“Smart Power” : A Legitimate Arm of American Foreign Policy, or Just Gratuitous Tweeting?

When it comes to China, there ever exists a need for greater discussion of internet freedom and freedom of information more generally.  To the extent that the United States and its Western European counterparts can promote such discussions in China, they should, because there is clearly some traction in Chinese civil society for greater openness of expression. Before Jon Huntsman bore the brunt of netizen scorn for appearing to endorse the idea that a hundred flowers blooming on the Chinese internet would in fact bring down the CCP, the then-Ambassador’s colloquy with Chinese bloggers in Beijing was a good example of the kind of respectful but intense discussions that are needed within China, and between China and its interlocutors, about the question of freedom of information.

If this is what Hillary Clinton calls “smart power,” then fine, observers of the US-China relationship can, by and large, agree.  In some ways, the push for “smart power” or American “soft power” in China itself  is merely an extension of the people-to-people relationships that have been forming, regenerating, and re-forming in the relationship since the early 1970s.

To a very small extent, I’ve been a part of these efforts over the last few years, giving lectures, lecture-recitals, and performances in the PRC — twice with sponsorship from the U.S. Department of State, and both times in Chengdu.

What, however, if the State Department push for “smart power” really just added up globally to a bunch of self-satisfying rhetoric about how the “transformative power of the internet” was going to serve as a key arm in US foreign policy?  And what if Alex Ross was just selling snake oil?  For a healthy gob of skepticism about the direction taken by the State Department in its soft power initatives — not to mention a rather shocking story about how the US abandoned an $80 million investment in a consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif — the blogs We Meant Well (State Department Twitter Feed Overload) and Diplopundit serve it up in great and spicy quantities.



  1. I think van Buren’s central message about the Department of State is that the bureaucracy tries to publish as many justifications for their existence as they can possibly get. It’s a similar problem at many (state-funded) international broadcasters.

    One of the problem seems to be that the message itself doesn’t count that much any more – and that freedom of information as a value in itself doesn’t. If it did, tweets and broadcasts alike could focus on practising, rather than advocating freedom of information. In many ways, they could do a better job than newsagencies and papers (printed and online).

    Another problem is that public diplomacy doesn’t matter to most of a country’s citizens. What state-funded organizations would need is sustained backing from those who are in charge of their annual budgets – sustained in that a policy, once decided, will stay in place at least for a decade. Public perception of public diplomacy defines the political will to build a real policy, and to see it through.

    Parliaments (Capitol Hill in America, the Bundestag in Germany, for example) aren’t terribly helpful when it comes to that. Especially in times of crisis, PD budgets will be under suspicion.

  2. A bit off-topic here. but did the elevation of young Kim to Marshall the other day have anything to do with the appearance of Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh at that recent large public rally?

    Was it a statement about the end of Juche?

    Or did their appearance simply provide a good photo opportunity?

    Alternatively did it indicate that young Kim was now unchallenged as Maximun Leader.
    Very out of touch here Adam, so some feedback would be welcome.

  3. Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh liberated themselves of the capitalist-imperialist yoke and fled to North Korea. No license fees were paid to the Disney corporation, me understands.

    That’s all I can tell you, unfortunately. For your other questions, let’s wait for the bozhu.

  4. lai le!!! the Micky-Marshal connection remains murky. Zhang Liangui says it is wholly superficial, but then again, he’s never been in the full thrall of “It’s a Small World After All” or whatever the thema-du-jour is. JR had a great post on the NK stuff, about to link to it! Great to see the two minds connecting here with my rather dull patterns, very nice spark indeed!

  5. Adam and JR. As a super supplementary question, just who was that mystery lady in slinky black who appeared beside the new Maximun Leader at his recent public appearance, the one with the choreagraphed masses and a skimpily clad Minnie Mouse.

    Two possibilities. She comes from Uzbekistan or is a now-forgotten member of some Asian girl band.

    This is keeping me awake at night, so your advice is valued.

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