UK PM David Cameron listens to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the London Conference on Libya, Mar. 29, 2011. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, the Arab League, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen, & up to 40 foreign ministers also attended.
"From Lone Ranger to Smart Arranger"
April 7, 2011
Author: Joseph S. Nye, Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
When President Barack Obama delayed intervening in Libya for weeks, he was criticized for failing to lead.
Many of his critics are captive to narratives about leadership that envision the Lone Ranger riding into a town and shooting the bad guys. Unlike President George W. Bush in Iraq, Obama did not decisively plunge ahead with the use of force. But while Bush was more decisive in Iraq, he also turned out to be decisively wrong.
Instead, Obama demonstrated what smart leadership means in today's world. Leadership in a global information age is less about being the king of the mountain issuing commands that cascade down a hierarchy than about being the person at the center of a network who attracts and persuades others to help. The hard power of coercion and the soft power of attraction and persuasion are both crucial to success in such situations.
Americans need to understand each of these dimensions of smart power. While Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have spoken about the importance of soft power, they do not have to face the U.S. electorate.
"You are right about the importance of combining soft power with hard," a congressional friend once told me. "But I cannot talk about soft power and hope to get reelected."
The result is a U.S. foreign policy that rests on a giant Pentagon and a number of pygmy departments. For example, when Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently agreed to transfer an aid program from the Pentagon to the State Department, the program's budget was cut in half.
Military power is not good or bad per se. It is like calories in a diet: Too few and you perish, but too many lead to obesity. Lord Acton was correct: Absolute power corrupts absolutely. In the biblical story of David and Goliath, the Philistine's superior military power misled him into an inferior strategy, which, in turn, led to defeat and death.
A smart power narrative for the United States in the 21st century is not about maximizing power or preserving hegemony. It is about finding ways to combine resources into successful strategies in the new context of power diffusion and the "rise of the rest."
As the country with the largest economy and military, America remains the most important leader in global affairs. But the old 20th-century narrative about U.S. hegemony and primacy or, alternatively, narratives of American decline, are misleading about the type of strategy the nation needs.
In a global information age, success is not determined just by who has the biggest army but also by who has the best story. In designing his strategy for Libya, Obama showed awareness of both dimensions of power — in ways many of his critics did not.
First, he was careful to limit our objectives and commitments. Humanitarian interests are important, but not vital in the sense of national survival. Moreover, there is always a danger of good intentions leading to unintended bad consequences — as happened in Somalia in 1992–93.
Thus, while Obama correctly said the United States wanted to see Col. Muammar Qadhafi overthrown in Libya, the president made clear that would have to be done by means other than U.S. military action.
Second, Obama was careful not to create a global narrative of a third U.S. military attack on a Muslim country, which would have reverberated from Morocco to Indonesia. Instead, he waited until the Arab League and U.N. Security Council resolutions provided a narrative of a legitimate enforcement of humanitarian responsibility to protect civilians.
Third, he encouraged France, Britain and other allies to share the lead. He also encouraged the transfer of the operation of the no-fly zone to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a multilateral institution.
The outcome in Libya remains far from certain and still involves considerable risks. Qadhafi may indeed fall because of further defections, but it is also possible that the fighting between his forces and the resistance will lead to a stalemate.
If it does, Obama has established a precedent for avoiding a slippery slope and being drawn into ownership of a nasty problem that eventually requires a Lone Ranger solution. Some realists question Obama’s initial decision to be involved in a humanitarian action.
But in terms of balancing interests and values while limiting risks, Obama provided a lesson in smart leadership.
Joseph S. Nye Jr. is a professor at Harvard University and author of "The Future of Power."
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