It is a maxim of politics that governments try to define themselves in opposition to their predecessors. They also seek to make their way through the turmoil of international affairs by taking a high concept approach to what they do. When Condoleezza Rice served as Secretary of State for the United States in the Bush era, she spoke of Transformational Diplomacy – meaning that the United States intended to turn as much of the world as it could into beacons of liberty and commerce; and meaning too that the US government would not be afraid to use military force to pursue strategic objectives. The defining paradigm for that period was the War on Terror.
That changed. A new electoral cycle has brought a new paradigm. At the start of the Obama administration there was talk of “smart power”. Once more, a high concept term was used to define policy. On one level, “smart power” was a way to signal a break with the past, with the crude cowboy imagery that attached to the 43rd President of the United States. Put simply, it was an attempt by the new administration to distance themselves from the muscular unilateralism that colored George Bush Jr.’s term in general and his first term in high office in particular. Go-it-alone attitudes were out; multilateralism and the rebuilding of international institutions were, by contrast, back in favor. At her confirmation hearing in the Senate on January 13, 2009, Hilary Clinton declared that
We must use what has been called smart power – the full range of tools at our
disposal – diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural – picking
the right tool, or combination of tools, for each situation. With smart power,
diplomacy will be the vanguard of foreign policy.
For his part, the academic who gave popular resonance to the term soft power, Joseph Nye, enthusiastically pushed the idea that the Obama administration could combine both hard and soft power into a winning strategy around the globe. The 2008 US Presidential election was followed avidly around the world. After the results were in and a new group took over positions of influence, there was a pressing need to translate this goodwill into concrete results. The question was how – and this is where a second dimension of smart power came into play. Smart power was equated with green power. This had implications both for domestic policy and for foreign policy. On the first front, the home front, Obama set out to create millions of “green collar” positions. They were meant to replace the traditional blue collar jobs which were being lost in most, if not all, industrial sectors in his country. But there were pressing practical questions. Who do you want to build the next generation of automobiles – Detroit or Silicon Valley? If you were trying to create a system of personal transport as opposed to building cars, the answer was obvious. Smart grids for the hook-up of electrical vehicles were planned with companies such as General Electric and Google at the forefront of change. Despite the massive state intervention in the economy, Obama was content to allow non state actors which had a reputation for innovation to be on the front lines of change. The same could not be said for other aspects of his agenda however. In terms of foreign policy, military strategists were on the cutting edge of the green revolution. Why should this be so? The numbers spoke for themselves. The US navy, air force and army consumed an estimated 340,000 barrels of oil per day according to recent figures.
This was only the start of it. A Pentagon task force report noted that a gallon of gasoline that was purchased for $3. a gallon costs another $42 to deliver via an airborne tanker, to a waiting F-16. When the supply line is extended to remote operating bases in places like Afghanistan, the costs move into the hundreds of dollars. And long supply chains are open to attack. Hence the move by military planners to design hybrid armored vehicles. The aim was to create a lean, green fighting machine. This meant that the military had to rethink their total environment in a holistic manner. Clean tech architecture became the norm. The largest solar array in the country was built at Nellis Air Force Base and geothermal facilities were planned for many locations. Guantanamo Bay was a model of sustainable efficiency, receiving three quarters of its energy needs from four super-sized wind turbines. But Guantanamo Bay was also a huge liability. The US President moved to shut it down – but with a still powerful Cuban lobby of aging exiles in South Florida guaranteed that he did not go the extra distance and turn the base back over to Cuba.
