To Make Smart Power Work, Get the State Department in the Fight

Posted January 16, 2009 at 1:38pm

Secretary of State nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton’s pledges to get the State Department “firing on all cylinders” and to renew U.S. leadership through a “smart power” mix of diplomacy and defense were welcome beginnings to her tenure as America’s top diplomat.

As a member of the Smart Power Commission, sponsored by the Center for Strategic International Studies, I worked with Republicans and Democrats with wide experience in and out of government to develop a vision, and some specific recommendations, on how smart power might help us meet the national security challenges of the 21st century. [IMGCAP(1)]

Smart power refers to the effective integration of hard power, such as military and economic actions, with soft power, which involves methods of persuasion and includes things like culture and diplomacy, in order to achieve national objectives. We found more common ground than most would expect.

Our report, “A Smarter, More Secure America” was adopted unanimously — no easy task in today’s environment. The commissioners recognized that America’s standing in the world has suffered in recent times and that effective influence in today’s world can depend on image and inspiration as much as military strength.

By our definition, smart power recognizes that the United States needs both — and the good sense to know when and how to use them together.

We agreed that five key areas need attention: alliances and institutions, international development, public diplomacy, economic integration and innovation.

Implementing a smart power strategy and getting action in the five key areas will require an unprecedented level of interagency cooperation, particularly between State, the Department of Defense and the intelligence agencies. That takes more than warm words from the new secretary of State; making smart power work will take a commitment from the new president to knock heads together if necessary to get Cabinet members to check turf and egos at the door.

While the new secretary of State can’t implement a smart power strategy on her own, as our chief diplomat she can do a lot to make it easier for smart power to work.

One of the first and most important things she could do is to get the Department of State more effectively in the fight. The Washington Post reported that, in early 2007, then-U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker dispatched a cable to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressing his deep concern about the organizational difficulties he had encountered since arriving in Iraq. “The issue is whether we are a Department and a Service at war,” he wrote. Perhaps more importantly, Crocker observed, “If we are, we need to organize and prioritize in a way that reflects this, something we have not done thus far.”

Too many Americans, including Members of Congress, seem to think diplomacy implies only high-profile conferences with dramatic breakthroughs. Smart power requires that we also focus on the day-to-day, seemingly mundane work necessary to build productive international relationships through American embassies around the world.

For example, the United States has 23 embassies and consulates throughout the Middle East and North Africa, a region that is home to about 300 million people. And yet, within the past year, we had as few as 65 proficient Arabic speakers working for the U.S. State Department. A full one-third of them were posted in Washington, D.C., instead of serving at embassies and consulates throughout the Arab world. While the State Department has had Arabic language training as a policy goal for a number of years, the results have been quite disappointing.

These deficiencies aren’t a secret, and from time to time there are calls for increased funding of State Department operations; however, the department has never been required to take a comprehensive look at what resources — people, money and technology — are needed to conduct our diplomacy in the 21st century, much less what is required to implement a smart power strategy.

Every four years the Department of Defense is required by law to “conduct a comprehensive examination” of the national defense strategy, force structure, force modernization plans, infrastructure, budget plans, etc. As a first step toward implementing a smart power strategy, we would be wise to require the State Department to do likewise. Under legislation I introduced in Congress, H.R 490, the Quadrennial Foreign Affairs Review Act, the Department of State would periodically review our diplomatic strategy, personnel policy, structure and programs and produce a quadrennial report to Congress. Congress should then take the lead in ensuring that we have a proper legislative framework for organizing our foreign service, and that the new secretary of State has the resources to get her department in the fight and make them effective contributors to the new administration’s smart power strategy.

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) served on the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Smart Power Commission. He is a member of the House Armed Services and Intelligence committees and served as deputy assistant secretary for legislative affairs in the State Department under President Ronald Reagan.