As the death toll in Syria approached 1,000, President Barack Obama finally announced sanctions against the regime. His move stopped Americans doing business with President Bashar al-Assad, along with certain relatives and officials, and froze their US assets. Cynics scoffed, repeating the conventional wisdom that sanctions don’t work. In fact they can make a big difference and, with Syrian violence worsening, the time is right for more.
As Americans wrestle with the implications of revolutions in the Middle East as well as the rise of China in Asia, we need a better understanding of what it means to have power in world politics. Traditionally, the mark of a great power was its ability to prevail in war. But in an information age, success depends not just on whose army wins but also on whose story wins.
When President Barack Obama delayed intervening in Libya for weeks, he was criticized for failing to lead.
Many of his critics are captive to narratives about leadership that envision the Lone Ranger riding into a town and shooting the bad guys. Unlike President George W. Bush in Iraq, Obama did not decisively plunge ahead with the use of force. But while Bush was more decisive in Iraq, he also turned out to be decisively wrong.
David Warsh, generally a respected journalist, has just published in the Providence Journal an attack on Michael Porter of Harvard Business School for consulting with Gaddafi about change in Libya in the period after Gaddafi gave up his nuclear weapons program and his overt support for terrorism. Porter, a founder of the Monitor Consulting Group, developed a plan to promote change in Libya. He hired a number of Western intellectuals to help by going to Libya to promote new ideas.
I was asked to lecture at Beijing University on soft power, the ability to use attraction and persuasion to get what you want without force or payment. This was before the series of revolutions roiling the Middle East, in whose aftermath China is clamping down on the Internet and jailing human rights lawyers, once again torpedoing its soft power campaign. The auditorium that day was packed, and I had been told that more than a thousand articles have been published in China on this topic. That may have something to do with the fact that in 2007, President Hu Jintao told the 17th Congress of the Communist Party that China needed to increase its soft power.
According to a United States State Department official, the concept of “smart power”-–the intelligent integration and networking of diplomacy, defense, development, and other tools of so-called “hard” and “soft” power-–is at the heart of the Obama administration’s foreign-policy vision. Currently, however, Obama’s smart-power strategy is facing a stiff challenge from events in the Middle East.
In view of the criticism by Martin Peretz of The New Republic and in Mother Jones magazine of my meeting in 2007 with Muammar Qaddafi and my subsequent article in The New Republic, let me try to clarify what actually happened.
Beyond the euphoria and uncertainties of the moment, the revolt in Egypt has sparked a debate about how much technology and information matter in a revolutionary context. Some commentators, particularly in TV coverage, have claimed that Twitter, Facebook, and blogs largely drove events in Egypt. This has provoked a strong intellectual backlash—an argument that more traditional forces are what truly deserve credit, from Bouazizi’s suicide in Tunisia to the economic woes of the middle class in Egypt.
The conventional wisdom among those who looked at the Middle East used to be that you had a choice either of supporting the autocrat or being stuck with the religious extremists. The extraordinary diffusion of information created in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries reveals a strong middle that we weren’t fully aware of. What is more, new technologies allow this new middle to coordinate in ways unseen before Twitter, Facebook, and so forth, and this could lead to a very different politics of the Middle East. This introduces a new complexity to our government’s dealings with the region.
(Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, February 16, 2011)