President Obama’s attempts to revive the US economy with a massive fiscal stimulus met with fierce partisan resistance at home. This had implications for how he handled the International Relations file. There was still a climate of fear out there and many Americans took comfort from the old notion of a War on Terror and associated notions of a Clash of Civilizations. When Obama’s Secretary of Homeland Security tried to replace the word “terrorism” with discussion of “man-caused disasters”, there was widespread ridicule, most of it inspired by Newt Gingrich. The impression that the President was soft of national security was reinforced by polling done in the spring of 2009 which indicated that Americans disapproved of his decision to close Guantanamo Bay. And by a margin of 51% to 41% they would rather concentrate on destroying the Taliban than rebuilding the Afghan economy (“Barack Obama’s foreign policy, Two cheers and a jeer”, The Economist, 8 April, 2009). Old habits have a life of their own. The President received high marks from pundits, however, for reaching out to his opponents. The decision to appear bi-partisan by keeping Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense was an attempt to appeal to hard-liners. For his part, Gates has changed the Pentagon’s priorities. His latest budget figures reflected a determination to fight today’s small scale wars in Iraq and Afghanistan rather than tomorrow’s large-bore conflicts with Russia or China. Hence he gave a signal that he would spend less on air craft carriers and more on small coastal vessels, more on cyber-defence and less on laser missile weaponry, more on drones and less on high end bombers. All this reflects current trends. The US now spends half a billion dollars a year on drones with a fleet that has grown from 300 in 2002 to nearly 7,000 at present. More pilots in the US military are training on remote-controlled drones than are training in actual aircraft (C. Edwards, “Remote control warriors”, Prospect, March 2009).
Drones are only one manifestation of a wider phenomenon, the outsourcing of war. And here the Obama administration runs into its most deep-seated problems. Private militaries are a highly profitable business. As of 2006, it was an industry which was worth $100 billion US dollars per year; in that same year, the US had 160,000 military and government personnel in Iraq while private military contractors had 180,000 people. Blackwater was the most notorious example of these private merchants of death, most of whom had originally trained in US Special Forces or as Navy Seals but who were brought into private service with salary offers up to seven times greater than what they could make in service of their country. They had a reputation for ruthless efficiency and for getting the job done when it came to the protection of diplomatic personnel. But they did not have a vested interest in ending conflict, in fact it was the reverse.
Questions of war and peace continued to bedevil public decision-makers as the twenty-first century progressed. Russia’s military interventions in Georgia established a marker: great powers could intervene militarily in their own spheres of influence, without regard to world opinion. The military regime in Burma continued with the repression of its own citizenry, content in the knowledge that China would support the most ruthless of authoritarian measures. Governments in China and Russia recognized that their most important strategic imperative was simply holding their respective countries together.
They were not alone in this. It was the break-down of state authority in remote parts of the world which most vexed authorities in the United States. When the impact of climate change was put into the equation, the results could be disastrous, with millions of environmental refugees on the move around the planet. But this was not all. Added to these calculations was a concern over the nuclear threat, particularly from Iran, and Pakistan. The new administration in the US moved away from a country-by-country approach toward a regionally-based risk assessment structure but Israel’s fixation on the Iranian nuclear threat remained a clear and present danger.
The problem of piracy on the high seas received an increasing amount of attention. Somalia was near the top of the list for failed states which acted as a staging ground for piracy but it was not alone. One of the most lawless stretches of ocean was on West Africa, in the Gulf of Guinea, off Nigeria. The United States drew criticism for not trying to deal with the root causes of these developments, on land instead on sea but Africa seemed to be emerging as a potential trouble spot. China’s massive investments on the continents meant that the security of its operations would be an increasing concern in the future.
For its part, the Canadian government has placed a renewed focus on Latin America. The Harper government has increased military spending, without a parallel increase in spending on development assistant or on diplomatic resources. Should Michael Ignatieff become prime minister it is likely that these priorities would shift. Ignatieff is the son of a former diplomat and he has a long history of championing the cause of humanitarian intervention. An Ignatieff government would be much more philosophically in tune with its counterparts south of the border. But for the moment, Canada can make its place in the world by encouraging a healthy debate about the implications of when, and under what circumstances, interventions in other parts of the world should take place. We can start to move the world by the force of ideas, by the telling of stories, stories that make it clear that Canada is a place which embraces diversity.
(c) Wayne A. Hunt Mount Allison University 6 May, 2009