'Smart Power' and the Rule of Law

JURIST Contributing Editor David Crane of Syracuse University College of Law, former Chief Prosecutor for the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone, says that following a period when the United States on the world stage was like a blinded giant swinging a bludgeon in all directions with little thought, it is high time for the American exercise of "smart power" in keeping with the rule of law...



Smart power is, well, smart. Taking from a West African proverb, Theodore Roosevelt spoke these words at the turn of the last century and perhaps the new administration of Barack Obama a century later appears to be paying head to the words of the proverb, for now. The recent confirmation hearing of Hillary Clinton to be the next Secretary of State was our first official glimpse of the Obama administration's basic approach to diplomacy and it struck the right tone indeed.

It is a secure nation that uses its military power sparingly and with care. Nations that react with armed force as a first resort show their insecurity and place in the world. Over the past seven years or so this nation has been like a blinded giant swinging a bludgeon in all directions with little thought, other than apparently to let the international community, and would be terrorists, know we have a great deal of military power and can use it. The so-called "global war on terror" has been a joke and made this once proud and considerate nation the laughing stock of the world.

This country once governed itself based on the rule of law and approached the international community with that basic fundamental premise in mind. For this we were respected. As an example of this, nations from around the world sent members of their armed forces to learn about the laws of armed conflict in our service schools, knowing that they were getting the best training in the world in the rule of law on the battlefield.

Then the rules changed. The Bush administration declared that the very system with which we used force under the rule of law was "quaint" and "outdated". Declaring that the rules had changed, this nation went on a legal and moral rampage after September 11, 2001. Torture, secret camps, inhumane treatment, and domestic surveillance of US citizens without legal review became common place. The world recoiled in horror. This was "dumb power" and essentially in violation of international and domestic law.

The signal sent at the confirmation hearing of Senator Clinton on January 13, 2009 was a message that such ham-fisted policies would become a thing of the past. Senator Clinton declared: "I believe that American leadership has been wanting, but is still wanted. 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".

America is still wanted, but an America that wears the values of freedom, democratic ideals, and the rule of law on its sleeve. Use of armed force is never the first solution absent surprise and in self defense. Reprisal is a legal reaction, but it is an exception to what the United Nations Charter declares that we solve our disputes peacefully. The world knows our military strength, but the world needs to once again appreciate our greatest strength and that is the moral strength enshrined in our Constitution.

Smart power in the beginning of the 21st Century is mandated for this nation. Where the rules have changed are the real threats that face all mankind, threats far greater than any one nation can face, such as global warming, failing states and economies, food and water distribution, international criminal actors, among others. Smart power is a realistic balance of national strength and international reality.

Smart power will make this nation safer as we no longer become a threat to the world, a bully pouting after a blackened eye, but a nation of calm and reasoned strength. Shooting first and asking questions later may work in Texas but that is not the world of today. The true measure of mankind should be in the strength of a hand shake. Smart power appears to be a cornerstone to our new foreign policy led by a new President and Secretary of State who understand this point.

As Senator Clinton declared: "Diplomacy is hard work; but when we work hard, diplomacy can work, and not just to defuse tensions, but to achieve results that advance our security, interests and values." Smart.


David M. Crane is a professor at Syracuse University College of Law, and founding Chief Prosecutor for the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone (2002-2005).


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