“Smart Power” Decends on Munich Security Conference

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In 2007, the intervention of Russian President Putin dominated the Munich Security Conference. This year, it was the Obama admininistration’s “smart power” foreign policy, presented by a high-powered US delegation. Vice President Biden’s speech stood at the center of attention, but Joseph Nye explained what American “smart power” really means – which is not exactly what most people think it is.
By Michael Liebig


A “fresh breeze is blowing,“ German Foreign Minister Steinmeier noted during the 45th Munich Security Conference, often still dubbed “Wehrkunde“. Steinmeier’s characterization is certainly correct in respect to the setup of the event as such. Wolfgang Ischinger, the veteran German diplomat and former ambassador to Washington and London, has replaced Horst Teltschik as conference chair. With Ischinger, the Munich Security Conference seems to be back to the standard set by Ewald von Kleist, the founder of the conference and its chair until 1998.

Biden offers new “tone” and “bargain”

Of course, most media would refer the “fresh breeze” metaphor to the appearance of US Vice President Joe Biden in Munich. “I have come to Europe on behalf of a new administration determined to set a new tone in Washington, and in America’s relations arround the world,” Biden said, adding that America is seeking a new “bargain” with its allies and partners.

Obviously, a “new tone” US foreign policy is a significant matter. But what about policy content? At first sight, and let me stress, at first sight, what Biden presented as the Obama administration’s much-awaited “change” in US foreign policy looks rather disappointing, at least what concerns the Middle East, Afghanistan, Iran, or Guantanamo.

On these issues, the assessment of American political analyst Jim Lobe is probably correct: Biden’s Munich speech “sounded like a speech that Condoleezza Rice might have submitted in draft for White House approval before the Vice President’s [Cheney’s] office and Elliott Abrams got their hands on it.”

Biden also left a sobering impression by what he said about the US-centered financial and economic crisis, which he called a “serious threat to our economic security.” But then he quickly assured the audience: “[W]e are taking aggressive action to stabilize our financial system, jump start our economy and lay a foundation for growth…. We’re also working to stabilize our financial institutions by injecting capital, purchasing some assets, and garanteeing others. These remedies will have an impact far beyond our shores…”

Such sentences do not sound like an expression of serious soul searching about what has gone so utterly wrong in America’s economic and financial policies creating havoc in the world economy. In respect to the financial-economic crisis, Biden’s performance in Munich reminded me of an old wisdom of political salesmanship: The more problems you have, the more chuzpah is required. In these terms, Biden, who looks like a reincarnation of movie actor Stewart Granger, admittedly performed well in Munich.

In line with the “new tone,” Biden refrained from explicitly asserting the topos of “American world leadership,” but exactly that was his message: “America will do more, but America will ask for more from our partners … [W]e will work in partnership whenever we can, alone only when we must… We will draw upon all elements of our power – military and diplomatic; intelligence and law enforement; economic and cultural… In short, we will recapture the totality of America’s strength…”

“Smart Power” by the “Preponderant Power”

These sentences deserve some careful analysis. Their deeper meaning was eleborated by Havard’s political science professor Joseph Nye at the first day of the Munich conference. Nye, who is the godfather of the “neorealist” theory of international relations and a former Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration, was blunt and direct about the directionality of US foreign policy. His speech was probably the most important at this year’s security conference, because he made clear that US foreign policy is indeed changing – albeit in different ways than most people think. Nye, was in Munich in his capacity as chairman of the US section of the Trilateral Commission; he is likely to become the next US ambassador to Tokio. Nye stated:

“American leadership has been justifiably criticized in recent years, but it is difficult to see successful responses without it… In 2007, the CSIS sponsored a ‘Smart Power Commission’… The terms and recommendation of the Smart Power Commission have begun to be accepted in Washington today… America can learn from the lesson of Great Britain in the 19th century, when it was also a preponderant power and took the lead in maintaining the balance of power among the major states in Europe… The United States is likely to remain the preponderant power in world politics well into the 21st century.”

Nye knows what he talking about; he was the co-chair of the CSIS “Smart Power Commission.” Of course, Nye is dealing with the world situation in the 21st century. He wants the “preponderant power” to take the lead in maintaining the balance of power among the major actors in today’s multipolar world. To that end, the USA should act as a “mediator and convenor” to develop and maintain “international regimes” for trade, enviroment, proliferation, peacekeeping, human rights “and other concerns”. American “unilateralists complain that the United States is constrained by international regimes, but so are others,” noted Nye, mentioning China, India and the Europan Union in his speech. In obvious reference to the EU, he observed that the “preponderant power” USA does not face the “difficulties of organizing collective action when large numbers are involved.” And Nye pointed to another key aspect of “combining the soft power of attraction with hard power into a ‘smart power’ strategy“: It will “legitimize preponderant power in the eyes of others.”

