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  • Dumb Power

    In the world of international affairs, popular phrases usually signify not thought, but its absence. Calls for ‘a new Marshall Plan,’ for example, are invariably made by people who know absolutely nothing about the original one. The appearance of these phrases is the surest proof that the speaker is content to think in cliches.

    The latest catchphrase is ‘smart power,’ which is what Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has promised the Obama Administration will wield. In theory, ‘smart power’ is the use of diplomacy, economic leverage, military muscle, political suasion, legal structures, and cultural appeals to achieve national ends. In practice, ‘smart power’ is simply a way for the Secretary of State to say that liberals are smart and conservatives – especially those who served in the administration of George W. Bush – are not.

    But no one’s against diplomacy, if it works. And cultural appeals sound wonderful too. After all, conservatives believe in the American way of life, and aren’t shy about saying so. The only question is how to go about promoting it overseas. Fortunately, Britain offers some revealing models. There is the British Broadcasting Corporation, for example, or the British Council, a government-funded promoter of cultural relations and educational opportunities founded in 1934.

    Both of these are, of course, impeccably liberal-left organizations. The BBC never has a kind word to say about conservatives or Israel, and the Council focuses on programs promoting “English for Peace” and recognizing “Climate Change Champions.”

    But that’s not good enough for Iran. In late January, Iran banned the BBC’s Farsi-language TV station and forbid Iranian journalists from working for foreign media. Then, on Wednesday, the British Council’s office in Tehran was forced to close, after the Iranian government summoned the Council’s local staff for interviews and “suggested to them that they should resign from their posts.”

    So where’s Britain’s ‘smart power’ in Iran now? It’s nowhere, because that’s where the Iranian government wants it to be. All of the instruments of ‘smart power’ are wonderful for influencing democracies, because they’re open societies. But it’s precisely against the world’s dictatorships that ‘smart power’ is least useful, because they thrive on iron control and have the power to enforce it – if necessary, by threatening the local staff.

    In those circumstances, liberals will moan powerlessly – as the CEO of the Council did – about the need to maintain “open and constructive dialogue between countries.” But this isn’t about relations between countries. It’s about relations between governments – in particular, between dictatorial and democratic ones. The more the ‘smart power’ advocates evade that reality, the more the world’s dictators will make them look dumb.

    Posted in International [slideshow_deploy]

    5 Responses to Dumb Power

    1. David Blackie, UK says:

      The British Council is a problem all on its own, and it's not just in Iran or Russia where the organisation runs into (or creates) problems. The British Council combines being a publicly funded body, sponsored by and dependent on the Foreign Office, with being a registered charity (despite charity law which states clearly that charities may not depend on government), and with being a state-sponsored "business" whereby it opens language schools and other enterprises, competing unfairly, and showing surprise and indignation when expected to pay tax. The organisation gets in the way of British and local enterprise all over the world, including Britain. Dumb is right.

    2. Michael DeAngelo, Pi says:

      Liberals are the dumb one's. It's so apparent, and they don't even see it. What's that tell you about their intelligence. They just prove that you can learn to be stupid.

    3. David Earl, Washingt says:

      Your criticisms seem much more leveled at "soft power," and the sort of public diplomacy of culture, news, and information advocated by Joseph Nye and others, but few legitimate diplomatic practitioners or scholars are advocating for an exclusive policy of conversation, information, and culture. THAT would be dumb power.

      Hillary's talk of "smart power" conspicuously avoids committing exclusively (or even mostly) to this feel-good type of diplomacy, and, if anything, indications are that she considers the coercive diplomacy of the Bush Administration to be a legitimate strategy (however to a lesser extent). If she was really dedicated to what you call "dumb power," we'd have a nominee for Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs already. She has other things on her mind.

      Criticizing the British Council is valid, as is criticizing liberals and Hillary Clinton. Uniting all of these rants under the argument that we must dismiss the idea of "smart power"?

      I'm afraid the pot might be calling the kettle black on this one.

    4. Pingback: Heritage Can Do Better Than This « Softer Power

    5. AK , India says:

      It is really unfortunate that even now the Americans (as I see most of the authors of the comments and of course the post are)have not got it… I dont know about what 'hidden' agenda Ms. Clinton or the admiistration has behind Smart Power but calling Public Diplomacy dumb is the dumbest thing you can ever do.

      All you, friends, on this page have not realised the power that perception leverages. All the young muslims world over, who take to the violent and mindless missions which their so called leadership urges them to take on, have a buy-in into the plans simply because their 'perception' has been managed thus. And yet, the so-called free thinking world is unable to see the power of Public Diplomacy, which has a lot do with 'Perception Management'.

      Whether the British Council is wrong or right can be a matter of debate, but any organization, for whatever reasons, if is trying to keep public diplomacy at its heart will make some imapct, sooner or later.

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