In the 21st century, force still trumps diplomacy

"21st-century statecraft” and “smart power” are certainly preferable as ideals to brute force. But they are very much a work in progress

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On March 2, US secretary of state John Kerry admonished Russia’s aggression in Ukraine by saying: “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext.” It’s a laudable sentiment, and an absolutely appropriate aspiration. But if by “don’t” he meant “can’t”, rather than “shouldn’t”, then Mr Kerry was obviously wrong. Russia, in fact, has behaved in precisely such a manner, because while it realises it has lost Ukraine, it is not willing to lose the strategically crucial region of Crimea.

All that really remains to be seen is whether Russia ends up annexing Crimea outright, or using its force to demand such a thorough form of autonomy in the area that it becomes a de facto part of Russia. So, if you are Vladimir Putin, you do behave in the 21st century in a very 19th century (or 20th century, for that matter) fashion indeed.

The same applies to Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad, and countless other states and actors. Some, under the black banner of Salafist-Jihadism, would even aspire to behave in what they believe is a 7th century manner. So while Mr Kerry was factually wrong – although morally correct – it's worth unpacking exactly what he meant, and the long development of a strand of American policy thinking that informed his scolding of Mr Putin with an implied allusion to Russia's supposedly anachronistic attitudes.

Interestingly, Mr Kerry himself has recognised that in many ways the world remains largely unchanged. When asked about his foreign policy “doctrine” by David Rohde last November, he noted: “We don’t live in an easy-doctrine world right now. We live in a world that is more like the 18th and 19th centuries, not a classic Kissinger-ian balance of power.” That being the case, what’s he talking about now?

Mr Kerry’s admonition of Mr Putin reflects a trend in liberal American foreign policy theory that has been developing since Joseph Nye started writing about “soft power” in his 1990 book Bound to Lead. Nye, who elaborated on the idea at length in later publications, suggested that international actors, including but not limited to states, could exercise power, for good or ill, through making their own goals attractive to others, thereby gaining their willing cooperation rather than coercing them.

This insight into a practice that has, after all, been used throughout human history, was then elaborated into a second, more complex, hybrid notion of “smart power”. Particularly following the hubris of the George W Bush foreign policy and the fiasco in Iraq, many American liberals posited “smart power” as a proper correction to what was almost universally recognised as an excessively aggressive “hard power” Bush approach. “Smart power”, at least in theory, would look for every opportunity to use “soft power” and diplomacy, keeping “hard power” force as a last resort.

Barack Obama essentially campaigned for president on a foreign policy platform of “smart power”. And, as meticulously outlined in Kim Ghattas’ invaluable 2013 book, The Secretary, Hillary Clinton pioneered the effort to turn theory into practice.

Ghattas carefully describes how Ms Clinton used a “smart power” approach to successfully defuse a crisis with China, setting a new model for American diplomacy.

Ms Clinton emphasised gender issues, economic development and, above all, information technology. A fascinating State Department document entitled 21st Century Statecraft not only emphasises interdependence, dialogue and cooperation, but also innovation and especially new information technologies and the internet as tools of American power and the future of all statecraft.

Mr Kerry has continued with much of this approach, becoming, among other things, the first secretary of state to join a Google hangout.

So what Mr Obama, Mr Kerry and Ms Clinton have been driving towards is an American foreign policy that seeks to avoid force whenever possible, emphasises interdependence, economic globalisation, soft power and the internet as at least as important as military might. In the abstract, it is intellectually and morally impeccable.

The problem is that both smart and soft power can rarely do much to answer raw hard power. The United States isn’t going to do anything beyond scolding and sanctions now that Russia has invaded Ukraine, because there’s nothing more it really could reasonably do.

A more disturbing example of how hard power can trump, and even upend, soft or smart power was the outcome of the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons.

The initial threat of a very hard power response, cruise missile strikes, gave way to a “smart power” approach that yielded an agreement for Syria to abandon those weapons. Even American intelligence services have recognised publicly that this was a foreign policy victory for Russia and a considerable restoration of legitimacy for the criminal himself, Mr Assad.

“21st-century statecraft” and “smart power” are certainly preferable as ideals to brute force. But they are very much a work in progress, and many would argue that the Syria chemical weapons agreement shows they can lead to errors of omission that are almost as dangerous as errors of commission. And, let’s face it, there was more truth in Mr Kerry’s recognition that we live in what more often than not resembles an “18th or 19th” century international order than his admonishment of Mr Putin about aspirational 21st century virtues.

Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, a columnist for Now Media and blogs at

On Twitter: @ibishblog