The US National Security Strategy, “Smart Power” & Karl Mannheim

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While the European Union is still reeling from the “Greece”/“Euro” crisis and Asia is facing a nasty conflict escalation on the Korean Peninsula and a social-political crisis in Thailand, it seems things are going well for the United States. The seemingly bright picture is only disturbed by the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico which will have ugly environmental, economic and political consequences for months to come. Looking beyond the headlines, there was an another important event in Washington on May 27, 2010: The release of the “National Security Strategy” of the United States[1]. Barely covered in the mainstream media, NSS 2010 provides key insights into the strategic thinking of the Obama Administration.

by Michael Liebig


It’s the Economy, Stupid

Compared to NSS 2006 and particulary NSS 2002 – featuring the “preemptive war” doctrine – NSS 2010 marks a real change. First, NSS 2010 is much less dominated by a military perspective than the Bush era documents. That’s not surprising considering the fact that 6000 US soldiers have been killed and more than $1500 billion spent in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The net result of these wars is, at best, a stalemate: A quite sobering, if not strategically devastating outcome. However, as President Obama states in the introduction of NSS 2010, the United States will “maintain military superiority”, and military power will remain the “cornerstone” of America’s standing in the world. However, the document doesn’t specify what “military superiority” exactly means. In the past it meant that US military strength must not only be superior to that of any other power on the globe but any imaginable combination of competing powers, which has translated into a US defence budget that has been larger than the combined military expenditures of the rest of the world. I doubt that this can be maintained. A veiled hint in that direction could be that NSS 2010 states that America’s “enemies” wish to see the United States “overextending” its military power. In reality, the US economy simply cannot sustain the current level of military expenditures.

And indeed, the economic issues are the leitmotif of NSS 2010. Phrases like “Our national security begins at home” or “Strength begins at home” are pervasive in the document – and they do refer to the American economy: “Our competitiveness has been set back in recent years.” American consumers have been “buying and borrowing,” instead of “saving”. And, “years of rising fiscal and trade deficits” have weakened America’s economic position in the world. On top of this, there has been a “catastrophic recession.” Quite remarkable acknowledgements – at least for a US National Security Strategy. However, the document says nothing about the role of the financial sector in bringing about America’s economic and fiscal woes. Instead, NSS 2010 focusses on the ways to “renew our economy”. What is being said in this respect sounds perfectly reasonable. “American innovation as a foundation of American power”: Science, technology, education, infrastructure, energy efficiency. The problem, however, is that parallel to pursuing scientific-technological innovation, there is the overriding need of “putting ourselves on a fiscally sustainable path” by “reducing the federal budget deficit”. For the United States, the overriding necessity is: “Saving more, spending less,” meaning “responsible but tough choices”.

The centrality of economic issues in a National Security Strategy is unprecedented. I would estimate that about half of the text of NSS 2010 is devoted to national and international economic issues, including the recognition that the US economy has “to adapt to the rising prominence of emerging economies.”

American Exceptionalism

In addition to the self-reflective realism in respect to the state of the US economy, there is also some self-criticism vis-à-vis American foreign policy. NSS 2010 acknowledges that “America has not succeeded in stepping outside the current of international cooperation.” It concedes that the neo-imperial unilateralism of the Bush Jr. era has failed. But caution is recommended here. NSS 2010 promotes a bizarre version of “multilateralism”, one which is really unilateralism, instrumentalizing multilateralism. The Obama administration insists categorically on “US leadership” in world affairs which is to be exercised by means of multilateralism. The phrase “American leadership”, or some variation of it, appears on every page of NSS 2010. While being sober and even self-critical in some respects, NSS 2010 is yet another a clinical expression of American Exceptionalism. The pompousness with which the USA and its world-historical mission are set apart – and above – the rest of the world is awkward. “The light of America’s example burns bright”, is just one of many such eerily self-applauding phrases. Thus, NSS 2010 is a deeply ideological document.

The Obama administration is willing to make quite a few tactical adaptations, but remains utterly unwilling to self-reflect or even question the ideological foundations of its strategic stance: The exclusivity and superiority of America’s role in the world and in history – American exceptionalism – remains axiomatic for US policy. Assuming that American Exceptionalism is merely an ideological accessory to sober, interest-based politics would be utterly mistaken. Ideology is driving US policy.

