Hendrik Hertzberg has a piece in the latest New Yorker that discusses the concept of ‘Smart Power’. It’s easiest to define Smart Power by referring to Hillary Clinton’s recent confirmation testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:

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 our foreign policy. This is not a radical idea. The ancient Roman poet Terence declared that “in every endeavor, the seemly course for wise men is to try persuasion first.” The same truth binds wise women as well.

The term ‘Smart Power’ comes from a 2004 article by Suzanne Nossel that appeared in Foreign Affairs. At its most basic, Nossel’s argument is in favor of a new form (that isn’t really all that new) of liberal internationalism.

When the United States, the only industrialized power left intact by the war, faced challenges ranging from containing Soviet ambitions to rebuilding war-ravaged Europe, it did not try to shoulder the burden alone. Instead, it crafted an interdependent network of allies and institutions that included the UN and NATO. The United States stood at the center of this order, but it shared the task of maintaining it. The sources of U.S. strength — economic, political, and moral — thus reinforced one another. International institutions helped spread American values, which in turn fueled an appetite for American products. Trade enhanced political influence, and political influence helped further extend American values.

Nevermind the whitewash-y feel of Nussel’s history, when American foreign policy worked well and was on firm moral ground, it was working within the constructs that Nussel describes. If the United States is committed to maintaining its dominant international role, then this is certainly the right and humane way to go about it. Smart Power puts diplomacy first and relies on cultural and economic ties as much or more than military ties to maintain American influence and good relations in the world. That’s all good.

I was watching Minority Leader Mitch McConnell answer questions from the audience yesterday during his appearance at the National Press Club. [I’m hoping to get a transcript, but you can watch the video at CSPAN] And someone in the audience submitted a question (at minute 53:15, if you’re watching the video) that asked McConnell ‘what is your understanding of the foreign policy concept of Smart Power?’

McConnell took a moment to collect his thoughts, and then responded:

“I’m not sure I know what that means. [It’s] probably in the eye of the beholder. Um…I’m not sure I know exactly what that means. I assume it probably means…um…be careful when you..um…decide to attack, and I think most everybody would agree with that.”

That was the sum total of Mitch McConnell’s response.

Now, it’s obvious that McConnell wasn’t familiar with the term ‘smart power’, and he was therefore quite hamstrung in his ability to answer the question. We’ve all been there. Your options are to admit that you don’t know the answer to the question or to engage in some bullshit. McConnell chose both options.

When you first seek to engage in some bullshit, you have to engage your imagination. In this case, McConnell had to think about what the likely source of the term ‘Smart Power’ might be and what they probably meant by it. We all know that attacking Iraq wasn’t a ‘smart’ thing to do. And that seems to be about as far as McConnell’s imagination could go.

“I assume it probably means…um…be careful when you..um…decide to attack…”

It’s the kind of answer you might expect from a bullshitting teenager. And it’s very revealing that the term ‘Smart Power’ did not evoke any sense of cultural, economic, or diplomatic power, but only the decision to attack. For McConnell, the exercise of power is an attack, and the smart exercise of power does not involve a decision on whether or not to attack, but only caution once the decision has already been made to attack.

It was a small moment of little consequence, but it presented a picture of the Republican mind. The Minority Leader of the Senate is so out of touch in the field of foreign policy thinking that he not only is unfamiliar with one of the trendiest terms in foreign policy debate (and one used extensively throughout the Democratic primaries) but he can’t even imagine a foreign policy that isn’t based in attack.

This, my friends, is just one more reason why it was critical that the Democrats win the last election. When I was done watching McConnell’s appearance at the National Press Club, I watched a tape of Hillary Clinton’s appearance at USAID that took place yesterday (here’s a transcript of her remarks). She was received like a rock star by the employees there, and the men that introduced her praised her to the high heavens for her Senate testimony on ‘Smart Power’. CSPAN covered two appearances made yesterday by major political figures in different parts of the District. The contrast between them could not have been more stark.

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