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Alessandro Minuto-Rizzo, President

Smart power in a volatile international environment

Anja Fabiani ● 28 November 2023
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of any entities she represents.

A few years ago, in 2011, Joseph S.  Nye revised his concept of soft power to smart power. (1) Smart power is not only a combination of soft aspects such as culture, foreign policy and political values, but also the entry of different actors on the international scene, both state and non-state.  The diffusion of the concept of power also defines the meaning of contextual intelligence and places it in the field of future power linked to the information revolution.
Among political leaders, the concept was well understood by Hillary R.  Clinton, who actively introduced it into her leadership, and later into her presidential campaign).  In her farewell speech in the role of the Secretary of State to the Council on Foreign Relations (2), she focussed on the urgency of smart power and creative diplomacy, while addressing technology, development, human rights and women.
She spoke of a world as a dangerous and complicated place; the adjectives which today seem to be even more accurate.  The world we had in 2013 is very different from the world we have today.  We are thinking here, in particular, about the two current wars, the war in Ukraine and the war in Gaza, both brutal and both a surprise to a world that, at a time of the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown, clearly had to repress its aggressivity.
In the wake of the war in Ukraine, the prevailing thought was that President Putin had achieved the opposite of what he wanted: NATO, as the main adversary, had actually been strengthened, and its popularity – or at least the recognition of its importance and role – had been enhanced. But we are about to enter the year 2024. Past wars and past conflicts should be a thing of the past.

This does not mean that NATO should lose popularity, but it also does not mean that NATO’s popularity should be boosted by wars.  We are in the 21st century, where the way we fight is becoming more sophisticated, and multipolar threats too, implying that they are not necessarily linked to “simple” armed conflict but can be equally or even more threatening in a different way. This, in turn, means that we need to return to the concept of smart power.  Sometimes theoretical concepts become worn out, other times they need to be revitalized.
Meanwhile the tragic nature of the conflict in Ukraine is being compared to the way of fighting in World War I, the mogul Musk is using advanced technology of Starlink to boost conventional internet and, at the same time, threateningly warning against the misuse of artificial intelligence. In terms of contextuality, consideration of non-state actors and the so-called multilevel chessboard (after Nye), it may soon no longer be necessary to consider only humans.  Smart power could matter again, but with different driving forces. We are nevertheless in a transition, a transition from the old to the new, where, unfortunately or fortunately, there are still somewhat more manageable threats.

Whatever the framework of our political values, in the West we are aware of the fact that we are still in a privileged position and that, although we are probably in the process of a transfer of power in a new multipolar world, we control most of the situations that are important to us.  This, of course, gives us power, but power should be accompanied by wisdom.
We can also influence many situations through self-reflection.  The latter is certainly happening in the field of art, which increasingly involves artists and themes of the so-called “developing nations”.  But it is not just a kind of moralizing, but perhaps also a pragmatic understanding of where our problems come from and that they need to be understood at their root causes.
Addressing global challenges such as climate change, food security, poverty, unemployment, to name but a few, must be understood in a broader dimension.  And this in the context of a power position, should induce us equity in our decision-making. This also relates to the soft (indirectly smart) power perspective, which stresses the importance of attraction rather than coercion.  Sometimes, not always, the important things are simpler than we might admit. For instance, the German Marshall Fund’s “Transatlantic Trends 2023” public opinion study finds that, despite war on the EU’s doorstep, climate change and immigration are seen as the most important security challenges among a majority of public polled.  (3)
Awareness of what the current human needs are, where – in the case of climate change even the first and second priority areas of Maslow’s hierarchy are intertwined (e.g.  water as an element of both psychological need and security) – can be the basis of our further action.
It is certainly important to continue the discussion on the challenges of climate change.  It is important to actively maintain NATO’s commitment to be the lead organization in understanding the links between climate change and security, pursuing the goals of carbon neutrality and energy transition.
But it is also very important that NATO incorporates all these elements in its strategic communications.
We believe that this is not about the negative aspects of so-called propaganda, but about a genuine commitment to the smart power perspective, which relates to political values, but also to (multilateral) foreign policy.  The gravity of the situation, which is both transitory and part of a never-ending future, obliges us to do so.
We must return to smart power.  However, we must revitalize the concept in the knowledge that we are the ones who, at least for the time being, have a bigger share of the pie and therefore a bigger responsibility.  We need to think about being smart and not being blinded by power.  The old world is disappearing, it is breaking into pieces before our eyes in tragedies and human suffering that are unimaginable for the 21st century.  Tragedy is also in the fact that we sit in front of all kinds of screens and we sublimise the concrete suffering.
But we need to be aware that we are part of a holistic world where future challenges and threats are interconnected.  Despite our “inviolability”, we must not falter in our quest for a better world. Yes, we must become: smart by power. That is where our credibility lies.
(1) Nye, Joseph S.  (2011): Future of Power.  New York: Public Affairs.
(2) Clinton R., Hillary (2009): Foreign Policy Address at the Council on Foreign Relations (Speech Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of State, Washington DC, July 15, 2009.
Accessible at: https://2009-2017.state.gov/secretary/20092013clinton/rm/2009a/july/126071.htm (20 November 2023)
(3) de Hoop Scheffer, Alexandra, Quencez, Martin, Weber, Gesine (2023): Transatlantic Trends 2023: Public Opinion in a Shifting Global Order, German Marshall Fund Online, September 12, 2023.
Accessible at:
https://www.gmfus.org/news/transatlantic-trends-2023 (20 November 2023)

Anja Fabiani

Anja Fabiani is a diplomat at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Slovenia. She holds a PhD on soft and smart power in international relations (University of Nova Gorica).

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