Posted by: Roncevert | April 5, 2010

Smart Power and the Tip of the Sword

Following my prior discussion on the Obama-Clinton Doctrine, this post will analyze the second tenet of diplomacy. Specifically, we will review the concept of  “Smart Power” with the objective of adding specificity to this frustratingly vague term.

Looking to the future, Secretary Clinton invoked "Smart Power" at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chaired by Senator Kerry

The State Department recently defined Smart Power as the “‘blend of principle and pragmatism’ that makes ‘intelligent use of all means at our disposal,’ including promotion of democracy, development, technology, and human rights and international law to place diplomacy at the vanguard of our foreign policy.”  Did you get that?  Neither did I.  Apparently, to borrow from Clintonista James Carville, it’s the “don’t act stupid, stupid” principle of traditional American foreign policy.

To be fair, when first introduced in 2004, the term Smart Power was intended to signal a meaningful shift in U.S. foreign policy under a prospective Democratic administration in the 21st century.  In expounding on this term, former Clinton diplomat Suzanne Nozel noted in the March/April 2004 issue of Foreign Affairs that:

“The unparalleled strength of the United States, the absence of great-power conflict, the fears aroused by September 11, and growing public skepticism of the Bush administration’s militarism have created a political opening for a cogent, visionary alternative to [President Bush’s] foreign policy.”

Like many of us, Ms. Nozel was concerned by the Bush Administration’s undermining of international law and institutions – the “electric grid” that powers U.S. predominance within the international system – and pursuit of unchecked militarism.  We were alarmed that neoconservatives were employing liberal values such as human rights and democracy to substantiate naked assertions of force.  Smart Power seeks to restore balance in U.S. foreign policy and follow the Democratic tradition of Harry Truman, who was willing to fight wars to contain the Soviet Union, but who recognized that over the long term a liberal international order would ultimately serve U.S. strategic interests and achieve victory in the Cold War.

Smart Power follows G. J. Ikenberry’s thesis of “strategic restraint” whereby great powers seek to create a durable and mutually acceptable order among states while “locking-in” the predominant position of the leading state(s).  Great powers  show restraint in their actions, such as acting through international institutions (e.g., UN Security Council) and in accordance with international norms (e.g., Geneva Conventions), to achieve legitimacy and gain acquiescence from secondary states.  Over time, as the rules and institutions are embedded, even potential challengers have interests in maintaining this system and the costs for radical change of this “constitutional order” are increased.  While a potentially “hegemonic” actor like the U.S. can unilaterally achieve foreign policy objectives exclusive of the international system, acting within this order and building this grid is just plain smart.  In contrast, launching wars without the support of allies and in the face of international norms without planning for the aftermath is just stupid, stupid.

Secretary Clinton has added that using Smart Power means placing “diplomacy at the vanguard of foreign policy.” Smart Power therefore means using diplomacy as the tip of the sword, not as the bandage for a stricken wound.  It follows an ancient tradition of strategic planning articulated by Sun Tzu in the Art of War:  “One hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the most skillful.  Subduing the other’s military without battle is the most skillful.”  In other words, winning through forward looking strategies, without actual confrontation, is the optimal outcome.  Smartly utilizing core strengths, co-opting potential competitors, and locking-in preferences through long term planning are not exclusive tools of foreign policy.  We have seen this dynamic in West Virginia.

Getting "Smart" After Matewan

Back home, the conclusion of the Mine Wars of the early 20th century between coal companies and labor is not marked by the outcome of battles like Blair Mountain or Matewan, or decided by federal intervention in violation of the Posse Comitatus Act.  Those miners with their overwhelming numbers, local knowledge, and moral authority could have mounted a prolonged, if not successful, insurrection. Instead, the coal operators, with their promise of jobs, property holdings and political influence, changed the playing field over the long term.  They stopped using vigilantes and unrestrained aggression, and turned to legislation and market power to achieve their ends.  Miners continued to unionize and protest, but the days of murder and sabotage ended.  Even though working conditions have improved as a result of labor’s efforts, mining in West Virginia continues to be one of the most dangerous occupations in the world, and coal operator are barely challenged in their control of the industry.  Perhaps the most telling outcome of the Mine Wars are raw numbers: today there are roughly 17,000 miners in West Virginia, down from a total of over 100,000 a century ago.



  1. I’d be curious to understand if the demand for coal today has dropped 80% versus a century ago or if equivalent century old exploitation of miners is occuring elsewhere in the world making it difficult for US mining to compete comparable with textiles and manufacturing. Where is the next Mine War to take place? Then what?

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