Karl Mannheim on Ideology

In 1929, the sociologist Karl Mannheim (1893-1947) wrote a penetrating analysis of ideology[2]. He doesn’t dissect the specific forms of ideology, but focussed on the essence of ideology – underlying all forms of ideology. Mannheim makes two basic points: First, all human cognition of social reality is conditioned by specific historical, social-economic and cultural circumstances. Thus, every person’s or group’s worldview is “ideological”. Whoever is unaware of this fundamental fact, denies it or refuses to be self-reflective about it, remains trapped in ideology. Second, ideology means “false consciousness” – a distorted perception of social reality and “unrealistic” intellectual constructions derived from it. Mannheim acknowledged Marx’s brilliant analysis of ideology in capitalist society, but demonstrated that Marxism refused to apply Marx’s own analytical tools to itself.

The ideology trap is not a matter of fateful determinism, there is – at least in principle – a relatively simple way out: Not denying one’s own ideology, but becoming aware of it by being self-reflective about it. Being suspicious about one’s own ideology, is the starting point for overcoming ideology. Self-consciousness leads beyond false consciousness. When it comes to ideology, there is a rather simple (negative) correlation: The more self-reflection, the less ideology. Excluding religious beliefs, Mannheim stresses that the marker of all ideology is the assertion of some “absoluteness” – supposedly “self-evident” and never to be questioned. For Mannheim, the claim to absoluteness and exclusivity is the differentia specifica of all ideology/false consciousness – be it Marxism, fascism, or other “absolutist” world views including those claiming to be completely free of ideology or anti-ideological.

American Exceptionalism is no exception – it is ideology and false consciousness. American exceptionalism necessarily entails false perceptions of reality and false judgements derived from that. Typical is the almost instinctive reflex in American politics to attribute America’s woes to external “enemies”; and internal enemies are usually “agents” of evil external forces.

Well, the United States are also the best example that ideology can best be camouflaged by “smart” pragmatism. NSS 2010 is a manifestation of such a combination of ideology and pragmatic adaptation. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demonstrated that when she presented NSS 2010 in a May 27 lecture at the Brookings Institute[3].

Hillary Clinton on “Smart Power”

Clinton said: “In a nutshell, this strategy [NSS 2010] is about strengthening and applying American leadership to advance our national interests and to solve shared problems. We do this against the backdrop of a changed and always changing global landscape and a difficult inheritance: two wars, a struggling economy, reduced credibility abroad, international institutions buckling under the weight of systemic changes, and so much more;” said Clinton. And then she continued: “So we are now less powerful, but we need to apply our power in different ways. We are shifting from mostly direct exercise and application of power to a more sophisticated and difficult mix of indirect power and influence.”

Whoever has still not grasped the meaning importance of the “smart power” concept, underpinning the Obama administration’s overall strategic approach, was given some extra coaching by Clinton: “So smart power is not just a slogan. It actually means something. It certainly meant something to me when I started using it. And I think it is gradually being picked up as a fair descriptor of what we are undertaking.”

Clinton makes perfectly clear that she does not abandon ideological axioms in favour of realpolitik. She asserts that American interests are not the same as other powers’ national interests: “I think that we are seeking to gain partners in pursuing American interests. We happen to think a lot of those interests coincide with universal interests.” Well, the equation of American interests and “universal interests” is a core feature of American Exceptionalism.

And one should also take special note of the phrase “we are seeking to gain partners in pursuing American interests,” because in the same paragraph Clinton says, “and we are looking to turn a multi-polar world into a multi-partner world.” I don’t think its overstretched semantics, when correlating the two sentences and getting somewhat suspicious about this “smart” definition of partnership and a “multi-partner world”.

That such suspicion is not unfounded was demonstrated when Clinton used the occasion of presenting NSS 2010 to attack a key actor – Brazil – in the multi-polar world system for disregarding “American leadership” in respect to Iran. Clinton said: “And certainly we have very serious disagreements with Brazil’s diplomacy vis-à-vis Iran. And we have told President Lula, I’ve told my counterpart the [Brazilian] foreign minister, that we think buying time for Iran, enabling Iran to avoid international unity with respect to their nuclear program makes the world more dangerous, not less”. Not exactly a friendly advice among partners.

But in the end, Clinton had to come back to the – economic – home front. And it’s here the real test for “American leadership” is waiting. She said: “And we wanted to try to begin with the publication of this strategy [NSS 2010] to make the national security case about reducing the deficit and getting the debt under control, recognizing that it is going to be very, very politically challenging… [W]e cannot sustain this level of deficit financing and debt without losing our influence… That matters when we go to China. That matters when we try to influence Russia. That matters when we talk to our allies in Europe. That matters when we deal with our own hemisphere”. Curiously, when Clinton talked about economic matters her attitude towards Brazil changed remarkably: “And I go back to the question about Brazil. Brazil has the highest tax-to-GDP rate in the Western Hemisphere. And guess what? It’s growing like crazy.”

Endnotes

[2] Karl Mannheim, Ideologie und Utopie, Frankfurt, 1929/1956

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