for the other players to remain effectively in the game.

When it comes to international political communications, known in military circles as information operations, diplomats and government aid workers can’t compete with the armed forces when it comes to budgets and bodies. An AP investigation recently disclosed that the Pentagon is spending at least $4.7 billion this year on “influence operations” and has more than 27,000 employees devoted to such activities. At the same time, the report said, the military has grown more aggressive in withholding information and hindering reporters. “The Bush administration turned the US military into a global propaganda machine while imposing tough restrictions on journalists seeking to give the public truthful reports about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan”, according to Associated Press chief executive Tom Curley.

Within the broad civilian realm, I would maintain that it is diplomats, and perhaps in particular guerrilla diplomats, rather than soldiers, or aid, or NGO workers who are more likely to have the personal disposition, the language and cross-cultural skills, the knowledge of history and culture, and access to the kind of granular intelligence required for effective strategic communications. As adaptable, agile, professional political communicators, they are also more likely to have the messaging right.

Peeling back the layers, even the problems associated with an uneven playing field and disparate team pale in comparison to what may well be the elemental conundrum. Quite possibly the main challenge associated with ongoing efforts to coordinate military and civilian information operations or strategic communications stems from something even more basic than who is trying to do the communicating. Here I refer to the essential differences, and perhaps especially several of the less appreciated ones, between the nature and agency of hard and soft power. The former is associated principally with the armed forces, and the latter with diplomacy, in general, and public diplomacy, in particular. When the two power sources and international policy instruments are compared, the obstacles and constraints to effective communications collaboration become clearer. Following are some of the basic distinctions:

Definitions. Hard power is about compelling your adversary to comply with your will through the threat or use of force. Soft power is about attracting your partner to share your goals through dialogue and exchange.

Objectives. Hard power seeks to kill, capture, or defeat an enemy. Soft power seeks influence through understanding and the identification of common ground.

Techniques. Hard power relies ultimately on sanctions and flows from the barrel of a gun. Soft power is rooted in meaningful exchange and the art of persuasion.

Values. Hard power is macho, absolute, and zero sum. Soft power is supple, subtle, and win/win.

Ethos. Hard power engenders fear, anguish and suspicion. Soft power flourishes in an atmosphere of confidence, trust and respect.

These distinctions between hard and soft power can become disjunctures when placed in an institutional setting. That is, while significant enough in themselves, the disconnects are exacerbated by differences within and between the bureaucratic cultures of the military and the foreign service. An institution designed primarily for fighting might not be best suited to take the lead on talking. Hierarchy, obedience, and control are part of the DNA of military hard power. The genome of soft power, of public diplomacy, in contrast, turns on relationships, on lateral connectivity and on the construction and maintenance of collaborative networks.

Animated by the service of such antithetical ends, it is hardly surprising that full spectrum cooperation and coordination in getting from diktat to dialogue through the application of smart power has have proven so difficult. Smart power is much easier to say than it is to use.

To conclude, in the era of indivisible security which comes with the territory of global issues, it may be that some kind of combination of hard and soft power will prove effective for those states with the capacity to marshal and mix the necessary ingredients. For all others, a transformational form of public diplomacy – guerrilla diplomacy, if I may – could offer brighter prospects for a more secure and prosperous international policy future.

All that said, it remains cause for celebration – not to mention an enormous relief – to be hearing suggestions supportive of diplomacy coming at long last from high places.

Three cheers for the diplomatic surge.