Sunday, August 10, 2014

Soft, medium and hard power

One place where I agree with Hillary Clinton is on the importance of "smart power."
That’s why I use the phrase “smart power.” I did it deliberately because I thought we had to have another way of talking about American engagement, other than unilateralism and the so-called boots on the ground.
The problem is, she never indicated what she means by smart power. It strikes me that President Obama has actually defined three options: soft, medium and hard power.
  1. The President has expanded the traditional definition of soft power beyond the idea that its mostly about foreign aid. In situations where international norms/ideals have been breeched, he has worked to develop partnerships to impose sanctions on the offending country (see Iran and Russia).
  2. He has also used medium power in calling for targeted military strikes (no boots on the ground) to prevent mass killing/genocide (see Libya and Iraq) or the use of chemical weapons (Syria). 
  3. Finally, he has reserved the power of full military response (hard power) to situations where the American people are directly threatened or our allies are in danger (warnings to Russia about incursions into NATO countries).
Much of the criticism of the President's foreign policy has focused on highlighting only one or two of the options he has laid out. I would suggest that having the full spectrum of responses available to deal with varying levels of challenges/threats is preferable. The trick is in accurately diagnosing the situation and matching it to the response that is most likely to reach the desired outcome. That would be my definition of smart power. IOW, the Obama Doctrine.


  1. when you need a screwdriver, use the screwdriver. when you need a wrench, use the wrench. when you need a hammer, use the hammer.

    that's what i've always liked most about Obama.

  2. A related metaphor: when an assembly broke down one day the line managed called in a highly priced but highly recommended consultant to determine what the problem was. The longer the line sat idle the longer the company lost money, so there was a lot of pressure to get the machinery moving again. The consultant came down on the floor, walked around, and, after a few minutes of poking around in the machinery, pulled out a screwdriver, gave a particular screw a half turn, and the machinery fired back up again and the assembly line went back into production.

    The consultant then presented the line manager with a bill for $5,000. The manager reacted with outrage. "I'm not going to pay you $5,000 for turning a screw!"

    "I'm not charging you for turning a screw, " the consultant replied. "I'm charging you for knowing which screw to turn."

    That's the kind of person I see in Obama: someone who knows which screw to turn. I'm not yet sure Hillary understands this.