Nye was not boasting when he said that the “smart power strategy” has been accepted in Washington. “We must use what has been called ’smart power‘, the full range of tools at our disposal,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her confirmation hearings on January 13. And she reitereated her commitment to the “smart power” approach in her first speech at the State Department. Also, “smart power” is not a Democratic Party project; the CSIS Smart Power Commission was bi-partisan, Nye’s co-chair was the Republian Richard Armitage, the former Deputy Secretary of State in the George W. Bush administration.

In Munich, Obama’s National Security Advisor, Gen. James Jones, provided an insight into the way the smart power strategy is being turned operational, by speaking about the ongoing reorganization of National Security Council to meet the “21st century’s security challenges”. Jones refered to Biden’s sentence that the Obama administration would employ “all elements of our power – military and diplomatic; intelligence and law enforement; economic and cultural.” The NSC would become the “strategic integrator” for the President and the administration with added foci on the economy, finances, social developments, cyberspace, technology, climate change, enviromental and public health issues, and institutional and procedural changes in world politics. At the NSC, the emphasis would shift from a mainly tactical view to a strategic, proactive and long-term perspective, which would not exclude “dissenting views”.

I got the impression that Gen. Jones’ unspoken message to his Munich audience was “See, what we have!” Followed by the unsaid rhethoric question: “Who else in the world posesses even an approximation of the analytical and planning capacity we have for articulating strategic policies?” The number of senior US officials dispatched to the Munich conference too would indicate a desire to impress upon the Eurpean and international participants an aura of renewed American self-confidence. I have followed the Wehrkunde conferences closely since 1974, but I cannot remember any instance of a US delegation including the Vice President and the National Security Advisor. For whatever reason, this year the list of the more than 300 participants has not been made public. But the list of speakers from the US, included besides Biden and Gen. Jones: Henry Kissinger, Richard Holbrooke, Gen. David Petraeus (Centcom), Representatives Jane Harman and Ellen Tauscher.

At the Munich conference, Obama’s National Security Advisor, Gen. James Jones said: “The President, if anything else, is a pragmatist.” But Obama’s pragmatism should not be misread in a narrow sense. The strategic axiom of US foreign policy remains unchanged: The preservation of American global hegemony, now labelled “preponderance”. What will change, however, are the ways in which this supreme US policy aim is to be realized. The catch-phrase for these new ways is “smart power”.

Pragmatic Response

How did the Munich audience react to the American “show of force”? I would guess that they were probably impressed, but in a calm and pragmatic fashion. They are open to the “bargains” offered by Biden. That seems to apply particularly to the Russians, who seem not disinclined to a “grand bargain” involving strategic arms reduction, ballistic missile defense systems in Eastern Europe, supply lines to Afghanistan through Russia and regional conflicts of interest. The Europeans want a “new strategic concept” for NATO, upgrading its political role and de-emphasizing Cold War military structures in favour of cooperative, “networked” security. Germany speaks of the need for a “Harmel II”, in reference to the 1967 NATO document opening up the “détente” period with the Soviet bloc. The current NATO SACEUR, Gen. John Craddock, will soon leave his post. And NATO General Secretary Jaap de Hoop Scheffer too may leave soon.

It was most appropriate that Prof. Mahbubani of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore in a short contribution reminded the participants of Munich Security Conference that “we need new thinking, not new tinkering.” Mahbubani said: “The world has fundamentally changed since 1945 and will change even more radically… We are coming to the end of two centuries of Western domination of world history. All the new emerging powers are non-Western… The majority of the world’s population has gone from being object of world history to becoming the subject. People want to take greater control of their destinies and not have their views and interests ignored.”

If American “smart power” was sort of unveiled in Munich, its “live” rendevous with reality in Europe, Eurasia and globally has yet to to occur. On April 3-4, there will be the 60th Anniversary NATO summit in Strasbourg/Baden-Baden. Until then, there will be much “bargaining.” And, let’s not forget, the day before the NATO summit, on April 2, in London the G20 Summit on reforming the global economic and financial system will take place.

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