American Power: The Nature and Limits
Wednesday, July 18th 2012
Reflecting on many years of practicing public diplomacy, one is reminded of the many times in country team meetings that it fell to the public affairs officer to recommend against some particular action.
Maybe these cases are memorable because they run counter to the norm: usually the PAO is the one voice in the embassy pushing an otherwise reluctant ambassador and shy political officers to get out in front of audiences and help make America’s case to foreign publics.
After all, PAO's love to remind their colleagues that Woody Allen famously said “Ninety percent of success is showing up!”
So, it is in this spirit of not doing something that there needs to be some applause for the State Department people who talked Secretary Clinton out of giving a speech in Cairo last week. One anticipates that, among the voices recommending against a high-profile, finger-wagging lecture by the Secretary to the Egyptians, the public diplomacy folks would have been the most vocal.
According to David Kirkpatrick, writing in the New York Times, “Mrs. Clinton had planned to deliver… a major speech about the Egyptian democracy on Monday, in Alexandria. But with Egypt’s contest for power in rapidly shifting flux, there were too many questions, too many pitfalls and too little new for Mrs. Clinton to offer.”
As Donna Ogelsby noted in her Musings From the Garden blog on this subject, the image of “Hillary Clinton speechless in Cairo is front page news... smart public diplomacy is awe inspiring.”
Now, as Kirkpatrick reports, there are multiple explanations for cancelling the speech. One might have been the risk of offending the Egyptian military (who don’t seem to take our advice much anyway). Another downside might have been the risk of offending the Muslim Brotherhood (who don’t seem to take our advice either).
Or, as George Mason University professor Peter Mandaville said, “At a time of virtually zero U.S. influence, we don’t need to waste so much time figuring out how to try to get the Egyptian people to like us.”
All of this might cause a person to think about the nature and limits of American power today.
Amy Zalman has recently suggested that we should get over the post-Cold War fascination with “soft power.” As she notes in a recent article, “soft power” flourished as a purported antidote to America’s lessened “hard power” in the 1990's. Joseph Nye and others argued that our inability to coerce allies and antagonists through threat of armed force or economic arm-twisting didn’t matter so much, because we had lots of “soft power.”
But, trying to put our “power” in boxes of “soft power” and “hard power” contributes to flacid thinking and poor strategy. As Ms. Zalman reasons, it leads to the “false distinction upheld in much of the U.S. national security community…that nation-states have dominion over hard power, while non-state actors have as their primary advantage soft power.” You have only to think about the hard power of Mexican drug cartels and the soft power of China to see the error in that line of reasoning.
In fact, as always, the strategy and the goals should come first.
Let’s first decide on those, the public diplomacy officer argues, before we schedule a speech or agree to employ some other “soft power” tool.