November 21, 2011

Stokes: The GOP war on 'Smart Power'

Editor's Note: Jacob Stokes is a policy analyst at the National Security Network and editor of the progressive foreign policy blog The views expressed in this article are solely those of Jacob Stokes.

On foreign policy, the platform shared by Republican candidates for president can be encapsulated in one phrase: the war on smart power.

The concept of smart power was coined in 2004 to describe the belief that trade, diplomacy, foreign aid and the spread of American values should be employed alongside military force to achieve U.S. goals in the world. It brings together a mix of soft power, the proverbial carrot, with hard power, the stick, in order to achieve aims. The concept is so basic, so elemental as to be almost cliché – it’s foreign policy 101. And yet the Republican field has dedicated itself to rejecting it.

In the first debate focused solely on foreign policy issues, Rick Perry promised to start the foreign aid budget at zero and make receiving nations re-justify their assistance every year; Mitt Romney and others agreed. That view shows a profound misunderstanding of the role aid plays in fighting America’s wars and of the miniscule proportion of the budget it consumes. Without the proper civilian trainers, nations who beat back insurgent forces find it hard to rebuild functioning societies. The U.S. has encountered this problem firsthand in Afghanistan, with tragic consequences.

When congress suggested similar reductions earlier this year, Andrew Exum, senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security, called the cuts“embarrassing.” He said such actions show the people who proposed them are “still uneducated about the wars we've been fighting for almost 10 years now.” The same can be said for the GOP candidates. In addition to helping win the wars we’re in, funding foreign aid can help deal with problems before they require a military response. As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said, “Development is a lot cheaper than sending soldiers.”

The GOP candidates have also rejected core American values. Every candidate except the perennial outliers Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul said they would endorse the use of waterboarding if elected. Even conservatives such asSenator John McCain understand that waterboarding is torture and that engaging in such actions damages America’s image abroad. How can an exceptional nation endorse the use of torture? During the Bush administration, world opinion answered that question: It can’t.

Despite lofty rhetoric to the contrary, the ideal of universal freedom has been abandoned, too. Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann have railed against the president for failing to support Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak in the face of democratic protests and have criticized the U.S. action in Libya. (Both protests were supported by another U.S. soft power asset - innovation, in the form of social media.) In the place of freedom, a pernicious anti-Muslim sentiment has crept up, demonstrated most clearly by Gingrich’s characterization of the Arab Spring as an “Anti-Christian Spring.” To be sure, some candidates have backed the revolutions, but their support has been tepid at best.

Bachmann has also suggested that Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan should be forced to pay America back with oil for “liberating” their countries. So much for Colin Powell’s dictum that the U.S. is exceptional because it does not fight for material gain and, "The only land we took after the last great conflict was enough land to bury our dead." It gives a whole new meaning to the favorite conservative phrase “freedom isn’t free.”

Diplomacy, too, has taken a hit. Perry, among others, has called for defunding the United Nations. And Romney’s staunch opposition to the New START Treaty with Russia – an agreement supported by every living Republican secretary of state as well as senior military leaders – plays a central role in his platform.

America still commands great soft power resources, in addition to the most powerful military on Earth. U.S. values, culture, universities, companies and diversity are still, by and large, the envy of the world. China, in particular, wishes it had such pull. China’s communist leaders have gone to great lengths to make the country’s culture and values attractive. Alas, the GOP candidates want to unilaterally abdicate America’s spot as global leader.

The Republican candidates yearn for another American century. The quickest way to ensure the next century won’t belong to the U.S. is to jettison the concept of smart power.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Jacob Stokes.